“These measures reinforce the importance British Columbian food producers place in providing their local and international customers with a healthy and trusted product. Our government is absolutely committed to ensuring B.C. uses the best disease prevention methods possible. . . .”
Don McRae, MLA, April 30
A few hours before the spring sitting of the legislature ended on May 31, B.C. Minister of Agriculture Don McRae had second thoughts about his proposed Animal Health Act that would have had the effect of suppressing information about agricultural disease outbreaks.
That doesn’t mean Bill 37 is gone forever. Although it died on this year’s rubber-stamp pile it remains on the order paper. All it would take for the suddenly-aborted legislation to rise from the ashes is for the B.C. Liberals to be re-elected to a majority in May, 2013.
Bill 37 is a symptom, not the disease. To fully understand its significance, we need to go beyond the proposed Animal Health Act to view it in the light of what it reveals about the frequent attempts at censorship-creep made by all levels of government.
Politicians — and those who work to keep them in power — are prone to keeping whatever they can behind closed doors. But the most recent assault on British Columbians’ “right to know” began in earnest in 2001 after voters handed the Liberals an Opposition-crushing 77-2 majority.
Taking a leaf out of former NDP MLA David Zirnhelt’s book — “governments can do anything they want, you know that” — the government that had been elected on a promise to be “open and transparent” began to systematically erode the mechanisms by which people could hold politicians accountable.
Budgets for the auditor general and the privacy commissioner were cut, thereby curtailing the ability of those officers to do their work on our behalf.
On the rationale that the Local Government Act needed to be updated, critical sections that had allowed citizens to demand a referendum on significant local projects were changed to the euphemistic alternative approval process in the Community Charter.
This, together with other provincial legislation, changed our ability to demand a straightforward, well-advertised local referendum based on full disclosure, into a process which well-nigh guarantees a failure to gauge the true voice of the people. Like outlawed negative billing, it now became a case of “we will do this unless enough of you tell us not to.”
At the provincial level, until B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham wrote her unequivocal critique to McRae, a referendum had been held on only two issues: a proposed change to our voting system and the harmonized sales tax.
Denham’s major concerns were that Bill 37 would “override the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” and “remove the public’s right to access various records regarding animal testing, including actions and reports relating to animal disease management.”
We needed that authoritative voice, as we did the voices of four former federal fisheries ministers who penned an open letter to Prime Minister Harper about similar non-disclosure aspects of Harper’s omnibus Bill 38.
Signed by federal Conservative John Fraser and three others, the letter stated in part, “Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the Minister of Fisheries or by interest groups outside the government. If the latter is true, who are they?”
Without their combined influence, McRae would likely have been deaf to our voices and that of the indefatigable wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton.
Morton, of course, has made no secret of the fact she believes the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Campbell-Clark Liberals have tried to muzzle information about the risks posed by the now-proven viral infections emanating from at least some of the open-net fish-farms in B.C. waters.
Can someone explain how suppression of information about an agriculture-based disease outbreak would foster domestic or international trust in the safety of foods produced in British Columbia?
My immediate reaction was that Canadian courts might well declare McRae’s proposed legislation to be unconstitutional and that, in any event, the amendments suggested for the Animal Health Act would not fly in formation with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Whether or not I am right, you would think we had learned by now that the immediate release of accurate information is essential to effective management of any disease outbreak, especially when it concerns a food-borne contaminant.
Surely we have enough evidence, from outbreaks of H1N1 influenza, meningitis and whooping cough, and from food recalls due to E.coli contamination and the like that well-informed public awareness is the key to minimizing the health risks.
Those precautions become even more stringent when Canadian exports need to be protected from diseases like avian flu and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — mad-cow disease.
Yet, sponsored by the Christy Clark government, Agriculture Minister Don McRae thought it was a good idea to shut down any news or open discussion of a disease should one occur. Just imagine the Canadian uproar that would ensue if the State of Washington were to legislate that no one could tell British Columbians that the state-grown apple they buy from the supermarket came from a farm where E.coli contamination had been discovered in the harvested crop. We would be furious.
And furious is what we all should be if this type of legislation is resurrected by any government north of the Canadian-U.S. border.
McRae — and his counterparts at any level of government — need to know that muzzling respected scientists and hiding information about potential threats to food safety and human health are not “the best disease prevention methods possible” and that we will not accept legislation that fosters such censorship.