18 July 2010

Why a plebiscite on captive cetaceans? Why now?

The following is an editorial I wrote for the CityCaucus.com web site.

Post by Stuart Mackinnon in Editorial

A pivotal vote that will affect the Vancouver Aquarium happens Monday evening

Last Monday I submitted a motion to the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to hold a plebiscite during the 2011 civic election on the phasing out of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in captivity in Vancouver parks. The latest death of a beluga whale calf in June 2010 at the Vancouver aquarium has brought up once again the topic of cetaceans in captivity. According to the LifeForce Foundation, at least 36 cetaceans, including 9 orcas, 7 narwhals, 8 belugas and 12 Pacific White Sided Dolphins have died at the Vancouver Aquarium. The academy award winning documentary film, The Cove, has brought to the world’s attention the industrial killing and capture of dolphin populations. The Vancouver Province newspaper on June 23, 2010 wrote, in an editorial, that the public are calling into question the wisdom and morality of keeping captive cetaceans that otherwise deserve to be born, live, and die in their natural environment, saying "the latest in a long line of whale deaths at the aquarium — this time one-year-old beluga calf Nala — calls into question the wisdom and morality of keeping captive whales and other large marine animals. It is a practice that must end."

Aaron Jasper, the Vision Vancouver Chair of the Park Board, in a press release last week called into question the legalities of holding a plebiscite, claiming that I am “putting the Park Board at risk of a potential lawsuit, in spite of his prior knowledge of a legally binding agreement with the Vancouver Aquarium.” Commissioner Jasper does not state what this ‘legal binding’ agreement is, nor the basis of a potential lawsuit. Nor does he state that my motion passed through the city’s own legal department and was approved by both the acting GM of the Park Board and himself as Chair.

My motion is not about whales and dolphins in captivity, nor is it about the Aquarium. It is about the rights of the citizens of Vancouver to express their views on what happens in our public parks. Commissioner Jasper would have you believe that this cannot be done, and so now, according to him, the issue becomes one of government liability when conducting the normal business of government. If the government, in this case the city, cannot conduct normal business—in this case conducting a democratic survey in the form of a non-binding plebiscite—by the terms of a lease or contract, then I would ask, is this lease or contract binding or lawful? In other words, can the city sign away the public’s democratic rights in a contract? Now stop and think about that for a moment. Can the city sign away your democratic rights? I don’t think so, and I don’t for a minute believe that the courts would allow for that either. In which case, Commissioner Jasper’s release was simply a red herring and a personal attack.

Animals in captivity have a long and controversial history in Vancouver. In 1993 there was a referendum on the fate of the Stanley Park zoo and 53% of the electorate voted for its closure. The zoo was closed down three years later. In 1996 an NPA Park Board passed a motion which called for a further referendum if the Aquarium wished to expand. In 2005 a majority COPE Board set a referendum on holding cetaceans in captivity—similar to the plebiscite I am calling for—during the 2008 civic election. The next Board, which was dominated once again by the NPA, rescinded both of those previous motions and instead passed a motion stating that “it is the Board’s intention that in 2015 the board review the Parks Control By-law relating to captive cetaceans”. The motion did not deny the Board the right to review the by-law earlier, nor to collect information in order to review the by-law.

The plebiscite I am calling for is non-binding, and would be done in order for the Park Board to collect information for the review. So why hold the plebiscite in 2011, 4 years before the review? The provincial government set up an electoral review commission to look at local governance in British Columbia. This commission reported out this spring and the provincial government accepted all of its recommendations. One recommendation is to change the length of time between civic elections from 3 years to 4 years. As civic elections are held in November, the next election after November 2011 would be November 2015—after the review of the cetacean by-law. Therefore, the 2011 civic election is the last opportunity to hold a plebiscite during a civic vote. To make these bylaw decisions without prior public consultation would be contradictory to our mandate as well as disrespectful and irresponsible.

Whether you agree with keeping cetaceans in captivity or not, I think this motion is important. When politicians attempt to strip us of our democratic rights and hide behind vague and intangible legalese when denying us the right to express our voices, there is something terribly wrong.

I believe the citizens of Vancouver have the right to express their views on this controversial issue. This is why at the next meeting of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation I will be bringing a motion proposing that a plebiscite be held during the 2011 Vancouver civic elections, asking the public if they are in favour of phasing out existing exhibits that contain cetaceans, on land leased from the Vancouver Park Board. The people of Vancouver have the right to choose. I believe this plebiscite is the right thing to do.

- post by Stuart Mackinnon. Stuart Mackinnon is a Green Party member and Vancouver park board commissioner.

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