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‘There are actual people’s lives on the line’

In our latest newsletter, we chat with Jimmy Thomson about his persistent investigation into the culture of intimidation and harassment at DFO, and their response to his reporting

Way back in early March 2020, in my second week at The Narwhal, I headed to our organization’s HQ in Victoria to meet the team.

One afternoon, a freelance journalist named Jimmy Thomson stopped by to chat about a story: people who had worked on trawl ships as fisheries observers were getting ready to speak out about the abuse and harassment they faced out on B.C. coastal waters.

A culture of intimidation, they told Jimmy, left observers too scared to report the real figures of just how much of the catch being picked up by these deep-sea trawlers was being dumped back out into the sea. How much wasted fish? As much as 140 million pounds — or $1 billion-worth of catch that had not been accounted for over two decades.

Two months after that meeting with Jimmy, we published the massive investigation. The revelations contributed to some swift change: one skipper, accused of harassment by several whistleblowers, promptly resigned as a director of the industry group that oversees B.C.’s trawl fishing operations.

As for getting a fulsome response from the federal department that mandates the presence of observers aboard these trawlers? Let’s just say Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) wasn’t jumping in to publicly address the seriousness of the allegations, which came to include sexual harassment allegations Jimmy wrote about for VICE World News.

More than two years into our reporting, DFO still doesn’t want to talk. But thanks to Jimmy’s persistence, The Narwhal and VICE have gotten ahold of more than 700 pages of internal documents through access to information requests — and buoy oh buoy do they reveal a whole lot.

Take this email a DFO manager sent to three colleagues the morning the VICE story was published in 2021:

“This article is horrific. I know we’ve discussed the limitations about what DFO can do with respect to harassment of [observers], but we must have a discussion about what is within our means to ensure [they] are protected.”

– Adam Keizer
Regional manager, DFO
Internal correspondence obtained by The Narwhal reveal emotional responses from within the department.

Those earlier discussions he references? They began following The Narwhal’s initial investigation in 2020.

And as those DFO discussions continued, the documents show the department did actually go about working on changes to protect observers — albeit out of public view: the department created new sections for its nation-wide observer policy addressing harassment while investing millions in modernizing the program.

“It’s heartening to see that sometimes government officials really take these criticisms and whistleblower complaints to heart, and set about trying to fix it,” Jimmy told me.

Jimmy Thomson reported on the culture of intimidation at DFO for The Narwhal and VICE. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“I wish getting that reaction was just a matter of picking up the phone and calling them — but with a few exceptions, most DFO people I’ve spoken with for this reporting have been unwilling to talk to me frankly or openly about what’s happening inside the organization.”

“Canadians should have the right to know what decisions are being made, or not made, by their governments and why. In a case like this, there are actual people’s lives on the line, so to obfuscate and put up walls is beyond unacceptable.”

When those walls are put up, The Narwhal is there to knock them down — and prompt change that can make a real difference.

Take care and effect change,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience


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