the public inquiry blind date.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Cohen Commission (public inquiry into declines of Fraser River sockeye salmon) that my application for “standing” with the Commission was denied. I’m not surprised; however, the mystery continues on how the Commissioner is defining the: “substantial and direct interest in the subject matter of the inquiry” required to be granted standing.

About a month ago I sent an email to the Commission asking for clarification of the “substantial and direct interest”.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was automatically granted standing so, I figured, there must be some sort of definition or bar to be met.

The response I got (and posted on the Commission website):

In advance of an application for standing, the Commissioner will not issue rulings on what constitutes a “substantial and direct interest”.

I wasn’t looking for a “ruling” just a definition.

In the letter that I received yesterday from the Commission lawyers it states:

On the basis of the material you have provided, it appears to Commission Counsel that you may not have a “substantial and direct interest in the subject matter of the inquiry” as required by the Commission’s Terms and Conditions for the Commissioner to grant you standing.

Carefully worded… “may not”; however, if I want to take issue with this ruling I need to make an appointment to go before the Commissioner in Vancouver next week and let them know by Monday — even though I just got the letter last night. (I live in Prince George, 800 km north of Vancouver).

The mystery here is that folks have been asked to demonstrate “substantial and direct interest” with no definition for what that means. Sure, there are guidelines for making the application — but still no definition. Sure, I can go argue my case next week in Vancouver on my own cost; however, what the hell would I be arguing?

Nobody knows this mysterious definition, or at least what factors must be met to prove “substantial and direct interest”. If I was to go argue my case next week it would be like a blind date. I don’t mean, in the traditional sense of going on a date with someone you’ve never met. I mean a blind date as going with a blindfold on.

Or worse, like an exam or test of sorts where I have no idea what the questions are.

One generally hopes that when a bar is set — that you actually have an idea of what that bar looks like so you don’t run smack dab into it… especially in the dark. I don’t generally like to drive with my eyes closed — yet this process of demonstrating a “substantial and direct interest” was a bit like driving in the dark.

Prime Minister Harper in his press release announcing the Commission stated:

“It is in the public interest to investigate this matter and determine the longer-term prospects for sockeye salmon stocks.”

In the public interest, yes. But, open to public input… that’s yet to be seen. Granted the offer is open to send letters into the Commission — yet no explanation of what or how that may be weighted in the review.

I’m trying to remain optimistic that the Cohen Commission will not be another “here we go again” (the actual name of a salmon inquiry in the 1990s) — A $20 to $30 million process with recommendations that gather dust until 2020 like the recommendations of the Royal Commission conducted in the 1980s.

I get the fact that the “substantial and direct interest” is there to try and limit testimony from every busybody with an opinion on the matter — however I’m still not clear on why the bar to be met has not been explained. The “public” part of this inquiry appears to be that apparently the public is welcome to sit and watch the hearings…(and flip the bill).

If you’re curious about what the potential bill might be — there are guidelines on the Commission website on what lawyers for individuals (or organizations) granted standing might charge. The maximum is $350/hr for a lawyer with 20 years experience. The maximum is a 10 hour day — except for hearings days. These costs will be covered by the Commission if assistance for funding was applied for.

Currently, there are nine lawyers hired by the Commission plus the Commissioner. Apparently there has also been scientific advisers hired by the Commission — yet this has not been posted on the website.

Start doing rough tallies… nine lawyers and a Justice and lead scientists, that’s somewhere in the range of $8,000 – $15,000 per day on the low end just for wages on the Commission. Factor in Fisheries and Oceans staff and lawyers, lawyers for those granted “standing”, all of the administrative assistance the Commission will require. Facilities, offices, hearings…

Interim report by August of this year — final report by May of next year. Let’s say 15-20 days a month times 15 months (if there are no delays)…. As the contestants on the Wheel of Fortune say: “big money… come on big money”.  I think there are many folks hoping it’s worth it — and fundamental changes come as a result.

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