Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Cohen Commission and Cummins' Misdirected Critique

This week, way more than is deserved news coverage here in BC is going to the predictable raving of the justifiably back-benched MP from Delta, John Cummins. Cummins has long been known for his, shall we say, highly occluded view of fisheries issues, "informed" if that be the word, by time as a commercial fishermen and much longer service among voices against Indian fishing rights.
Years ago an alliance formed among non-Natives to protect downtrodden whites from aggressive aboriginals, the Fishermens Durvival Coalition. Cummins was a founding member and their dogged Ottawa voice-piece. He even got himself arrested and briefly jailed for a protest fishery trying to stem the relentless tide of legal and then regulatory decisions recognizing the historic right of First nations in fisheries. Bear in mind that he was apprehended by the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) perpetrator of the native fishing agreements Wild John was out to vanquish.

Now, this long-serving Indian fighter (and, by implication DFO fighter) is shifting the always narrow range of his sights to the learned Justice Bruce Cohen and his entourage. When the mighty Fraser sockeye run was largely a no-show last year, Bruce got the nod for an ostensibly far-ranging inquiry as to the causes. This was by a long shot not the first federal effort to find and commission one or more wise men (and, yes m'dears, it's always men) to dispassionately probe the perils afflicting the iconic Pacific salmon. Way back in 1961 agricultural economist, Sol Sinclair, poked about the issue and, like many before and since, muttered about the surplus capacity of the fleet, as the slogan became "too many boats chasing too few fish." Later the peripatetic UBC economist Peter Pearse had a go at fisheries foibles as did a battery of less expert inquirers in the 1990s, especially after Captain Fred Mifflin's draconian cutbacks.

More germane the 1994 sockeye run shortfall brought the Honourable former Fed Fish Minister John Fraser in from the cold for a thorough examination of why pre-season expectations for the run were so far from its reality. The dubious innovation this time was to staff the commission preponderantly with lawyers. All but one of the twelve core staff are law school products. Unsurprisingly without response, I critically drew this imbalance to the attention of Commissioner Cohen via the comments option at their website. The who's who as selected reveals, I let him know, a narrow and off-base formulation of the kind of problem that needs solving here.

To fulfill the Commission's mandate two principal complexities need unraveling or at least intelligent thoughtful reflection: the ultimate mystery of what is really going on in the ocean and then, as well, a grasp of the massively convoluted human system - social, cultural, economic, political and organizational, as well as legal - that envelops salmon management. While legally trained minds no doubt have worthy contributions to make to the latter, theirs is but one small piece of a very big multi-disciplinary puzzle. The Commission staff should reflect the necessary state-of-the-art insights of many more scholarly areas, not to even mention, the traditional knowledge of the salmon's first and far more successful management system, i.e. First Nations.

As to what I have called the ultimate mystery of the ocean, to the best of my knowledge, there is no requirement for shiny-faced would-be lawyers to have any acquaintaince with this, via the curricula of law schools or otherwise.

I suspect that if Commissioner Cohen or his minions were to respond they would rapidly correct my misgivings by referring to the appointment of "six eminent fisheries scientists" as the inquiry's Scientific Advisory Panel. And yet, I would and do remain unimpressed though for reasons unrelated to the dubiously honourable Mr.Cummins. His gripe, which as I began, is getting way too much play given especially his own demonstrably un-objective viewpoint on things salmon-ish, was that the Panel was DFO tainted. Cummins' diligent research turned up that there was not only a former DFO employee in the chicken house (Brian Riddell) but that most of the others at one time or another had worked on projects fro which the Minster of Fisheries Oceans had paid. Thus, if we are to believe Cummins, folks like Drs. Carl Walters and Paul Leblond of UBC are irremediably corrupted by such associations. If Cummins was capable of delving objectively into the records of the likes of Walters not only would he find an impeccable international reputation but a considerable proven willingness to confront DFO when what they do -- and they do lots - is scientifically astray. Indeed, thinking back to Walters' powerful critiques of lax DFO regulation of the commercial fishers. we might indeed find that Cummins does know of the good professor's work, and holds one of his many grudges against him for pointing out inconvenient truths about the effects of commercial seining. The very idea of Cummins raising matters of objectivity about fisheries would be just for laughs if he wasn't getting so much airplay with his nonsense (like here, here, and here).

More broadly it would be difficult indeed to find fisheries scientists who have west coast experience but who have not at any time been involved in a DFO-funded project. That, by the way - full disclosure - includes me - even though I was also flattered once to be called "one of DFOs worst nightmares"by a senior departmental official.

Mr Cummins has blood in his eye for Indian-lovers which in his alternate universe and to the great shock of most First Nations leaders I know - includes DFO and so, guilty by association is Cohen, his staff and his eminent scientists. The problem I have with that panel is not DFO's taint but the narrowness of member backgrounds in terms of both culture and academic discipline. I may have to go on about that later but suffice here to say, there are no First Nations traditional knowers on this panel and, just as bad, no one who has scholarly credentials on the study and practice of leadership or administrative reform. Those are essential "ingredients" but missing from the Cohen Commission mix. To waste any further virtual ink on the likes of Cummins is a distraction inappropriate to the urgency of the sockeye mystery.