From the North Shore News - May 11, 2011
by Elizabeth James
"The Cohen Commission is a public inquiry, not a matter of security. Yet the more the commission delves into why the Fraser sockeye are in trouble, the more the federal government tries to suppress the proceedings."
Alexandra Morton, Biologist, April 30
Two days before Canadians elected the federal Conservative Party to the majority it coveted, biologist Alexandra Morton sounded an alarm about the perils of giving the Conservatives outright control of the House of Commons.
The timing was unfortunate because voters were in no mood to elect a fourth minority government in less than seven years, so the alarm stood little chance of affecting the eventual seat count.
That does not lessen the significance of the warning.
As British Columbians should have learned, when any party governs with a large majority it pays to monitor its activities.
So given that Morton's concerns go to the issue of the public's right to know, eyeing the progress of the prime minister's Commission of Inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River would be a good place to start.
Led by the Hon. Bruce Cohen, a justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, the inquiry has been underway for more than a year.
As a long-time researcher and advocate for the preservation of wild salmon stocks, Morton was granted standing as a person with a "substantial and direct interest in the subject matter of the inquiry."
No matter her standing, Morton is prohibited from releasing any information about the proceedings -- even though she believes withholding the information poses a risk to wild salmon.
The terms of reference set out in the order-in-council that established the inquiry, require the commissioner to, ". . . follow established security procedures, including the requirements of the Policy on Government Security, with respect to persons engaged under Section 11 of the Inquiries Act and the handling of information at all stages of the inquiry."
Those legal constraints caused Morton to write in her email of April 30: "To access the commission's database of documents provided by participants, including the salmon farming disease records, I was required to sign an undertaking that I would not disclose those documents until they became part of the public record as an exhibit. I believed that was reasonable in respect to the database."
But Morton balked when commission counsel expanded the blackout to include its ruling on her application to be released from her undertaking "on a limited basis" to allow her to relay information she believed was "urgent and required by law to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in respect to a very significant risk to wild salmon."
I can only echo Morton's concerns by asking: What do salmon disease records have to do with government security?
I am likely to be drenched in legalese answers to that question but will go even further: How can the terms of reference for an inquiry into the decline of fish in the Fraser River be allowed to trump the legislated requirements of Health Canada, the CFIA and the B.C. Ministry of Health?
Because, taken together, the regulations of those agencies require that they be notified immediately of any disease outbreaks or imminent threat to safety of the food we eat and the water we drink.
The findings of the Cohen Commission are not due to be concluded and made public until spring or summer of 2012.
Following the logic of the commission's terms of reference, if a similar inquiry were to be held on, say, the decline of tuna stocks, or on farming methods for cattle or chickens, would we be expected to wait a year or more to discover we were being exposed to hazardous levels of mercury, or to mad cow disease or avian influenza?
My bottom line is this: If retailers are allowed to sell farmed salmon then, as a consumer, I have a fundamental right to know what I am putting in my mouth.
The precedent for that right is seen everywhere on food safety labels that provide lists of ingredients and warnings that read, "This product may contain. . . ."
Yet Morton can only say, "No comment"?
I don't care if some government official -- elected, informed, or otherwise -- has decided high levels of sea lice pose me no harm, or that the diseases for which farmed Atlantic salmon have been or are being treated with unnamed substances cannot be transmitted to human beings.
Nor do I accept the commission's equivalent of "No comment; it's before the courts."
Fish play a significant role in my regular diet.
So apart from my desire to support efforts to preserve a miraculous part of British Columbia's wild heritage, I have a right to know what I'm eating -- now, not later.
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