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Ex-ministers press Harper on fisheries plans

May 30 2012

Four former federal fisheries ministers and B.C. aboriginal leaders are adding their voices to a groundswell of opposition to proposed Fisheries Act amendments and dissatisfaction with a lack of consultation with First Nations and other interest groups.

Former Progressive Conservative fisheries ministers Tom Siddon and John Fraser and former Liberal ministers David Anderson and Herb Dhaliwal have written an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper lashing out at the omnibus budget bill that contains Fisheries Act changes they say will inevitably weaken habitat protection provisions.

Despite the significance of the changes and public concern, there has been no explanation from government on the need for the amendments or on the unusual process being used, the letter says.

"Quite frankly, Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the Minister of Fisheries or by interest groups outside the government. If the latter is true, exactly who are they?" the former ministers ask.

Instead of being lumped into an omnibus bill, the proposed changes should be examined by the standing committee on Fisheries and Oceans with testimony from industry, First Nations, academics and experts, they say.

"We have the impression that the ministers are using a sledge hammer to swat a fly," the letter says.

Siddon will appear before a parliamentary subcommittee this week to voice the concerns.

The Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable Group, in a letter to the government, says the amendments will degrade protections to fish and fish habitat and a plan to delegate the right to authorize adverse effects on fish and fish habitat to industry, developers or provinces "is akin to allowing the fox to guard the chicken coop."

The First Nations Fisheries Council has asked that the Cohen Commission into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon should consider the proposed amendments and that the omnibus bill be shelved until the Cohen report is released in September.

Such radical changes, which lower the bar for habitat protection, must include full consultation with First Nations, the Fisheries Council said. "Protective measures cannot be limited to permanent alterations of fish habitat or that which causes death to fish presently being harvested if Canada is going to take seriously their obligations to First Nations and their rights to Pacific fisheries," it said in a statement.

Jordan Point, First Nations Fisheries Council executive director, said government must consult with First Nations about substantive matters that might affect their fishing rights.

"These are pretty substantive policy matters and we haven't seen any meaningful consultation," he said.

"All 303 First Nations in the province have very, very serious concerns about the gaps that will be left."

Fishing and fish protection groups say the changes appear designed to streamline projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"I think anyone can read the tea leaves and see this government is focused on an economic agenda," Point said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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