Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Bylaws Made in Secret, Good Government, and Economic Freedom

Last July 16, Calgary city council voted to enact a bylaw to ban the distribution and sale of shark fins in Calgary.

Ald. Brian Pincott brought the bylaw to council supported by a petition containing thousands of signatures. Ald. John Mar admonished Calgary’s Chinese-Canadians saying they may need to give up some of their traditions, such as shark fin soup. Coverage by some media outlets juxtaposed images of Chinese restaurants and mutilated sharks. As a result, few people outside of Calgary’s Chinese community have questioned the good intentions behind council’s decision. But more of us should.

Council justifies the proposed bylaw on two grounds. First, sharks are “apex predators” that accumulate toxins such as mercury in their bodies. Shark fins therefore contain dangerous levels of mercury. Second, some 70 million sharks are allegedly caught each year, stripped of their fins, and thrown back helpless into the ocean to die a painful death. So shark fins are therefore cruel and unethical.

These two justifications may seem innocuous, initially. Although Alberta’s Municipal Government Act is silent regarding sharks, it does give municipalities the authority to pass laws for human safety, health, and welfare.

So is the proposed bylaw about protecting humans from toxins like mercury? If sharks are contaminated with mercury, why would council ban only the fins and not the entire shark? Why is the practice of finning sharks and not fishing sharks the focus of the bylaw? Also, what about tuna? Tuna is an ocean dwelling apex predator that accumulates mercury, and it’s more regularly consumed by Calgarians than shark fins. If human health is truly council’s concern, the bylaw would be about the regulation or banning of mercury in foods, not just shark fins.

The human health justification appears to be a contrivance designed to divert attention from the fact that council has no authority to enact legislation protecting sharks.

Toronto had a similar ban until November 2012 when a judge ruled the bylaw was outside of Toronto’s authority. Even though Calgary is a different city, in a different province, and functioning under different legislation, the legal principles relied upon by the Ontario judge would similarly strike down Calgary’s proposed bylaw. Like Toronto’s, Calgary’s ban is simply not about protecting human health — it’s about the preservation of a marine animal over which council has no jurisdiction.

Of course, Calgary’s city council could not have known in July about the legal status of municipal shark fin bans before the judge struck down Toronto’s bylaw in November — or could they?

On July 16, hidden behind closed doors, council was given legal advice regarding the proposed bylaw. That advice is currently unavailable because council directed that it remain confidential under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. That seems odd.

Upon exiting their private meeting, council resolved to ask the provincial and federal governments to enact shark fin bans. Why? Perhaps the city’s legal department told council that the proposed ban is outside the city’s authority. If that’s the case, council knew their ban was potentially illegal prior to Toronto’s bylaw being stuck down.

What’s disturbing about this scenario is far more than shark finning. If city council was told that banning shark fins may be outside of their authority, and yet continued efforts to enact the ban while keeping that unfavourable legal advice hidden, what else are they capable of? And even if council was not initially aware that the ban may be outside their authority, they became aware after Toronto’s bylaw was struck down.

This should trouble every Calgarian, not just the Chinese community. Don’t be misled — this ban is about far more than shark fins. Calgarians should consider whether they can trust a council that keeps secrets while seeking to enact legislation it knows may exceed its authority.

The real issues are good government and the freedom to earn an honest living. A Calgary restaurant owner assured me that she purchases shark products not from China but only from Spain — a country that regulates its shark industry to prevent overfishing and cruelty. Throughout the EU, the whole shark is harvested. The media’s gory portrayal of floundering mutilated animals is simply inaccurate in her case. She is serving an ethical and sustainable food product to her customers. It would be unjust if council’s overly broad ban stripped this facet of her livelihood away.

This piece was originally published by the Calgary Herald on February 6, 2013 and Troy Media on February 7, 2013.

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