Mr. Speaker, I move that the first report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, presented to the House Monday, March 23, otherwise known as the east coast report, be concurred in.
The government has now tabled its response to the east coast report. The east coast report was tabled in the House by the chair of the standing committee on March 23, 1998.
I was pleased to be a member of the standing committee that produced this report especially as it was a unanimous report in almost every respect. The crises in the fishery were seen by the committee to be of pressing importance, and this report was put out directly in response to these issues on the east coast.
The government had an opportunity to accept this report as a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to create a new mandate, a chance to change the status quo defensive posture of the department and embark on some vital changes. Instead, the government has chosen to challenge the report and to shoot the messenger, in this case the chair of the standing committee, the member for Gander—Grand Falls.
The east coast report has 23 recommendations. The first 9 deal with foreign fishing concerns. In particular, recommendation 9 talks about extending our jurisdiction to beyond 200 miles. Reform was instrumental in having this become a focus of the report. In fact, the importance of conserving natural resources is stated Reform policy.
We believe governments have a responsibility to protect our environment and if extending Canada's economic jurisdiction over the entire Grand Banks is what it takes to protect this environment, then we should do it. Reform policy is that Canada should assert its control over the nose and tail of the Grand Banks and the Flemish Cap.
The rest of the east coast report addresses such important issues as rationalizing the fisheries, the management problems at DFO, overfishing of particular species and sealing and ecological issues such as ghost nets.
The government response to the east coast report of the standing committee is pathetic. It is typically bureaucratic and merely defends the status quo. It appears to say a lot but does not commit to any effective change. It avoids the real question on TAGS which is the mismanagement to date and the breaking of a promise to continue benefits to May 1999. It does nothing substantive on seal populations beyond consultation and information gathering. It shoots the messenger rather than deal with foreign fishing recommendations of the committee.
This kind of government response illustrates the attitude of the minister and senior department officials toward any investigation into commercial foreign harvesting off Canada's east coast. A prime example of this attitude can be found in the issue of my request for access to foreign fishing observer reports.
I am going to focus much of my comments today on these foreign fishing observer reports. There is only one reason why the public is denied full access to reports from Canadian observers on foreign vessels fishing inside Canada's 200 mile limit. The reason is that this government cares less about the public interest and Canada's sovereignty than about maintaining comfortable relationships with foreign fishing interests.
For anyone who has any doubt about this, I recommend the 1998 book by Michael Harris Lament for an Ocean regarding the collapse of the east coast cod fishery. However, members should consider reading this book only if they are able to control their emotions. They will be sickened by how political timidity leads to horrendous consequences; in this case biologically for our fisheries resources and socially and economically for Atlantic Canadians.
For many months members of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans and I have been trying to get DFO to release to the public these foreign fishing observer reports.
The minister tried to cut a deal with us. The committee members could look at the reports but they could not talk publicly about their contents. The minister claimed this was because the reports contained confidential commercial information and releasing them would violate section 20 of the Access to Information Act.
Section 20(6) states that the head of a government institution may disclose any record if that disclosure would be in the public interest as it relates to public health, public safety or protection of the environment.
The public interest in knowing what foreign vessels are up to far outweighs any potential prejudice to the third party, in this case foreign vessels. In this case the public has an environmental interest in knowing if certain species of fish are being overfished.
The minister said in response to my questioning that he had an opinion as to why he should not release the reports to the committee. I asked for a copy of this opinion and I received it. It is very enlightening.
To set the backdrop for this scenario, there is a strong body of opinion that parliamentary committees do have the authority to compel any persons, papers and records as witnesses before the committees.
In a paper produced by the parliamentary legislative services branch, it also made the point that when considering whether to compel evidence, committees have been more likely to excuse matters for reasons of national security than for considerations of commercial interests. The minister has declared that these reports contain confidential information or trade secrets. The burden of proof should be on the foreign vessels to do this. It should not be up to the minister to so declare.
These observer reports are produced by public authorities in order to protect the public. As Justice Jerome stated in Intercontinental Packers Limited v Canada, the reports must therefore be presumed to contain public information. This has been tested in the courts before.
With this backdrop, what was the opinion given to the minister by the deputy minister as to the request by the chair of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to receive these foreign fishing observer reports? On February 5, 1998 the deputy minister informed the minister by memo that the committee request was not yet of the status of a formal access to information request. In other words, the minister should give the committee request less credence than a request under the Access to Information Act. Also, the chair should be consulted about reviewing the documents in camera. The committee turned that suggestion down flat.
