When he retired from the public service in October, 2014, Wayne Wouters should have been far more well-known across Canada than he was. The pundits offered a few summations of his 37-year career as a bureaucrat, but they largely avoided mentioning, or even giving credit to, the hugely important role that Wouters played in the Harper government.
Cabinet stalwarts like John Baird and Peter MacKay got far more media coverage when they left their posts. But without Wayne Wouters, it’s doubtful that Harper could have achieved as much, especially after July 2009.
That was the date that Wouters, appointed by Harper, assumed the post of Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet – a position that prompted Maclean’s to call Wouters the “mandarin of mandarins” – and he stayed in that lofty position for the next five years.
Six months after Wouters retired in 2014, the powerful law firm McCarthy Tetrault hired him as Strategic and Policy Advisor to the firm. (Obviously, not everyone across the country was unaware of Wayne Wouters and his remarkable achievements.) The law firm’s website says of Wouters: “As Clerk [of the Privy Council], he held the roles of Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister, Secretary to the Cabinet, and Head of the Public Service, providing direct advice and support to the Prime Minister on all issues affecting and implicating the federal Government.”
When Maclean’s named Wouters to its 2012 Power List, it noted that he “has few detractors. So far. But as the government proceeds with paring public sector jobs across many departments, his reputation will be tested.”
By the time Wouters retired, the Harper government had eliminated 37,000 federal civil servants from the payroll – including thousands of scientists – and had cut more than $13 billion in program spending.
In fact, Wouters gained media attention in 2012 when Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page asked federal departments to explain how the budget cuts proposed in the omnibus budget bill (C-38) would affect government programs. In what became a very public spat, Wouters and the Privy Council Office (PCO) refused to release the details to Page because of “contractual obligations” to unions – an argument rejected by the unions themselves.
Michael Harris, author of Party of One, calls the PCO “the prime minister’s department,” and writes that under Harper, the PCO became involved in vetting “all government decisions, even ones that were once made by individual government departments.” In that vein, its useful to look at just one area: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the fish-farm industry.
Readers will recall that 2009 – the year that Wouters became “mandarin of mandarins” – was also the year that Ottawa took control from the provinces over the aquaculture industry. During his lengthy career, Wouters had some experience in that sector.
In 1997, Wouters was appointed Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) under Liberal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal, who also appointed the first Commissioner for Aquaculture Development, Yves Bastien, in 1999.
Both Wouters and Bastien were speakers at the “How to Farm the Seas” conferences held in September 2000 in Montague, PEI and in February 2001 in Vancouver. The conferences were an initiative of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) and the Canadian Aquaculture Institute at the Atlantic Veterinary College in PEI.
AIMS is a right-wing think-tank launched in Halifax in 1994 by neoliberal policy entrepreneur Brian Lee Crawley, and generously funded by the right-wing Donner Canadian Foundation. Donald Gutstein, in his book Harperism, labeled AIMS a “Stephen Harper favourite.” As Opposition leader, Harper had “called AIMS ‘dollar for dollar the best think tank in the country.’”
Both conferences were sponsored by the aquaculture industry, funded by the Donner Canadian Foundation, and held just before the BC moratorium on new fish-farm licenses (1995-2002) was to be lifted.
According to published speaking notes, Wouters called aquaculture “the fastest growing agri-food business in Canada,” and said that it “is here to stay and grow.” While urging the industry to improve its environmental performance and “speak with one voice,” Wouters said the DFO was working “to improve the regulatory environment” for aquaculture, including streamlining environmental assessment processes, determining “an appropriate duration for permits given to aquaculture leases,” and assessing “the appropriateness of regulations under section 36 of the Fisheries Act,” which refers to deposit of deleterious substances.
After the conferences, AIMS published a June 2002 conference-summary paper called Canadian Aquaculture: Drowning in Regulation.” Citing a “dysfunctional regulatory system, the paper stated that both Wouters and Bastien had targeted the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act as “not clear” regarding policy development for aquaculture. Specifically, the paper stated: “The Navigable Waters Protection Act – which deals with site approval, length of leases, site layout, navigation channels, and site marking – was not developed with aquaculture clearly in focus and, quite apart from that, is simply not clear.”
