Interview With A Politician That Helped Start The Shark Fin Ban Movement In Canada
by Robert Timmons
Welcome to our "Ocean Passion Series" where we are interviewing ordinary people doing extraordinary actions for the ocean. We believe learning from others can help our own life become more engaged and inspired. This week we have an interview with a politician that helped the shark fin ban movement in Canada get started - Phil Gillies.
Hello Phil! Can you tell us about yourself and where you are in the world ?
I was born just north of London, England. Our family immigrated to Canada when I was 7. I grew up in Brantford, Ontario – a small industrial city about an hour southwest of Toronto. I took a degree in political science at Western University, and almost immediately after graduating I was immersed in politics. I first ran for the Ontario Legislature in 1977 at the age of 22, and was elected MPP for Brantford on my second run in 1981. I served two terms in the Legislature – for a time as Minister of Skills Development, and Minister of Youth. I also championed LGBT rights, and was an early supporter of Ontario’s first gay rights legislation in 1986. I have worked mainly in government relations and public relations since leaving government in 1987. I’ve had a lifelong interest in the environment and human rights.
You have spearheaded some great causes Phil! Showing your leadership at such a young age and now bringing that powerful influence to help sharks. So let's get right down to our prize topic as we know you have been a part of Canadian history helping create a successful campaign for sharks. Can you share how you became a part of such an incredible campaign, what your role was, and who else was strategically involved?
I started working with WildAid Canada in 2011. It was here that WildAid Executive Director Rob Sinclair and I decided to try to start a shark fin campaign in Canada. We saw that the movement was gaining traction in some parts of the world – especially on the west coast of the U.S. Like many, we were profoundly moved by Rob Stewart’s documentary Sharkwater.
We decided to start at the municipal level, as there was not a lot of knowledge of or support for banning shark fin at the provincial or national level. We needed to educate people starting at the community level. We frankly modeled our campaign on the campaigns to regulate smoking – which also started locally and then graduated to provincial legislation.
I set out to get my hometown City Council in Brantford to ban the sale of shark fin in their municipality. In May of 2011, the Council voted unanimously in favour of a by-law banning shark fin. Brantford became the first municipality in North America to do so. When media reports of this move hit the airwaves – municipal councilors in other cities took note. Toronto Councillor Glen De Baermaeker announced the next day that he would champion a by-law for Canada’s largest city along with his colleague Kristyn Wong-Tam.
Soon – by-laws were being proposed in Oakville, Mississauga, Newmarket, Hamilton and many other municipalities. The movement then gained support in Canada’s Parliament, where NDP Fisheries Critic Fin Donnelly introduced a bill to ban the importation of shark fin into Canada. Various other bills have been tabled in the House of Commons
and the battle continues to this day. We have had critical support from the Fin Free movement and their local chapters across Canada, as well as Humane Society International and many other conservation and environmental groups.
Amazing work! Wildaid is an impressive organization that has done so much for wild life. They definitely chose the right person to help spearhead this into an accomplishment. So not only was Brantford the first Canadian Shark Fin Ban but the first municipality in North America to make a stand to protect sharks. Rob Stewart's Sharkwater is a powerful documentary and to see it a part of this change is wonderful. These politicians not only made a stand but they made an educational stand because they learned about the importance of the sharks to our planet and the horrific actions occurring to their species in the open ocean. Our team believe that Canada will have a ban on shark fin importations in the near future. How did you feel knowing you have helped sharks on a massive level?
It was a wonderful feeling, and very encouraging to see the growing support across the country and around the world. It is particularly important to see the increasing support in Asia, where most shark fin is consumed. I’ll never forget the day I heard the central government of China had stopped serving shark fin soup at state banquets.
You definitely deserve a pat on the back for the most powerful action someone can do to help the decline of the sharks and even deeper the possible state of the planet if we lose the sharks. This is definitely Canadian history you have made and we hope this is what makes it into schools. Our team believe we are in the moment where we need to inspire others to be a leader like yourself and have this start right from early childhood schooling. We are making history every day allowing animals like sharks die in the millions when we can make a stand and tell our government enough is enough. So tell us after your win what was the plan? How far did it go?
As detailed above, the municipal movement spread across the country with support throughout Ontario, Alberta and many municipalities in B.C. I made several trips out to Vancouver and Victoria to talk with municipal leaders there and the signs were very encouraging. The most important development was the acceptance of the issue at the federal level. Fin Donnelly’s bill only lost by 5 votes in the House of Commons, even though Prime Minister Harper’s cabinet opposed it. There was another bill put forward by Green Party leader Elizabeth May, another by Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, and at present one is proceeding introduced by Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald.
How interesting to see pretty much every Canadian party has put out a bill to protect sharks. This next one by the Conservative Senator we need it to be voted in and finalized with no loop holes. Now that will be a day we all can be proud of since as you have shown it takes many concerned individuals on many levels to make things happen. Are you still fighting for sharks this many years later, if so is there any future plans for another possible win?
I have been in constant touch with Senator MacDonald and his staff as his bill proceeds through the Senate and, hopefully soon, the House of Commons. Since the death of film maker Rob Stewart last year, I’ve also worked with his family in public events commemorating his pioneering work in this field.
So happy to hear you're still out doing shark action! Our team is very sad about the loss of a great man - Rob Stewart - and you have stood tall to keep his mission moving forward. You understand the political workings which will help greatly for change. After all of your protective actions for the sharks tell us in your own words what would you like people to know that was a great lesson you have learned because of your passion for sharks?
I’ve learned that when you have a good cause that is so clearly right and just there will be people who will rally around to support it. We started small in Canada – just a few people who wanted to spread the word, and went to one small city to get them to take action. They did – and then the movement spread across the country. It was like
conservationists in dozens of communities were just waiting for the fuse to be lit on the shark fin issue – and then it exploded!
Oh the goosebumps of passionate energy going through us here! The Power of Passion draws so many people to go above and beyond for a selfless action. In this case it was for the sharks and what a wonderful just cause too. You have hit the hammer on the nail with your plan that helped others to know the blueprint of action to protect the sharks. When you felt passion for sharks did it change who you were mentally?
Yes definitely. It opened my mind to all sorts of people from different beliefs and perspectives – animal rights advocates, conservationists, vegans, anglers, divers – who all shared the belief that shark finning is cruel and wasteful, and indeed threatened the health of our oceans. The movement is among the most diverse I’ve ever worked with – but totally positive and focused.
With so many divisions on subjects these days it is awesome to read your answer that included so many diverse groups of people that came together for one focus - the health of the ocean and sharks. By protecting the sharks you protect the ecosystems from the deep ocean to the land and air as well. By understanding how everything is connected allows a person to make a powerful decision for positive change. Thank you Phil for joining us today on our Ocean Passion Series to share a wonderful journey of action. Please keep us posted on the Federal Ban in Canada because we know with you on the team this most definitely will happen.
Check back next week on the Ocean Passion Series to find out who our next ocean passionate guest will be and you will never be disappointed! Check out our past guests here >>Ocean Passion Series<<