BC Groups Target Harper's Response to Cohen Inquiry


B.C. groups target Harper’s response to Cohen Inquiry
By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun February 24, 2014

OTTAWA — B.C. conservation groups are asking the federal auditor general’s office to investigate the Harper government’s response to the $26-million Fraser River sockeye salmon inquiry that was completed in 2012.

Critics have argued that the federal government not only ignored most of Justice Bruce Cohen’s recommendations, but also moved to weaken habitat protection laws and cut fisheries protection staff.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr said a provision of the Auditor General’s Act is being used that allows citizens to submit petitions posing specific questions.

The petition system, added to the act in 1995, requires answers within 120 days and can ultimately lead to an audit.

“We are left with no choice but to call on the Auditor General of Canada to investigate exactly what the federal government has done to review the Cohen Commission recommendations and report back to Canadians,” Orr said Monday.

“British Columbia’s wild salmon are at stake here.”

Over three years, Cohen held 10 public forums across B.C., accepted more than 800 public submissions, held 133 days of evidentiary hearings, and heard from 179 witnesses. The report, which ran to more than 1,200 pages, included 75 recommendations.

The conservation groups Watershed Watch and SOS Marine Conservation Foundation filed two petitions on Monday with a total of 34 questions on various aspects of the Cohen Inquiry.

And a citizens group, the Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable, filed a similar petition Friday with 19 pointed questions to determine how the federal bureaucracy responded to the Cohen report.

Some of the questions focus on the government’s decision to ignore Cohen’s recommendation to end its conflicting role of protecting wild salmon at the same time as it promotes the aquaculture industry.

Fish farms were singled out during inquiry hearings as a threat to wild stocks.

Several of the questions from the Sea to Sky group zero in on the federal government’s surprise decision in April of 2012 — six months before Cohen made his final report public — to dramatically redesign federal environmental legislation, and especially the Fisheries Act.

Critics have argued that those changes were intended to weaken environmental laws in order to appease the oilsands pipeline industry. The petition is intended to determine whether there is hard evidence to back that allegation.

“It occurred to us that this could be one of the ways to get answers to some of the questions we’ve had, like who talked the government into this, and who made the decisions?” said roundtable member John Fraser, a former Progressive Conservative fisheries and environment minister who in the 1990s served as Canada’s ambassador for the environment.

Fraser is one of four former federal fisheries ministers from B.C., two Tories and two Liberals, who have publicly said that the changes to habitat protection provisions in the Fisheries Act endanger B.C. fisheries and especially salmon.

When, the petition asks, did then-Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and his top deputy in the department first become involved in the Fisheries Act amendments, and did either play a role in the decision to not bring these pending changes to the attention of Cohen during his hearing process?

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