Fisheries portfolio goes to Vancouver’s Wilkinson
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle on Wednesday saw a number of MPs receiving significant portfolio boosts — one of whom was North Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson.
As the new federal minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Coast Guard — replacing New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc — Wilkinson is the first B.C. MP appointed to the post since 1999. Six of the last seven have been representatives from ridings in Atlantic Canada.
The position is usually handed to members of caucus in coastal ridings, who are thought to have a better connection to a constituency that is more closely affected by the decisions of that minister.
“I’m certainly very proud as a member from British Columbia to take on this responsibility, and I very much look forward to working actively on very fundamental issues to B.C. and to Canada,” Wilkinson told Postmedia.
He said the appointment helps raise the profile of some of important issues, like the decline in stock of wild pacific salmon.
“We have been very clear that we are committed to a science-based approach to addressing issues relating to restoring salmon stocks that are facing significant challenges,” he said.
Wilkinson previously worked as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna.
He has also been a key defender of the federal buyout of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. As Trudeau makes these reconfigurations to his election-year cabinet, Wilkinson is expected to continue faithfully reinforcing the Liberal government’s message on the pipeline.
“One of the biggest issues on the national political agenda right now has been the Trans Mountain pipeline and it’s a particularly salient issue for voters on the Lower Mainland,” said UBC political science professor Kathryn Harrison.
The new role will also give Wilkinson the lead on issues that he had previously assisted with. Specifically, two pieces of legislation that are making their way to the Senate this fall — Bill C-68, aimed
at modernizing the Fisheries Act, and Bill C-69, legislation for federal environmental assessment.
“All of this was in response to the Conservative changes to Canada’s federal environmental law regime,” said Martin Olszynski, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s law faculty, who used to work as a lawyer for the Fisheries Department.
“So the big ticket items will be to help make sure they get through the Senate in time to be proclaimed and brought into force for the 2019 election, and that’s a significant responsibility.”
Olszynski said the minister of fisheries becomes inevitably more susceptible to lobbying efforts in their constituency.
In B.C., an important file to watch, for which Wilkinson is expected to respond to, is the case of commercial fishing rights for Indigenous people.
In April, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of five West Coast First Nations, stating the federal government failed to justify why it infringed on their rights to catch and sell fish in their territories.
The Department of Fisheries was then tasked to collaborate with First Nation groups and draft new fishing policy within a year.
“The five First Nations that were involved have been waiting for over nine years to have the fulfilment of the court case,” said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
“Even under LeBlanc, we still haven’t gotten anything. They keep delaying a memo to cabinet to approve a mandate to negotiate the fisheries.”
Sayers said there has been a lot of skepticism in Indigenous communities on the Trudeau’s government campaign promises of change in relationship, noting she believes passing new fishing policy would be a starting step for Wilkinson ahead of the 2019 election.
“The FDO has always been more conservative with allocating fish to First Nation communities. Our access to fisheries has always not been sufficient even for food purposes, yet alone social and ceremonial.”