The Nation’s Business

O Canada, we stand on guard for fish

The impact of water and the creatures that swim in it on our souls seems to be pervasive and unrelenting

Peter C. Newman August 4 1997
The Nation’s Business

O Canada, we stand on guard for fish

The impact of water and the creatures that swim in it on our souls seems to be pervasive and unrelenting

Peter C. Newman August 4 1997

O Canada, we stand on guard for fish

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

The impact of water and the creatures that swim in it on our souls seems to be pervasive and unrelenting

If ever I return to this Earth in another incarnation, I want to come back as a Canadian fish.

In this wonderfully negotiable country of ours, we happily give away every residual aspect of our vanishing legacy. The ownership of our mines, forests, oil wells and factories is on the auction block daily, and there are lots of takers. We have sold off major chunks of our resources and real estate, first to the British, then to the Americans. Just about everything that makes a profit in this country has been taken over by foreign-owned multinationals.

At the same time, nearly every aspect of our culture has been pecked dry by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Many, if not most, of the touchstones that were once sacrosanct repositories of our national identity have been sold, given away or lost. We have casually allowed outsiders to reduce us to being squatters on our own land. Militarily, we have become a client state of the Pentagon.

But let a Yank or any other outsider touch our fish, and we go ape.

Our politicians, who have lackadaisically presided over the dissolution of our sovereignty, instantly slip into pit bull attackstance if anyone threatens to reduce our sacred hold over anything that has to do with water, especially fish, or tries to export the liquid stuff itself. The novelist Clark Blaise touched this nautical nerve when he wrote about “the parenting effect of water on the Canadian imagination.”

Let a ship of any nationality—especially an American icebreaker—point her reinforced bow into the Northwest Passage, and the diplomatic notes begin to fly. Let a Spanish or Portuguese fisherman dip his nets into our sector of the Atlantic, and we go to war. Let anyone suggest we export a drop of our precious water across the 49th parallel, and Canadians rise up in arms. Mention that the Americans are poisoning our lakes with acid rain, and we’re ready to march on Washington.

We are not a particularly nautical nation, yet the impact of water and the creatures that swim in it on our brains and souls seems to be pervasive and unrelenting. Even the least nationalistic and most provincial of our politicians recognize that truth, and cater to it. W. A. C. (Wacky) Bennett, the longtime B.C. premier who treated the sale of the province’s resources with all the sensitivity of moving overstocked barbecues out of his Kelowna hardware store, was among the many politicians who stood on guard for Canada’s liquid dowry. “Even to talk about selling our water is ridiculous,” he declared, when the Americans wanted to divert the Columbia River in 1966. ‘You do not sell your heritage.”

Simon Reisman, the hard-shell bureaucrat who negotiated Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 1988, was often accused of selling Canada’s birthright. But he defended himself

in public only once. Accused of having advocated the sale of water from James Bay as the deal-making “sweetener,” he could smell the lynch mob, and loudly and passionately protested that he had no intention of even considering such a devilish plot. Reisman swore the basic loyalty oath that binds together all patriotic Canadians: that even if whipped with beaver tails, they will not trade away a drop of our water or the fish that swim in it.

Of course, the prime example of this defiant posture was thenfisheries minister Brian Tobin’s take-no-prisoners 1995 stand against Spanish trawlers fishing for turbot off the Newfoundland coast. The brief turbot rumble—four bursts of .50-calibre bullets from a fisheries patrol vessel aimed over the bow of the Estai—wasn’t much of a war. But it was one of the very few times Canadians used machine-guns to impose their will. We don’t usually draw “lines in the sand” to fend off outsiders acting against our national interests— even invisible boundaries on water.

Yet that’s what has been happening on the Pacific coast, where B.C. Premier Glen (Hornblower) Clark last week lashed out at the “pirates” from south of the 49th parallel, catching Canadian-bound salmon. (You can always tell American salmon from Canadian salmon by the company they keep. The American salmon fight hard against getting caught and struggle to the last minute, while the Canadian varieties search for hooks to bite, but whine when they’re canned.)

Holding up the American ferry Malaspina was a serious business. The ship is no love boat for vacationers, but is one of only four ocean-class vessels that provides passenger and trade goods service between the American mainland (Bellingham in Washington state) and Alaska. The disruption will hurt Prince Rupert permanently if the decision to bypass the port city as a northern stopover holds.

Canada’s Pacific coast fishers are choosing desperate remedies in their battle for the survival of their $500-million industry, because they’re very close to having nothing to lose. The industry is threatened not only by the Americans catching half a million sockeye heading to spawn up B.C. rivers, instead of the usual 120,000, but by long-term uncertainties over basic salmon stocks.

Fishing is not a job, it’s a way of life thatfaces the paradoxical dilemma of requiring huge up-front investments with cyclical and often devastatingly low returns. The larger, offshore fishing boats cost $500,000 or more; the fishing season lasts a few weeks. Negotiated quotas are a must. Only then can Fisheries Minister David Anderson impose what he describes as his department’s three top priorities: “conservation—first, second and third.”

The Canadian negotiators of these watery treaties ought to govern themselves by the unwritten rule of U.S.-Canadian relations: “The American are our best friends—whether we like it or not.”