Public washrooms vs. Public Inquiries

This is the follow-up to my earlier post today…

There must be some confusion in the use of the term “public” when it comes to “public inquiries”. Various definitions of “public” suggest the term means: “maintained for or used by the people or community” (like a public washroom). Or, “participated in or attended by the people or community” (like a town hall public debate). Or, “open to the knowledge or judgment of all” (like the Liberal sponsorship scandal).

The root of the word comes from Latin populus or poplicus, meaning “people”.

A “public” washroom suggests that, as long as the door is unlocked, the washroom is open to anyone to use (at their own risk of course). Whereas, the same meaning is not implied in a “public” inquiry. If public washrooms were like public inquiries — e.g. the Cohen Commission into Declines of Fraser River Sockeye — one would be limited to only using the washroom if they had applied in advance.

In their application one would need to be sure to prove a: “substantial and direct interest in the subject matter”.

I’m guessing that neighborhood associations around public washrooms would be in full support of all public washroom applicants being granted standing (or sitting if need be) far in advance of there being an applicant’s “substantial and direct interest” in participating in public washrooms.

Apparently past “public inquires” have considered some of the factors in being granted “standing”, meaning ability to fully participate in a public inquiry (or public washroom with similar processes):

What does not constitute a valid reason for a participant’s standing is mere concern about the issues to be examined… (from Gomery Inquiry into Liberal sponsorship scandal)


But do not fear, if you are not granted “standing” to use the public washroom, you may become involved in several ways:

…for example, by submitting written comments to the commission about any matter relevant to the Terms of Reference, submitting written comments or suggestions to the commission in response to scientific or policy reports posted on the commission’s website, and attending the formal public hearings. (from Cohen Commission Ruling on Standing released yesterday)

Thus, in the “public” washroom process, if you did not apply — or were not granted standing — you can just watch…

If you have something to add, just send a letter. (How this letter might be used by those granted standing… is up for conjecture).

Jest aside… needless to say there is a big difference between the use of the word “public” in these two processes. What might be cause for concern though, is how is “public” interest benefited in a “public” inquiry? (we know the benefit of public washrooms).

In Justice Cohen’s Ruling on Standing released yesterday, he summarizes why the twenty organizations that were granted standing were successful on their applications and why they have a “substantial and direct interest” in the subject matter of the inquiry.

A curious observation — everyone granted “standing” is an organization, coalition, association, or collective identify of some sort; only one specific individual is identified (Otto Langer a former DFO employee). I can understand Justice Cohen’s thoughts:

I am concerned that too many participants could make the process unwieldy and expensive, and impede the completion of the commission’s work.

The good old “floodgate” legal argument… “if we open this to every tom, dick, and jane; it will become onerous, costly, and administratively challenging.” (Just ask folks that do the thankless job of cleaning public washrooms — opening the washrooms to anyone means some folks leave more mess than others).

Thus, Justice Cohen has administratively (in theory) made this inquiry simpler by only granting “standing” to collective organizations that purport to represent certain constituencies within the larger BC “public”. Unfortunately, there is a parallel here in the root of some of the problems with how Fraser River sockeye are cared for.

By aggregating people into seven administrative groups (e.g. commercial, sport, and aboriginal fishers, unions, enviro, government and so on), Justice Cohen and his team — and the folks that chose to apply for “standing” as large aggregates, coalitions, etc — may have effectively applied a filter to the expertise, knowledge, and experience located throughout the Fraser River watershed in relation to sockeye.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has done the same thing with how they “manage” Fraser River sockeye stocks by aggregating over 200 separate stocks into four groups — Early Stuart, Early Summer, Summer, and Late Summer — strictly for administrative; otherwise known as management purposes.

Message filters, representation, and diversity

By grouping: each individual, or each individual community, or each member, has their perspective filtered by the “representatives” of their collective organization.

And thus, the many separate individuals points, are filtered into a couple of easier to manage points communicated by the spokespeople of collective organizations.

Some people refer to this as the “Goldilocks effect”. The diversity of messages (maybe hot, maybe cold, maybe big, maybe small) represented by separate individuals — or components of the group — are filtered down into messages that are: “just right”.

Easier to administrate; easier to provide funding for lawyers; easier to boil down to recommendations.

Hard on diversity; hard on effective representation; harder to balance varieties of perspectives.

The real question, though, is:

  • Better for Fraser River sockeye?

Are we looking to better (i.e. publicly) look after dwindling Fraser River sockeye, or are we looking to design the most ‘cost-effective’, adminstrativly simple “public” inquiry?

Is this about fish… or is it about people and politics?

See the thing with “representation” and “representatives” — is that both of these terms are inherently political terms. To be a representative suggests standing, or acting, for something or someone, or some group of things.

Thus, the general “public” that is concerned about Fraser River sockeye in BC (or elsewhere) is supposed to take comfort in the fact that the 20 groups granted “standing” within the seven further groups labeled by Justice Cohen, and the legal staff hired by the Commission are all supposed to represent the “public” interests.

And in the end, we are all supposed to take comfort in the fact that this Commission, this public inquiry — focusing on one species of salmon, on one BC river — is going to change the fate of dwindling Fraser sockeye stocks.

Personally, when I use a public washroom I prefer to represent myself; however, this is just my feeling.

Truly — is this about the fish, or is it about the politics?

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