Vaughn Palmer: Time to reel in Popham’s ministry for fish file review

Source: Vancouver Sun –  October 23, 2017 | Last Updated: October 23, 2017 7:44 PM PDT

VICTORIA — Once again Monday, Agricultural Minister Lana Popham was accused of intimidation in her handling of a dispute over fish farming off the north coast of Vancouver Island.

Last week it came out that Popham served written notice to Marine Harvest Canada, the company at the heart of the dispute, that it could lose its operating tenures when they expire next June.

She linked the threat to a request that the company cease restocking one of its fish farms and said it should begin living up to its obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), lately endorsed by the NDP.

Then Friday it was reported that First Nations in the area were demanding the head of the senior fish pathologist in Popham’s ministry, Dr. Gary Marty.

“Marty has refuted claims that fish farms pose a significant risk to wild salmon,” wrote Randy Shore in The Vancouver Sun. “Popham confirmed the government is investigating Marty’s research at the request of First Nations.”

The Popham letter to the fish farming company raised concerns in the business and investment community. Were the New Democrats really making tenure renewals contingent on UNDRIP, a 46-item political declaration that has no current standing in provincial law?

But Popham’s decision to investigate Marty’s research had sent a no less chilling message to the provincial public service.

The New Democrats, backed by the Greens, had already launched a review of the use of outside professionals to conduct environmental assessments. Now it looked as if even in-house professionals could be subject to investigation if they produced results that offended the NDP-Green partnership.

But what sort of investigation? Who would conduct it? What protection would Marty receive? Would he be able to confront his accusers?

Those questions set the stage for question period in the legislature Monday. B.C. Liberal MLA Peter Milobar led off by asking Popham to release the terms of reference for what he called “her intimidation investigation of this respected public servant?”

Popham tried to deflect the question by blasting the B.C. Liberals for cutting staff and resources for scientific research when they were in government. Yes, minister, but you are investigating a scientist who is still working for the ministry.

Finally she climbed out of her message box long enough to insist that “not one individual is under investigation.”

Which was the opposite of what she said during the interview last Thursday with Shore.

He had been speaking to First Nations opposed to the continued operation of the Marine Harvest fish farms within their traditional territories. He learned that they wanted Marty fired for various sins and that Popham had promised to investigate their concerns.

He then sought confirmation from the minister “that you, the government, are going to be investigating his (Marty’s) practices,” as Shore put it.

“There were some very strong allegations that were made and that’s very concerning, so we are looking into that currently,” replied Popham.

“That’s a yes?” asked Shore, double-checking. “Yes, we are looking into that for sure,” confirmed the minister a second time.

Outside the house Monday, Popham stuck to her denial. Marty was not under investigation. Neither was anyone else at the Animal Health Centre, the government lab. Rather the province was responding to serious concerns raised by the federal department of fisheries (DFO)

“When DFO raises concerns, we take them seriously,” as Popham put it during question period. “We are verifying research produced by our (lab) to ensure that we’re making decisions based on science.