Nunavut’s federal minister says science-based decision-making is back
"Sustainability of that industry is paramount to everybody”
You could say that Hunter Tootoo, as head of Ottawa’s third largest federal department and the cabinet’s representative for Nunavut, has been busy in the lead-up to the March 22 federal budget release.
Tootoo has crisscrossed the country east to west, and gone north as well, to hear from fishers, fishing industry representatives, scientists, environmental groups, Aboriginal leaders and Coast Guard staff prior to giving his funding priorities to Bill Morneau, the federal finance minister.
And Tootoo is happy to tell us what his priorities are. But how many, and which ones, will be supported in the upcoming federal budget is anybody’s guess.
“I could tell you, but I’d lose my job,” he said, over coffee at the Nunatsiaq News office March 2.
“It’s been extremely exciting. A lot of the issues we deal with affect people directly, so it’s exciting getting to know the file, getting to understand it.”
When asked if he had much knowledge about fisheries and oceans before taking the Cabinet post, he was honest. “No,” he said, with a short laugh. “I’ve learned a lot.”
The Department of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard had a budget last year of $1.9 billion, 10,000 employees and 350 office locations across the country.
As minister, Tootoo is in charge of many files, from approving marine harvesting quotas to supporting overseas trade in fish products and funding for Coast Guard infrastructure.
After extensive consultations, a couple of things have become clear, Tootoo told Nunatsiaq News.
Everyone’s happy about the government’s promise to return to evidence-based decision-making by reinvesting in departmental science, an area of DFO that suffered dramatic cuts under the previous Conservative government.
And, for the most part, all the fishers want to be allowed to catch more fish. But they also understand that overfishing means they’re all out of jobs.
That’s where the science and traditional knowledge come in, Tootoo said: real data on whether stocks are growing or shrinking can justify decisions on how much marine life can be sustainably caught.
“Everyone wants more. But everyone wants scientific based decisions,” he said.
“They want to ensure the preservation and the conservation of the stock for future generations. Sustainability of that industry is paramount to everybody.”
Part of the challenge, Tootoo said, will be re-establishing a chain of command that has laid fallow for years.
That means ordering overdue stock assessments in various areas around the country to see how marine stocks are faring, getting that scientific evidence into the hands of dozens of harvesting advisory committees and then vetting their recommendations at the ministerial level.
Tootoo said traditional knowledge will play a role in determining quotas. He says it already has, in fact.
During meetings with First Nations in British Columbia about quotas for Pacific herring, leaders there told him about an area they wanted closed to commercial fishing because it’s a gathering place for fish and taking from that area would impact the future sustainability of the stock.
So he closed the area to commercial fishing and plans to assess how that impacts the catch nearby.
Tootoo said he’s discussed Nunavut’s priorities with Premier Peter Taptuna and Finance Minister Keith Peterson, not that there were any surprises.
Peterson told Nunatsiaq News Feb. 27 that Nunavut would be asking Ottawa for money in two specific areas: housing and power plant upgrades and replacement.
Tootoo said he’s on top of it.
“Those are issues I did raise with my colleagues and made sure they did understand what our challenges are,” he said.
When Morneau brings down his budget March 22, it’s anticipated the Liberal government will be running a huge deficit, as much as $30 billion, say some media reports.
Tootoo said he’s okay with that. He said with the economy flagging, it’s important to invest in jobs and programs.
“We ran on a platform of growth and for the last 10 years we’ve had very little growth in the economy,” he said. “We feel by making that investment, we’ll provide those opportunities for growth.”
As for his time in Ottawa, Tootoo said he’s been busy and has already answered about 10 questions during House of Commons question period.
He’s had to get used to partisan politics, which differ from the consensus style politics he’s used to in Nunavut. But he still believes in forging allies on the other side of the House.
He said he has met with a number of opposition members to get up to speed on issues in his portfolio, including topics related to the environment and the Fisheries Act review with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
“She’s a wonderful lady,” he said. “Very smart and very genuine in wanting to help.”
Tootoo’s new constituency office will be located at Suite 101 in the Igluvut Building. He said he doesn’t want to take over former MP Leona Aglukkaq’s office space because it’s located in a building owned by the Baffin Fisheries Coalition, and he doesn’t want to create any perceived conflict of interest.