Sometimes your faith in humanity gets restored, human empathy or human reason. Sometimes you get both.
Such was the case last Monday at city council. I had been discouraged by the debate, or lack thereof, that I had heard at the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee the previous week on the issues of sharks and cameras: too little concern shown for the former and too much faith in the latter. In both cases, the committee members had demonstrated a lack of research to make a cogent argument for or against the proposals under consideration.
Shortly after I arrived in the public gallery I was joined by Florine Morrison. If anything is happening in the city that affects animal welfare, you can bet Florine will be part of it. And indeed, she had assembled in the balcony a dozen or more young people concerned about sentient creatures. She and other activists had also been busy educating members of council on the stark realities of shark finning, taking it upon herself to contact them, by phone, email or in person, and to deliver videos to councillors’ homes and workplaces. She was hopeful but not confident about what would transpire at council.
But she received a last minute communication. Steven Orser was changing his vote.
Orser had been the most vociferous in denouncing the proposal to ban shark finning, treating it as inconsequential, a joke. He had been hard on the earnest young man whom Sandy White had brought forward to make his pitch to the committee. If Orser could do a 180 degree turn on the issue, anything was possible.
In deference to the crowd that had assembled in the gallery, White requested that the item on shark finning be brought forward to 6 p.m. so that observers would not have to wait until after the dinner hour. The request was granted.
Nancy Branscombe kicked it off. She had a scuba diving brother who had witnessed shark finning, cutting off the fins and tossing the shark back into the water to die a slow death, unable to get oxygen. This practice was akin to killing elephants for tusks. “There needs to be an international outcry,” she appealed, acknowledging that it may not be a big issue here in London but council could send a message. “We can stop this barbaric practice.” She recommended defeating the recommendation to refer it to the federal government and replace it with a motion to ban the sale and use of shark fins.
The debate was short and the vote decisive. Paul Hubert agreed with a ban; he didn’t think it needed much of a debate. Armstrong pointed out that this had been his preference all along, to have a ban or moratorium as well as urging council’s provincial and federal colleagues to take up the cause.
Then Orser was recognized.
He wanted to say a public thank you to Florine Morrison who had dropped a video off at his house. He acknowledged that he hadn’t done his homework on the issue. He hadn’t researched it. He had laughed it off. But, given the information Florine had provided, he realized he had been wrong. He would support the call to defeat the motion.
Similarly Denise Brown reported that she too had received a copy of the video. She was on side.
Committee chair Harold Usher was in an uncomfortable position. He had been quite hostile to the proposal to ban shark finning at the committee and he wasn’t about to change. He had tabled the motion on behalf of the committee and he was sticking by it. He had no knowledge about the practice and until he heard from staff or some other authority, he was not going to take any action on it.
He was alone in his support for the original motion; everyone else voted against it save the mayor who, although he had spoken out strongly against any local ban, was not at the meeting. He was in China which dominates the international shark fin market.
Sandy White had brought the issue to the attention of the committee. Now, she happily brought forward the motion to ban the sale of shark fins. Council unanimously endorsed it. She didn’t forget to acknowledge the hard work of the animal rights and animal welfare activists who had not given up on the issue, even after its cool reception by the committee.
It’s why council needs to adopt a means of communicating simply and directly with the public, to let it know what is coming up on the agenda. We can’t expect every constituent to read every item that comes before council; even many members of council don’t do that. Neither does the established media. Or if it does, it doesn’t report on everything that’s up and coming.
At least one councillor is trying to fill the breach through regular Facebook postings, letting constituents know what is coming up on the agenda, and some have their own websites. Tweets and blogs, by councillors and interested citizens also help to spread the word. And the city is trying to get on board with its own presence on Facebook and Twitter.
But it needs something more, perhaps a dedicated page on the city’s website, to list in plain English the matters coming before committees in a timely fashion. Public engagement isn’t all that hard to achieve.
But first, the public needs to know what is going on.