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Dirty Politics Fuel 'Salmon Wars'

Fishermen 'scapegoated' says former BC fisheries advisor Dennis Brown.

Quentin Dodd 30 Aug
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The defiance and suspicion thrown at the DFO by fishermen after the announced closure of the Fraser River sockeye fishery is just more proof that salmon are highly political animals in this corner of the country.

Dennis Brown knows first hand just how cut throat those politics can get. The author of a new book, Salmon Wars: The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery, Brown worked during the 1980s as a Fraser Valley organizer with the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union, and rose to secretary-treasurer for the union.

Over time Brown became deeply, though not bitterly, cynical. Politics do roil fiercely throughout the industry, whether it be dealings with federal and provincial or state governments in Canada or the United States, or the power exerted by a tiny circle of large corporations who dominate the business. And a big step on Brown's journey towards cynicism was his decision to leave his top union job to become fisheries advisor to BC Premier Glen Clark.

At the time, Brown hoped to further his work to better the fishery as a culture and cherished way of life, which he had enjoyed. Though a strong and long-time NDP supporter, he admits he was horrified by what he witnessed as a visitor to the inner corridors of politics.

Throwing fishermen off EI

For example, even as cutbacks to the fleet were being proposed under the Mifflin Report of 1996, the federal government claimed it couldn't afford special fishermen's assistance programs from Human Resources Development Canada. This despite a "whopping $12 billion surplus in the EI fund at the time", Brown writes.

He notes that as the Ottawa-driven cutbacks began to bite into the fleet, the government handed huge grants totalling scores of millions of dollars directly to close to half Canada's 100 largest banks and other corporations, right out of those same HRDC coffers. Some of that, says Brown, went into the big cannery and fisheries companies, while fishermen were left to starve and EI for fishermen in winter became a thing of the past because fishermen didn't work long enough to qualify.

Fish as weapons

In an interview with The Tyee, Brown reinforced that fish have all too often by used simply as a weapon in the continuing, no-holds-barred, multi-scene political war which has plagued and ultimately wrecked the salmon fisheries on Canada's West Coast.

"On the East Coast, at least their politicians are accountable to the fisheries because if they don't, they don't get the votes from the electorate. Out here the votes aren't here for the government, so people like (former fisheries minister) Anderson are more interested in catering to the recreational fishermen than in looking after the commercial fishery.

"There are not the votes here and my impression is that the politicians feel they will gain more favour with the electorate if they work in with the environmentalists and make scapegoats out of the fishermen and go along with the big corporations (including the forest companies)."

Corporate giants

Brown said that, while he is no social engineer, he fears the salmon fishing and farming industries are well on the way to being just cash cows for large corporations and their urban-dwelling masters and investors, rather than a means of spreading wealth along the BC coast.

The industry, he said, is being put into the hands of so few companies and corporations that he fears the day may come in the not-too-distant future that some foreign power or international corporate giant from overseas might come along and buy up the entire fishery.

Brown said steps continue to be taken to stifle dissent and protests from within the fleet and increase and perpetuate the control of the industry into the hands of an ever-tightening group of larger and larger corporations.

That leaves the front-line personnel and unions as well as the governments with fewer and few companies to deal with and in increasingly powerful positions of influence over communities' and the province's economy, able to do pretty much what they want within regulation from more and more depleted enforcement agencies.

Exciting read

Because Salmon Wars is so well-crafted, it is an intensely fascinating and even exciting read which does not require the reader to arrive with much knowledge about BC's salmon fisheries or even the way they have evolved over the past three or four decades. Big names abound, including magnate Jim Pattison, former Premier Glen Clark, Federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson, and the issues were huge, spreading across the Canada-U.S. border and reaching the top-most level of government and bureaucracies.

The main delight of this quickly acclaimed book, which shot straight into the best-seller lists, is in the peek it gives behind the curtain of many highly-public events and governmental decisions.

It is only a peek. Brown admitted to The Tyee after the book's launch that he doesn't tell all. He says he was in fact quite sparing in his treatment of the premier for whom he worked. Although he says Clark is still not happy with the handling he received, Brown says he could have included other material which would have left the one-time leader of the party Brown still loves even unhappier.

He also notes wryly that Clark, who once wanted to wrest jurisdiction for BC's marine fisheries away from Ottawa and particularly then-federal fisheries minister David Anderson, now works for BC billionaire Jimmy Pattison, owner of Save-on-Foods, numerous car dealerships and a sizeable slice of the commercial fishing and processing pie.

Anderson 'arrogant'

Former federal fisheries minister David Anderson comes off no better in the book. Brown portrays Anderson as arrogant towards fishermen on the coast he continues to be elected to represent, and instrumental to the sell-out of the salmon fisheries to the United States, Alaska and the big cannery companies.

The truth of the matter, Brown told The Tyee, is that when he moved over from union and fisheries sector politics and entered the murky world of federal-provincial-international politics, what he began to see and experience first-hand so shocked and disgusted him that it left him totally devastated for a full year after he lost his advisory job with the government, when the NDP were routed in 2001.

Brown said he needed to write the book not so much as an expose of politics and politicians, but as a therapy for his bruised and damaged soul. What started out as a year-long project to get it out of his blood became a four-year authorship program.

Caught in a net

Brown notes that the vast majority of fishermen who go out to harvest BC's salmon in sometimes difficult conditions really aren't all that interested in politics. They love the independence and freedom of the lifestyle. They truly honour and revere the fish they depend on. They just want to be left alone to get on with their lives, paid a reasonable price and given enough of the icon fish they harvest to make a decent living.

But that's not the way things have turned out. Brown illustrates how fishermen have been not just targeted but also caught in the middle and used time and time again in the multi-realm, interlocking battle for power over fish. So commercial fishermen have been forced over the years to become increasingly aware just how central to their very existence politics are.

But who could blame anyone for not wanting to sail into such polluted political waters? Talk about skulduggery, deception, spin-doctoring, egotism, vindictiveness and malice. It's all there in Salmon Wars. Fish don't vote, so they just don't count. And there aren't many fishermen left to vote any more, so their voice doesn't count for much any more either.

Campbell River journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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