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Vancouver Aquarium Whales, Dolphins Just Can't Catch A Break

11/20/2014 06:39 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST
Robert Giroux via Getty Images
VANCOUVER, CANADA - FEBRUARY 17: Visitors interact with beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium February 17, 2009 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is the host city for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games being held February 12-28, 2010. (Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

The whales and dolphins at Vancouver Aquarium just can't seem to catch a break.

Even the city's new bylaw that bans breeding and introduces new, independent public oversight of the Stanley Park attraction won't offer much relief for the captive cetaceans.

Because, as it turns out, there never was a bylaw after all.

Although it was with great fanfare, all that was passed in July was a motion for staff to prepare bylaw language that the board would enact at a later date. Now that Vision Vancouver, the political party behind the motion is backing away from its position, it's likely there never will be.

In an interview with the Georgia Straight, current park board chair Aaron Jasper said he is recommending that the bylaw not be enacted at the final meeting of the outgoing board, but instead forwarded to the newly elected board for further public consultation.

In reality, this is nothing more than political theatre. Jasper knows that the incoming board, in which the right-wing NPA has a slim majority of one, will never pass this bylaw; their position on the issue is no secret.

Only minutes after the last polling station's results trickled in on Saturday evening, newly elected NPA park commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung (a former vice-president at Vancouver Aquarium) proclaimed that reversing the breeding ban would be their first order of business. Her statement was backed up the next day by returning NPA commissioner John Coupar.

Repeal of the bylaw was even part of the party's campaign platform (apparently, the fact that there isn't an actual bylaw to repeal escaped the NPA's notice too).

So is this just a thinly veiled strategy to kill the bylaw by proxy? Or are Jasper and the Vision team simply concerned about the optics of approving a bylaw after losing control of the park board?

If it's the latter, they need not worry. Most Vancouverites remain under the impression that the bylaw had already been passed. Throughout the election, we advocates for the whales struggled to draw attention to the issue. No one wanted to listen: politicians, the media, and even the public. Over and over again, what we heard from the voters was that this issue was done with, that the park board had dealt with it, they did their consultation, came up with a fair compromise and now it was time to move on to other issues.

There can be little to lose by enacting a bylaw that the vast majority of the public believes has already been enacted.

In the course of preparing this blog post, I spoke to Stuart Mackinnon, a past park board commissioner who was just elected to sit on the incoming board as a member of the Green Party. He believes Jasper and his party stand to lose more by not enacting the bylaw now.

"This is really just housekeeping," Mackinnon said. "This was passed in July unanimously. All it needed was the legal wording. Not to pass it would be to break trust with the people, and set a dangerous precedent for future boards."

Even Jasper's Vision colleagues are questioning the wisdom of letting this bylaw die. In statements to the Georgia Straight, commissioner Constance Barnes has said she will not back down and is prepared to break party ranks and vote for enacting the bylaw at the final meeting of the park board.

Another outgoing Vision commissioner, Sarah Blyth, who kicked off the review of the aquarium with statements to the press in March of this year, will not commit to voting with Jasper and has since said that she will not abandon the whales.

The prospect of more outgoing Vision commissioners breaking ranks has given whale activists a faint window of hope that all is not lost.

But it is unlikely the bylaw will pass without the vote from the park board chair.

So it is increasingly apparent that the fate of the breeding ban bylaw, and that of the aquarium's whales and dolphins themselves, lies in the hands of Jasper himself.

Whatever his reasons and whatever his current thinking, he'd be wise to remember the emotional words he spoke to reporters immediately following the passage of the motion to ban cetacean breeding:

"I am proud of what we did today. If we had another baby beluga die in this tank, and I had to tell my kids, that would be pretty tough... I think we've done the right thing, I really do."

Commissioner Jasper has until Monday, Nov. 24 -- when the current board will meet for a final time to consider the bylaw -- to find a way to do the right thing again.

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