Cohen Commission buried in paper: and you’re surprised? How did Einstein define “insanity”?

Upper Fraser fall salmon rally

This article from Wednesday’s Globe and Mail:

Cohen commission: Sockeye inquiry swamped by documents

Lawyers representing participants in the federal Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River say they are being overwhelmed by an avalanche of information.

Nearly 130,000 documents are currently on a software management program known as Ringtail, and new material is being added almost daily – leading some of the 21 lawyers in attendance to call for a conference on how to deal with the work load.

My first response to this, as you might have guessed, is the subject line of this post.

Here we are with about six months to go in the Commission and folks are surprised by the paper load?

Welcome to the land of bureaucratic behemoths.

(And as a side note… remember that time when the Information Age along with the digital age was touted as the great end to paper…?)

Many folks must have seen this coming… must have…

I would think that predictions on paper load prior to the Commission starting (you know… like… pre-Commission forecasts) would have been far more accurate than actual salmon pre-season forecasts. As I’ve pointed out before the “Integrated Fisheries Management Plans” (IFMP) are very wieldy, heavy, lengthy documents. In a recent post I commented on Conservative MP John Cummins’ comment on the actual weight of Justice Cohen’s interim report… well… DFO’s yearly salmon management plans outweigh Justice Cohen’s report by a good 2 to 1.

As pointed out in earlier posts as well, there are close to 100 people within DFO listed as contacts within the IFMPs. There is a 2010 South Coast and a North Coast Salmon IFMP and both weigh in at well over 200 pages. Added to this, just go look at DFO’s “2010 Consultation Calendar“. These are serious paper-producing-productions.

Add in the vast amount of emails, meeting minutes, reports and so on that serve as the backdrop to these plans… and eghad…

Now, add in the fact that Justice Cohen is looking at over 20 reports, reviews, inquiries, etc. over the last 20 years and all of the paper that surrounds those. And has asked for 12 internal reports from “experts”. Up to 300+ public submissions. Multiple public forums and site visits. Over 20 groups and individuals granted “standing” in the Commission.  And the tag line that this is the salmon inquiry to end all salmon inquiries…

Do you know that most-feared phrase shouted in the mountains:


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Maybe all of this was seen coming; however, I get the distinct impression it was not – otherwise why the panic now?

From the outside looking in, I could see the document avalanche coming as clearly as most folks know it rains on the BC coast. The part that bothers me… months into the process (and now officially a year since the Commission was formed), “some of the 21 lawyers in attendance … call for a conference on how to deal with the work load.”

What did folks expect?

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So now, this process — largely the realm of “pre-eminent experts”, scientists, lawyers, and administrators — is bogged down in paper; will most likely be asking for more time and resources and money; more lawyers; and more “experts”.


Pondering this, and shaking my head, I opened up a book by Canadian essayist, thinker, and writer John Ralston Saul. I remembered that he has written quite a bit on these issues.  I don’t agree with all of his ideas – however he has some pretty good points on our loss of common sense, intuition, imagination, ethics and so on.

In his 1995 Massey Lectures – The Unconscious Civilization — as summarized on the website and on the back of the book cover Ralston Saul suggests:

OUR SOCIETY […] is only superficially based on the individual and democracy. Increasingly it is conformist and corporatist, a society in which legitimacy lies with specialist or interest groups and decisions are made through constant negotiations between these groups.

The paradox of our situation is that knowledge has not made us conscious. Instead, we have sought refuge in a world of illusion where language is cut off from reality.

That’s kind of been my fundamental point and criticism of the Commission — and “salmon management” in general. The Commission is largely the realm of experts, “pre-eminent scientists”, and lawyers. Sure there’s the opportunity for public submissions and individuals were given 10 minutes at public sessions — however, how are these ‘weighted’ in Justice Cohen’s process?

Thus far they are itemized and tallied in a spreadsheet — very corporate…

With the avalanche of documents, how is Justice Cohen or his team of lawyers (who are to ‘represent’ the public) going to investigate each individual citizen’s submission? And how do these play into the “findings of fact”?

Cohen’s terms of reference state that he must: “investigate and make independent findings of fact regarding… the causes for the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon… and… the current state of Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks and the long term projections for those stocks.”

At a fundamental level, “findings of fact” in the complex ecosystem that salmon inhabit is about as realistic as predicting earthquakes or the exact time and place where hurricanes will hit — a year ahead of time.

Justice Cohen, suggests in the recent interim report that:

The overall aim of this commission is to respect the conservation of the sockeye salmon stock and to encourage broad co-operation among the stakeholders.

And, thus, just as Ralston Saul suggests: “legitimacy lies with specialist or interest groups and decisions are made through constant negotiations between these groups”. Is this not, at its simplest, what the Cohen Commission is all about?

This is about “stakeholders” negotiating — e.g. the specialists (scientists, DFO managers, statisticians, lawyers etc.), interest groups (enviros, Rio Tinto, salmon farmers, fisherfolks granted “standing”) —  or as Justice Cohen suggests: “encouraging broad cooperation.”

I, personally, applied for ‘standing’ within the Cohen Commission — I was denied.

I was not surprised — it did, however, confirm my suspicions of the process, as well as its effectiveness and chances for success in the end (however the hell we, collectively, define success).

And so, returning to Ralston Saul’s suggestion that: “our society is only superficially based on the individual and democracy.” I might have to agree on various levels.

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Near the end of Ralston Saul’s 1995 lecture he suggests:

One of our greatest needs today is to find ways, even simple mechanisms, that will help us, the citizenry, to get into the public debate in such a manner as to duplicate the conscious understanding of the jury. We are not going to defeat or overthrow or even abandon the corporatist structure, in spite of its failures. This is a system that continually grows stronger while the society it controls grows weaker.

It is therefore a matter of inserting the citizen as citizen into the system in whatever way we can. And then letting the mechanisms of criticism combined with high levels of involvement take effect.

And, so, where does the everyday citizen get into salmon system and influence how we look after salmon?

As a volunteer, a steward, a streamkeeper, or otherwise.

Fall 2010 -- Upper Fraser River

And then when a process such as the Cohen Commission or twenty other or so processes over the last 25 years occurs — the citizen is relegated to writing a letter and maybe a 10-minute presentation (in limited locations through a limited time) — And… counting on a team of lawyers to represent citizens, as a group, interests and concerns. (not that I intend any disrespect to those folks tasked with this responsibility).

Back in January, I had a post — “Judicial inquiry? here we go again (Version 10.0)“. In that post, I suggested maybe a review of how we look after salmon on the west coast of North America should be done in a similar fashion as the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform which completed its work in 2004. There was a process that empowered average joe and jills to effect change — not reams of specialists, lawyers, and corporately structured processes seeking to find “solutions”.

What number is this inquiry/investigation into salmon-related issues in the past two decades? Oh right… twenty-something; fifth inquiry of sorts (that’s on the same pace as Olympics).

Wasn’t it Einstein that suggested the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

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