For close to three years, Sky View Farms and owners Alex and Logan Docherty have faced a number of charges under both federal and provincial laws relating to a 2016 fish kill in Clyde River.
The case has been high profile given the fact Alex was chair of the PEI Potato Board when the incident happened and his wife, Valerie, is a former cabinet minister. The Docherty family has spent a significant amount of money battling the charge through the court system and they have prevailed with a not guilty verdict in the most serious charge under the Fisheries Act.
Over 40 members of the industry turned out for the court proceedings July 3. Judge Nancy Orr had earlier ruled evidence obtained by the Crown without a search warrant was not admissible in court. Brandon Forbes, who has represented the Docherty's throughout the proceedings, then asked the judge for a directed verdict. Given the lack of evidence from the Crown, Judge Orr delivered her not guilty verdict.
The verdict is certainly a victory for the rule of law and welcome by the agriculture community. Nobody should be above the law and that includes those whose job it is to enforce it. Whether it proves to have a long-term impact on how federal and provincial authorities deal with the agriculture community in the wake of fish kills is yet to be determined.
This case ended very differently than another lengthy legal battle that concluded last December when Brookfield Gardens was fined $15,000 under the Fisheries Act in relation to a fish kill in North River in 2014. The case originally went to trial in 2015 and Judge Orr ruled the company had taken all reasonable precautions to ensure no runoff from their carrot field entered the nearby river.
However, the province appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and Judge Nancy Key ordered a new trial. Brookfield Gardens challenged that ruling in the PEI Court of Appeal but Key's decision was upheld. In that case, a Crown lawyer brought in from British Columbia to prosecute the case argued for a fine of $175,000.
The farming community came out in force on that occasion as well, and the PEI Federation of Agriculture argued for a new approach to dealing with such cases in an era of climate change. The fish kills that served as the foundation in both these cases were the result of extremely heavy rain within a short time period-- something that is happening more and more frequently.
Many outside the industry may see the federation call as a way to let farmers off the hook so to speak, but nothing could be further from the truth. In both these cases, there was little the farm in question could do differently-- it was simply a case of too much rain over too short a time frame and the water had to go somewhere.
The federation made little progress with the previous administration. Perhaps things will now be different with a minority government that prides itself on consultation and working together to overcome challenges.