The paper stressed that “fundamental institutional change is required in the regulatory environment of Canadian aquaculture,” especially with regard to “property rights.” Indeed, the paper is worth reading in full, not just to count the number of times that the term “private property rights” is used, but to note the authors’ disdainful attitude toward wild fisheries – calling them “a primitive gathering industry,” an “economically obsolescent” activity that reminds them of “the remains of feudalism” based in a “common property system.” At one point the paper stated: “Unless aquaculture is allowed to function as a settled culture free from the untoward organization of a nomadic hunting industry, it will be deprived of the dynamism afforded in modern, free enterprise economies.”
The paper also claimed the “interests of the wild fishery are entrenched in the civil service.”
Seven years later, after top stints in a variety of other departments, Wouters was in a much more powerful position than a mere DFO deputy minister.
2009 was not only the year that Ottawa took control over the fish-farm industry, it was also the year that the Fraser sockeye salmon run collapsed, leading to the federally-mandated Cohen Commission.
The Cohen Commission
From 2010 to 2011, the $37 million federal Cohen Commission (mandated to investigate the salmon decline) heard testimony from 173 witnesses and received nearly 2,000 exhibits and documents, but near the end of the panel hearings, the Harper government refused to release key evidence.
According to the Globe & Mail (September 28, 2011), “Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council, has claimed cabinet privilege over three documents that Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen of the British Columbia Supreme Court had ordered released.”
Justice Cohen had called for the Harper government to provide documents sought by lawyers for several aboriginal participants in the hearings. “The Heiltsuk Tribal Council and others had sought the material because it deals with DFO’s Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy, or AFS. Under it, bands get annual authorizations to fish for food, social, ceremonial, and commercial needs. The government of Canada argued the material contained sensitive information, the release of which could damage its ability to negotiate future agreements.”
The withheld documents “included a 2009 memo to Gail Shea, who was then minister of fisheries; talking points for a cabinet presentation by Ms. Shea and Chuck Strahl, who was then minister of Indian Affairs; and a chain of e-mails between several top officials about a presentation made for cabinet.”
Wouters’ letter to Justice Cohen stated that “all of the documents referred to … are, or contain, confidences of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada … and I object to the disclosure of these documents.”
The Cohen Commission released its final report in October 2012. A month later, DFO was reportedly facing a 33 per cent staff cut nationally, with regional offices in Prince George, Campbell River, Mission, Nelson, Williams Lake, Smithers, and Port Hardy set to be closed.
Alexandra Morton’s 2014 report Salmon Confidential states: “Eleven out of 75 Cohen Commission recommendations on how to restore wild salmon are aimed at reducing the risk of salmon farms. Two years later, the media reported that the Privy Council Office would not accept the delivery of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO’s) in-depth responsive report on how to enact these recommendations.”
The Vancouver Sun (April 18, 2014) had reported that, according to documents obtained by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, DFO had “quickly prepared an in-depth response, including cost estimates, intended to prove Ottawa was committed to a species ‘economically and culturally important’ to British Columbians,” but more than two months after Cohen’s report was released, “senior Fisheries officials were noting they still hadn’t been asked by the Privy Council Office to respond to Cohen.”
By then the PCO had also been implicated in the muzzling of many federal scientists. In 2011, the PCO had refused to allow media interviews with federal fisheries biologist Kristi Miller, whose research published in the journal Science involved a virus threatening to salmon stocks. Canadian journalist Margaret Munro reported for PostMedia News (July 27, 2011) that “The Privy Council Office and the Fisheries
Department said Miller has not been permitted to discuss her work because of the Cohen Commission” where Miller was scheduled to testify in August. “The Privy Council Office has ‘management responsibility’ for the commission and decided Miller should not give media interviews about her study because of the ongoing inquiry.”
BBC News reported further findings (February 17, 2012) by Margaret Munro, who obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act which show journalists’ requests to interview federal scientists “move up what she describes as an ‘increasingly thick layer of media managers, media strategists, deputy ministers, then go up to the Privy Council Office, which decides yes or no.’”
Canada’s federal Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, agreed in March 2013 to launch an investigation into this muzzling of federal scientists at DFO, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and other agencies. But two years later, nothing has been announced by Legault.
According to the Ottawa Citizen (August 20, 2014), before his retirement, Wayne Wouters appointed every deputy minister and associate deputy minister (“for grooming”) in every federal department. He also “ensured departments had audit committees with external members from outside of government for that perspective ‘from outside the Ottawa bubble.’” Obviously, Wayne Wouters legacy will go on. And on.
Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.