CANADA

Ottawa's fish tale

The federal Liberals have brilliantly stage-managed the crisis over turbot

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 10 1995
CANADA

Ottawa's fish tale

The federal Liberals have brilliantly stage-managed the crisis over turbot

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 10 1995

Ottawa's fish tale

The federal Liberals have brilliantly stage-managed the crisis over turbot

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

In the land of the blind, we know, the one-eyed man is king. And in an ocean now depleted of cod and other species, the new king of the sea is a fish with an eye in the middle of its head. What is a turbot? The answer is that unlike the endangered cod and salmon, the turbot is the one fish that didn’t get away.

an eye in the middle of its head. What is a turbot? The answer is that unlike the en dangered cod and salmon, the turbot is the one fish that didn't get away.

Therein lies a fish tale of another sort. Credit the Liberals with brilliantly stagemanaging an international incident in which the timing, stakes and opponent could not have been more to their liking. The first move against Spanish fishing boats came within two weeks of the release of the federal budget on Feb. 27 and a report describing the rapid depletion of British Columbia’s salmon stocks: both were immediately swept from the news.

From the outset, the Liberals knew that Spain’s wideranging fishing habits make it a rogue among European Union members, so that solidarity among them would be hard to achieve. Spain’s fishing fleet is so widely reviled that the country was not allowed to join the EU until it agreed not to fish European waters for 10 years. And most European governments faced pressure from their own fishermen, who backed Canada.

It would be hard for Canadians of any stripe to stand against a government that was, after all, only protecting Canadian territorial integrity. Witness the Angus Reid poll last week that showed 89 per cent of Canadians approve of the Liberal stand— and the fact that everyone from Preston Manning to Jacques Parizeau would have been included in that number. And, as proof that to be good, you have to be lucky, there was the unexpected benefit of the marvellously unlovable Emma Bonino, the EU fisheries commissioner who succeeded in making Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin look subtle and dignified.

One of the main reasons, of course, why Canadians revelled in Tobin’s stand is the Walter Mitty-ish wish that resides in many of our otherwise placid souls to be regarded as an international bad boy rather than the world’s choirboy. But even when we want to be bad, we end up doing good: the timing of our fish wars did more than just fit the Liberals’ internal political agenda. It

also drew attention to both the much-ignored United Nations agreement on fisheries and a report just released by its Organization of Agriculture and Food, which forecasts impending disaster for the world’s fisheries unless present fishing practices are dramatically changed. Not to mention that fish conservation, which usually lags only behind such topics as the Constitution and interprovincial trade talks as a guarantee of instant ennui, suddenly became the de rigueur topic of cocktail conversation.

Still, it is clear that the Liberals themselves, the onetime party of Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and assorted efforts at world peace initiatives, rather like their new gum-chewing leather-jacket image on the world stage. This, after all, is the government that has taken a sort of bowling-for-dollars philosophy to international relations by emphasizing trade over human rights; cutting spending on foreign aid; and making repeated noises about whether we should continue our long-standing lead role in UN peacekeeping missions.

Was the Liberal strategy foolproof? Imagine if Canada had actually been obliged to back its threats with action. Would we have sent the defunct Canadian Airborne Regiment, the $4.8 billion worth of mothballed, unordered helicopters, or used members of the regular military who aren’t too busy driving cabs or delivering pizzas to augment their low salaries?

Since none of that happened, the relevant question is whether the end justified the means. In short, does the outcome look as marvellous as Canadians feel? Spain, after all, lost in public relations terms, but probably wins in terms of the increased turbot quota Canada is near certain to agree to. Canada, in turn, gets more esteem, but likely a smaller quota.

But quotas matter only inasmuch as there are enough fish to fill them. The most important outcome of Canada’s actions is that enforcement of conservation measures on the oceans will now exist in practice, and not just on paper. As a result, the turbot will remain king of the sea for longer. And Canada, even as it stood accused of flouting international law, has just succeeded in strengthening it.

SOLDIERS AND SUICIDE

Defence Minister David Collenette ordered his department to investigate an apparent series of suicides by soldiers of the Royal 22nd Regiment at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier just north of Quebec City. At least four soldiers from the regiment have taken their own lives since January, 1994. The investigation was ordered on the same day that the government said that it will send two fresh battalions from the Royal 22nd (the Vandoos) to Bosnia and Croatia to relieve Canadian soldiers finishing a six-month tour of duty there.

INSANITY RULING

An Ontario judge gave the federal government six months to revise a law dealing with the criminally insane. Justice Peter Howden of Ontario Court’s general division ruled that a section of the Criminal Code, which allows those deemed insane to be held indefinitely, is unconstitutional because the roles and powers of the provincial review boards that study cases are too broad. The Ontario attorney general is considering whether to appeal.

SOMALIA SETBACK

An independent inquiry into the actions of Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia suffered a setback before it even began when Anne Marie Doyle, one of three commissioners appointed to the panel on March 21, resigned. Doyle said that questions raised about her friendship with Robert Fowler, a former deputy defence minister who will probably be a witness before the inquiry, had diverted attention from the investigation.

MARCHI UNDER SIEGE

Appearing before the House of Commons immigration committee, Immigration Minister Sergio Marchi was grilled over a new $975-per-head fee that all immigrants and refugees must now pay. Opposition MPS described the fee—introduced in the Feb. 27 federal budget—as inhumane, unfair and even racist. Outside the Commons, Marchi dismissed the fee as no greater than the cost of a television set.

NO CHARGES

An independent prosecutor appointed by the Saskatchewan government said that it would not be in the public interest to lay charges against former attorney general Bob Mitchell, who resigned from cabinet on Feb. 20 after he identified a young offender involved in the Martensville sex abuse case. Premier Roy Romanow said that he had not decided whether to reappoint Mitchell to the cabinet.