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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Prisoner of Hope

The following is a post from Cath Stewart, Living Oceans Society's Salmon Farming Campaign Manager. Cath will be on the stand at the Cohen Commission September 7 and 8.

“I’m not an optimist, I’m a prisoner of hope”. Those words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu have been the signature line on my emails in recent months. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a total pessimist. I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe change is possible. I do have moments of optimism and opportunities to celebrate when the small steps forward by my amazing colleagues at Living Oceans help to turn the tide of harm to our oceans.

But mostly, I’m just a prisoner of eternal hope.

It’s just as well that I am, because there’s probably never been anything better designed to shatter optimism than the federal Cohen Inquiry into the missing Fraser River sockeye.

I expected the mountains of evidence documenting lax enforcement of the open net-cage salmon farms by both levels of government. I expected records of disease outbreaks in the pens would, despite entrenched opposition from industry and government, eventually make their way into the public record – and they have.What has surprised me, however, is how the process is set up to minimize the amount of evidence that can be entered into the public record, forestalling attempts to dig for truth.

When witnesses such as the former Director General of Aquaculture Management for DFO or the provincial veterinarian charged with oversight of the health of farmed fish take the stand, they are first questioned by counsel for the Commission, followed by the federal then provincial government lawyers. Each have a full hour to interrogate the witnesses. Counsel for the Commission does occasionally ask some challenging questions. The government’s lawyers use their hours to lob softballs asking the government witnesses whether the government is doing a stellar job.

But then, finally, the lawyers for the participants get their turn to pitch. They’ve come armed with fast balls, curve balls, tough questions and a mountain of documents they would like to get entered into evidence and put on the public record. They each have 30 minutes, but sometimes they get only 20. And in some cases – they only have five. Five minutes to ask all their questions.

The team from Living Oceans and the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform have been poring over the Inquiry database, unearthing evidence of non-compliance, disease, and close cooperation in the 500,000 DFO emails, ministerial briefings, reports, industry data and correspondence. But none of it can be discussed publicly until it is formally entered into evidence at the hearings. As “participants” in the Inquiry, we have all signed legal undertakings that bind us to secrecy. So our lawyers spend a good chunk of their 30 minutes getting that evidence on the record. The Inquiry clerk has to find the document and label it with an exhibit number. Sometimes there is confusion: was it already entered in a previous session, is this a later draft of a document, does it need a new exhibit number? Time ticks by as the ‘process’ sorts itself out. Finally our lawyers have a few minutes for hard, challenging questions. Just as they are getting into the substance their time runs out.

The real value of this Inquiry will be in the evidence entered as exhibits. That’s where you’ll find shocking emails documenting problems on the farms, the disease databases, the DFO ‘draft’ communications plan outlining how the department can help the salmon farming industry combat the weight of evidence of the harm being done by open net-cages and their eroding social licence. In the end, value may also come from Justice Cohen’s final report and recommendations. Whether those recommendations will be strong remains to be seen. Whether government will act on them – well – I’m not an optimist, but I’m a prisoner of hope!

I’ll be on the stand for two days this week (Sept. 7 and 8), on a panel with Marine Harvest, a former Grieg Seafoods rep who now works for DFO (cozy), and Alexandra Morton. If the governments have questions for Alex and I, I suspect this time they won’t be lobbing softballs.

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