WILL VERBOVEN – Ahead of the Heard
A number of years ago, a legendary farm writer — the late John Schmidt — wrote a masterful column in which he dissected the inane bureaucratic machinations of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
That federal department had so overstepped its mandate that it became the poster boy of bureaucratic busybodyness.
Schmidt pointed out in his observations how insidious FOC bureaucrats quietly expanded their empires into parts of the country that essentially had no oceans or fisheries.
Once established, there was no dislodging the bureaucracy that emboldened them to engage in even more mischief.
Well, those observations might finally have come home to roost as the Conservative government moves in to clip the wings — or is it the fins — of those bureaucrats who have strayed so far from their home waters.
The underlying question was how this federal department whose mandate for the past 100 years was focused almost entirely on the country’s coasts ended up with offices and large staff in major Prairie cities. If there wasn’t any work for them in all those previous years, what suddenly needed their attention that caused such an explosion in their presence across the Prairies.
Much of it boils down to the natural tendency of federal bureaucracies to continue to grow as long as they are fed ever more taxpayer dollars.
In the case of FOC, growth on the Prairies was also partly due to political consequences. Most of the FOC expansion occurred under federal Liberal government regimes. During much of that time, the Prairies were represented by mainly PC/Conservative opposition members and a few NDP members.
One can see the scenario here — if there were protests about FOC expansion and regulatory overkill, they fell on the deaf ears of Liberal ministers who had no time for folks who had the annoying habit of not supporting the Liberal party.
Bureaucrats are quick to sense a political vacuum and to take advantage — the high-handed Canadian Food Inspection Agency is a classic present- day example of that approach.
The FOC also had another high card — they insisted that they were only expanding their operations to protect the environment — implying that their provincial counterparts just weren’t doing the job that was needed.
Essentially, FOC duplicated what was being done by provincial authorities, and then made it worse through delay and nitpicking.
The regulatory stick the FOC used was the fisheries and navigable waters acts. The latter was the most insidious because by FOC interpretation, any body of water, no matter how small, that could float a canoe was considered navigable and under their jurisdiction.
That meant replacing a culvert on a county road had to receive an environmental assessment from the FOC before any action was taken. That’s also the reason the infamous Highway 63 to Fort McMurray has been so slow to twin, even though such construction is a high priority.
That highway goes through wetlands and muskeg and the FOC is demanding its own lengthy assessments every step of the way, even though an existing highway has been there for years. But I digress.
FOC regulatory mischief also followed fish wherever they went, including into manmade irrigation canals and drainage ditches.
As soon as that happened, the FOC stepped in to prevent renovation and maintenance work being done, as that might upset fish habitat. Such FOC mindlessness over inadvertent fish habitat went beyond the Prairies. It was also a problem in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia.
Drainage ditches built to drain rich farmland attracted fish and the FOC. Problems arose when ditches became clogged and the FOC refused cleanup actions, which caused fields to become flooded.
The stories could probably fill a book. The hope of many farmers, landowners, irrigation districts and municipalities is that the Conservative government plan to reduce the long arm of the FOC bureaucrats on the Prairies and on private property will indeed put common sense into this issue.
But one needs to be wary about good intentions. Crafty bureaucrats have proven adept at circumventing government legislation that threaten their empires — it’s going to take draconian steps to remove entrenched officials.
The only surefire step is to not just amend the legislation that governs them, but to cut off the taxpayer dollars that feed them.
Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.