If confidentiality is involved, as in camera states, that would muzzle the members and would not serve the public interest. Since that time we have seen the department fulfil an access to information request and provide these very same foreign fishing observer reports to a member of the media, heavily blacked out of course. Then the department made a grand production of presenting these very same heavily censored observer reports to the committee. This of course did not satisfy the committee request in any way.
Instead of respecting committees of the House of Commons, the minister has treated the fisheries committee with disdain. Instead of pursuing the public interest, DFO has catered to foreign interests. The minister states in his response to the standing committee's report on the east coast fishery: “The perceptions of foreign fishing as relayed in the report are of great concern to the department”.
The government continues to defend foreign quotas on Canada's continental shelf inside and outside the 200 mile limit. If we listen only to the government we might think that DFO had developed a new attitude, that DFO had seen the light. It might even look to some like the poor practices which led to a collapse of confidence in the department were being changed by new attitudes at the top.
I am here to tell the House there is no new attitude. The stonewall continues. An aide to the minister tried to cut a deal with me to drop my formal request for the observer reports. The net result would have been that I would have received the same censored reports that the media and the committee had already received. My request for papers is still on the order paper. It is still on the books.
While I am waiting for a response I would like to pursue the issue of Canadian economic jurisdiction over the continental shelf off Canada's east coast. It is not well known that when it comes to our continental shelf Canada is in a unique position. We are the only nation with a major portion of our continental shelf extending beyond the 200 mile limit, more specifically the nose and tail of the Grand Banks and the Flemish Cap.
The Grand Banks are a part of what were once the richest fishing grounds in the world. The area outside the 200 mile limit is still heavily exploited by foreign fishing interests. Yet the fish we find on the Grand Banks are part of the important food chain for strictly Canadian fish that often live most of their lives in wholly Canadian waters. Some are highly migratory and cross the 200 mile limit unpredictably.
The committee recommends that Canada gain control over all resources that lie on Canada's continental shelf and the department responds in bureaucratese saying Canada cannot do this and that foreign overfishing after all is not as bad as it used to be. Why does the department say this rather than consider the merits of the argument?
The Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans knows there are legal experts who agree with the committee recommendation to extend its jurisdiction beyond 200 miles. They agree that all foreign fishing outside and inside the 200 mile zone should stop.
Certainly this would be controversial. Our soft touch foreign affairs department might balk at suggesting such a thing, but we know there are legal experts not only in foreign affairs but in other organizations and federal departments who agree that Canadian jurisdiction can be extended from 200 miles to 350 miles to include all of the Grand Banks and the Flemish Cap. I highly recommend that members read sections 76 to 84 of the Law of the Sea for further elaboration.
This is what the chair of the standing committee, the member for Gander—Grand Falls, wrote to the minister when the minister threw the east coast report recommendations back at the committee. The minister wants no part of upsetting foreign interests or promoting Canadian economic and biological interests by extending our jurisdiction. We continue to cater to and sell out to Cuban and European fishing interests rather than express our sovereignty to the maximum degree possible over the continental shelf. Until the government does this, everything Canada does on the east coast is a compromise. We all know that compromise is not the answer. It is a sure fire way to continue to sell out Canadian interests at the expense of Atlantic Canadians.
The area of seabed in question is enormous and the stakes are huge. Canada has every right to exert its legal authority in jurisdiction out to 350 miles. Given the horrendous economic and social consequences that Atlantic Canada has already suffered, we also have the moral authority.
The department has its shirt in a knot with concerns about the standing committee's report on the east coast because of criticism of DFO's handling of foreign fishing. This does not bode well for government acceptance that Canada's approach to jurisdiction over our continental shelf must be focused and aggressive.
Canada's current attitude is “resistance is useless”. I hope we can save Canadian interests from Canadian government apathy. If there was ever a need for strong visionary leadership from the government to establish Canada's interests on the east coast the time is now. Rather than supporting the status quo the minister should be setting a new course. It is time for boldness, not timidity.
The committee has pointed the way and will continue to promote this vision unless it is totally neutered by the government. DFO has the reputation of being the most difficult department of government to deal with to solve longstanding problems.
At the same time the policies of DFO impact directly on the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians. Rather than a fresh approach we can add the removal of the chairman of the committee to the long list of people stifled by the government in its arrogant belief that disagreeing with the PMO, the government or a minister is not to be tolerated. This flat, bland, tasteless do nothing government should be doing more than reaching for the pepper.
We have just to ask the auditor general, the ex-chief actuary for CPP, Michelle Brill-Edwards, the APEC demonstrators or the ex-chair of the fisheries committee.