The politics of banning shark fin in Vancouver

Vancouver Courier

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banning shark fin
The City of Vancouver is waiting to see whether a bill will be passed in Ottawa to ban shark fin before considering a Vancouver-only ban on the Asian delicacy. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Remember that day long ago when then-city councillor Kerry Jang stood up in the council chamber with two packages of shark fin in his hands?

Maybe you don’t.

I do because I happened to be there. Something about working for a living. It was September 2012.

The packages belonged to Jang’s mother and were purchased more than 40 years ago. Their original price was $14 each. Apparently, the fin is now worth several hundred dollars.

Anyway, Jang wanted a ban across the region on shark fin. He didn’t get it. The City of Vancouver considered it in 2013 “but ultimately did not take action.”

That quoted part of the sentence comes from a memo that deputy city manager Paul Mochrie wrote to the new mayor and council in December 2018.

It was in response to a question from NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who asked staff for an update on the status of a shark fin ban.

That memo is one of many recently dumped on the city’s website. The memos, which cover October, November and December 2018, are either from Mochrie or city manager Sadhu Johnston.

Regular readers will know I’ve mentioned memos from previous months in other columns. Remember the one about the rotting sea lion carcass? How about the one about the mayor’s elevator not going all the way to the top?

As I’ve said before, don’t expect to read anything sensational or revealing, but occasionally you get some insight into an issue such as shark fin and why the city didn’t ban it.

Hence the quote below from a report attached to Mochrie’s memo, which was authored by senior managers Sandra Singh and Kaye Krishna (who has since become a deputy minister in the B.C. government).

“On April 22, 2018, the City of Vancouver issued a public acknowledgement and apology for historical discrimination against Chinese people in Vancouver, including discrimination against cultural practices and food-related businesses,” the report said.

“Within the context of the city’s efforts toward reconciliation with diverse communities and the ongoing cultural significance of shark fin for many members of Vancouver’s Asian community, the potential implications of a city-imposed ban on shark fin are complex.”

In other words, not everyone in “Vancouver’s Asian community” is on board with the ban. This is something I found out in 2012 when I tried to speak to managers of restaurants serving shark fin soup.

“We’re just doing business, we don’t want any trouble,” is what one manager of a popular restaurant in Chinatown told me back then. “If it becomes illegal, then we’ll stop selling it.”

The manager declined to provide his name and asked that his restaurant not be identified. At the time, his restaurant was one of 19 Vancouver restaurants shamed on a website called stopsharkfinning.net.

In Asian culture, shark fin is seen as a delicacy and symbolizes wealth, power and prestige. It is used mainly in soup and can — as the manager told me in 2012 — cost $50 a bowl.

So what’s next on this issue?

According to staff’s report “meaningful engagement would be an important part of any work to advance this issue.”

But that work, the report added, is not in any of this year’s “work plans” for the city departments that oversee arts, culture, community services, development, buildings and licensing.

That’s because the city is waiting to see what happens in Ottawa.

Back in October 2018, Canada’s Senate passed Bill S-238 (Ban on Shark Fin Importation Act). The bill will now go to the House of Commons for debate and vote.

“If adopted there,” the report concluded, “it will prohibit shark finning [the act of removing fins from sharks and discarding the rest of the shark at sea] and the Canadian import and export of shark fins and any derivatives. Staff recommend awaiting the decision on Parliament before taking any action on this matter.”

Look for a motion next week from Kirby-Yung and Green Party Coun. Michael Wiebe that requests council endorse the bill. Kirby-Yung said she spoke to the head of the B.C. Asian Restaurant Café Owners Association before drafting the motion.

“He was supportive,” she said, noting seven years has passed since Jang first brought a motion to council to ban shark fin. “Perhaps that’s given people time to evolve their thinking and realize that this is not something that we want to be doing.”

Fun fact: The MP who tabled the bill this February is named Fin, as in Fin Donnelly, the NDP MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam, who twice swam down the Fraser River to raise awareness about environmental degradation.

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