A $14-million federal judicial inquiry into the collapse of sockeye salmon stocks on the Fraser River has begun with a lot of tough questions about credibility and funding.
The commission, led by British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, came under fire on its first day of hearings Tuesday when participants complained funding is inadequate given the massive number of internal government documents to be released, the scope of the inquiry and the need to cross examine witnesses.
The Globe and Mail has learned the Cohen Commission has assigned $3.4-million from its overall budget to more than 20 groups - representing commercial fishing interests, various industries, native communities, governments and others - that have been granted standing.
But Alan Blair, representing the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said in his opening remarks that participants don't have the funding they need to deal with all the work they face.
Mr. Blair said 21,000 documents have already been released by the government, 14,600 documents were added to that pile on Monday, and "several hundred thousand more" are to come.
"We surely need to have resources [to deal with that]" he said. "This should not be an uneven playing field."
David Butcher, who is representing the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition and Southern Area E Gillnet Association, challenged the commission on its appointment of an advisory panel of scientists, several of whom have worked in the past with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
"We have no funding for [calling our own]expert evidence. We have had no say in the appointment of people to your expert panel," Mr. Butcher complained.
He said "it is critical" for the Cohen Commission to allow its expert advisers to be cross examined on the advice they provide.
Phil Eidsvik, a spokesman for the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition, was critical of the Cohen Commission when interviewed during a break in the hearings.
"We lobbied for years for a judicial inquiry," he said, "but sitting here today I'm feeling disappointed. I'm just worried it's going to be too timid in its approach."
Don Rosenbloom, representing the Area D Salmon Gillnet Association and Area B Harvest Committee, raised concerns the commission may not have set aside enough time, saying a tight schedule means, "Critical issues will be shortchanged ... witnesses won't be called ... all in the name of expediency."
He said if the commission sets aside six weeks to write a final report, due next May, there will only be 44 days of hearings, compared to the 70 days the Thomas Braidwood inquiry had last year to conduct an inquiry into the use of tasers in B.C.
"It is in the public interest that a realistic time frame be established," Mr. Rosenbloom said.
The time frame, however, doesn't seem to be restricting the flow of federal government information to the commission.
Mitchell Taylor, representing the Government of Canada, said a flood of internal documents will be released to the commission.
"There is a massive amount of work underway [gathering material] ... In today's age of e-mails, there are mountains of information that can be produced," he said.
The Cohen Commission was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last November after only about one million sockeye returned to the Fraser when more than 10 million had been expected. It is holding three days of public hearings this week, and will begin evidentiary hearings in September.