Vaughn Palmer: Horgan sounds alarm over Ottawa’s plans to end BC fish farms

Opinion: BC has put the federal government on notice that it must work with remote and Indigenous communities before moving to close ‘job hubs’

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VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan has sent a cautionary letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over concerns Ottawa is preparing to sign death warrants for dozens of salmon farms on the BC Coast.

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“Regrettably, there is widespread concern in coastal communities that your government is poised to make a decision in coming days that will eliminate many, if not all, salmon farming licences,” Horgan wrote.

“If true, such a decision would eliminate hundreds of job hubs and undermine the economy of dozens of coastal communities.”

It would also trample the rights of BC First Nations that have stated their intention “to pursue salmon farming,” the premier warned.

He flagged how premature action “would fly in the face” of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both governments have endorsed, and which BC incorporated into provincial law in 2019.

The premier’s letter, dated March 10 and released by his office this week, was prompted by concerns about how federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray could proceed this spring.

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Murray’s mandate from the prime minister following her appointment last fall, commands her to continue working on “a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal BC waters by 2025.”

The licenses and tenures for the majority of salmon farms operating in BC — some 79 of them in all — expire in June.

The industry estimates that some 4,700 jobs and $1.2 billion in economic activity are dependent on those licenses and tenures.

Many of the farms are a major employer in remote, coastal and Indigenous communities.

Horgan was voicing widespread concerns within the industry, its workforce and affected communities that Murray will begin handing out what amounts to eviction notices.

Her predecessor as federal minister, Bernadette Jordan, did just that with a number of fisheries BC-based farms in December 2020.

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She announced the phase out of 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands effective June of this year, with the loss of some 1,500 jobs.

The province wasn’t consulted on those closures, Horgan complained at the time.

“They told us after the fact,” he told reporters, directing a rare flash of anger toward the Trudeau government.

Murray is the long-time member of Parliament for the BC riding of Vancouver-Quadra.

But the BC premier chose to put his concern directly to the prime minister.

“Any federal licensing decisions should be made in a thoughtful and systematic way that fully engages those First Nations most impacted by the decision, provides the necessary time and clarity for businesses to adjust investment decisions, and does not pre-empt larger policy decisions on the future of the industry,” Horgan wrote.

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He also wants “a corresponding transition plan for those First Nations and communities that rely on the economic opportunities provided by the salmon farm industry, as well as a new technology adoption plan that may provide new economic opportunities in BC”

The premier drew a contrast to the way BC proceeded in phasing out a number of provincially regulated salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago in 2018.

“We have had some success in BC through our Broughton Archipelago process in tackling the complex issues of reconciliation with First Nations, protecting the health of wild salmon and meeting the needs of BC communities,” Horgan wrote.

“I am hoping that working together we can establish a similar process.”

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BC’s role in any transition plan “will focus on how to acknowledge both those First Nations that object to farming in their territory and also the many First Nations that have developed their own assessment of risk, their own partnerships with industry and their own vision for the future of their territory and communities,” he added.

Having set out BC’s goals on working with Ottawa on a transition strategy, the premier handed off the assignment to Josie Osborne, the new provincial minister for land, water and resource stewardship and the minister responsible for fisheries.

Horgan expressed the hope to the prime minister that Osborne will have a chance to meet with Murray “to discuss what a fully engaged role for BC will look like and any necessary adjustments that would be appropriate to your current process.”

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The premier also said the NDP MLA for North Island, Michele Babchuk, “will be organizing a delegation of community leaders to travel to Ottawa to communicate their concerns.

“I hope your office will facilitate these discussions,” Horgan added in his letter to the PM.

Babchuk appears to have taken up the salmon-farming issue with more enthusiasm than her predecessor as NDP MLA for the area, Claire Trevena.

Babchuk met community leaders earlier this month to discuss the federal government’s intentions and I gather she got an earful.

“People across the North Island who rely on our aquaculture industry are feeling uncertain about their futures,” she told the Campbell River Mirror newspaper this week.

“I look forward to meeting with our federal counterparts,” she added.

In light of BC’s experience on the Discovery Islands closures, there’s no guarantee Osborne or Babchuk will get anywhere with federal Fisheries or with Ottawa.

Murray’s mandate letter does direct her “to work with BC and Indigenous communities” on “a responsible transition plan.”

But in any event, Horgan’s now public letter to the PM has at least warned against a repeat of what happened when the previous federal fisheries minister began closing down salmon farms in BC

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