Commissioner Cohen and the DFO Connection

As noted in an earlier post, on June 15th the Cohen Commission began its first hearings into the causes of the collapse of the Fraser sockeye, and the Commission is already receiving criticism, for a variety of reasons.  One of the more notable is the suggestion that the scientists he appointed to the Commission’s Scientific Advisory Panel may be biased. Conservative MP John Cummins has pointed out that 4 of the 6 scientists on the panel have past links with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO):

Cohen ought instinctively to know that a full-fledged judicial inquiry into the department’s management of the salmon fishery should not, indeed must not employ people who had in any way advised the Department or those who had relied on departmental funding for their work. … A more prudent judge would avoid engaging current or previous employees or contractors of the Department, persons who depend or whose organizations depend on the Department for research funding or who are likely to in the future and those who staffed previous inquiries or advised the Department on their implementation.

John Cummins’ criticisms have received considerable media attention (most of the articles are available on the MP’s website), as well as being reposted on the Salmon are Sacred site. 

Header_en_01.jpgWe are concerned that there is not be an appearance of a conflict of interest among the experts, and that Commissioner Cohen’s scientific advisors are independent from DFO.  That being said, let me make a possibly controversial suggestion: the mere fact of a past affiliation with DFO should not by itself disqualify an otherwise qualified scientist from being appointed to the advisory panel. 

Consider, for example, Otto Langer, an employee of DFO for 32 years, who is now a participant in the Conservation Coalition currently appearing before Mr. Cohen.  Mr. Langer, while working with the David Suzuki Foundation and since, has often been an extremely effective critic of DFO, in part because of his knowledge of the department. 

The fact is that in general, scientists – like all professionals – are employed or contracted (by people, groups and governments), for remuneration.  Fisheries and Oceans Canada is a major employer of fisheries scientists, and it is hardly surprising that many such scientists will have worked, at some time or other, for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

Conversely, if we rule out scientists who have worked with DFO as a general rule, the remaining pool of scientists available as experts are most likely to work for or have worked for companies that should necessarily be investigated by the Cohen Commission (i.e.those engaged in logging, mining, oil and gas development, fish farms or other industries that may have contributed to the sockeye collapse). 

I’m more disturbed by Alexandra Morton’s reports that certain experts were not included on the scientific panel “due to their connection to [her],” if, by connection, she means merely a past professional collaboration.    A productive panel would necessarily include diversity among the backgrounds, perspectives and experience of the scientists. 

The questions that must be asked about the appointment of scientific experts include:

  • how strong is the connection between the scientists appointed by the Commissioner and DFO?, and
  • has their work demonstrated a subservience to government policies and direction, or to other (industry) interests?

The idea that science can be “pure” – free from any influences is not realistic; however, those influences need to be disclosed  and managed.  And they should not be allowed to compromise the actual or perceived independence of the Commission.

Here are some suggestions for Commissioner Cohen’s consideration:

Provide the funding to the participants with standing for them to hire their own experts (beyond the currently funding provided them which appears to be exclusively for lawyers);

Create an advisory panel of Elders, drawn from the elders of the First Nations along the length of the Fraser and in the coastal areas that are impacted by the loss of the sockeye, to assist the Commission in understanding what the traditional knowledge of the diverse First Nations of the watershed have to say about the loss of the Salmon, as well as its cultural impacts.  Creating space for the voice of such a panel would recognize that scientific experts are not the only source of expert information;

Allow participants to review the composition of the Scientific Panel, and provide feedback on how it might be adjusted to acknowledge the above-mentioned concerns.  Currently, four of the six panelists appointed by the Commissioner seem to have direct connections with DFO, which at least raises concerns.  Some adjustments may be in order.

Any other suggestions?

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage



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