Fishy business

Fishy business

YOU COULD CALL IT a case of good intentions gone bad, or a right idea wrongly executed, or… maybe, possibly, just another self-inflicted, right-string/wrong-yoyo Liberal cock-up. Whatever you choose to call it, the federal government’s latest laudable attempt at reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities has turned into a lamentable mess.

In September 2017, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced Ottawa would hive off 25 per cent of Clearwater’s existing annual 38,000-tonne surf clam quota, creating a new, fourth surf clam licence and opening that up to competitive bidding. The caveats included that bidders must be majority-Canadian owned and include an Atlantic Canadian or Quebec-based Indigenous entity.

The goal, LeBlanc boasted, was to ensure “the benefits of this lucrative fishery… flow to a broad group of First Nations [and] help create good, middle-class jobs for Indigenous peoples… This is a powerful step toward reconciliation.”

Reconciliation was Ottawa’s rationale.

There’s plenty of sordid Indigenous history for which we need to atone, and reconcile: the brutal, multigenerational legacy of the Indian residential school system; the misguided, shock-the-conscience-of-the-community sixties scoop; untold numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women; centuries of bulldozed-over treaties; unsafe water and Third World conditions on far too many First Nations reserves…

So, there were rationales. And there are justifications.

The federal government’s latest laudable attempt at reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities has turned into a lamentable mess.
Stephen Kimber

Nova Scotia-based Clearwater has had a locked-on monopoly on the world’s biggest surf clam fishery since 1999. Harvesting, flash-freezing, processing and selling the highly-prized, tongue-shaped, fire-engine red clams to the Asian sushi market generated $92 million in revenues for Clearwater in 2016. Surely, it was past time to spread some of that wealth opportunity to those who’d been denied it for so long.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. For starters, of course, those who process surf clams are not all monolithic corporations with total annual sales of more than half-a-billion dollars. They include ordinary workers in Grand Bank, N.L., for whom the two-shifts-a-day, sixdays- a-week, 52-weeks-a-year processing plant represented an economic lifeline in a community with few others.

Grand Bank mayor Rex Matthews was quick to acknowledge “we all understand the struggles right across this country and the challenge of the Indigenous people.” But he was just as quick to cast the issue in the context of his province’s historic grievances: “We always seem to get a very raw deal when it comes to decisions by the federal government.”

In the beginning, Clearwater seemed sanguine—publicly at least. It teamed up with Nova Scotia’s 13 Mi’kmaq bands to make its own bid. Explained CEO Ian Smith: “Over the long term we gain from having… a partner that is committed to the long-term success of the fishery.”

Privately, however, Clearwater’s powerful, well-connected chair and president John Risley lobbied Ottawa, offering to trade two of his company’s licences for a guarantee Clearwater would continue to harvest, process and peddle all the molluscs.

Ottawa said no to that, and no too, to Clearwater’s bid.

It chose instead a new group, Five Nations Clam Company, made up of Premium Seafoods of Arichat, N.S., and… well, that was the problem. In the beginning, no one, it seemed, could name the First Nations supposedly involved with its bid.

But other names did surface. Premium’s CEO was the brother of a Liberal MP. And Five Nations itself was headed by a cousin of LeBlanc’s wife.

By the time Five Nations belatedly identified its Indigenous partners (there was a band in each of five provinces, but some had only signed on after the licence was awarded) another losing Indigenous bidder had gone to court to get LeBlanc’s decision overturned.

Clearwater, describing Ottawa’s move as a “decision to expropriate investment value and undermine the good faith capital investment decisions of the private sector”, announced it too would be “pursuing legal options.”

So almost no one is happy. From Clearwater, to the Newfoundland fish plant workers who worry about their futures, to the other Indigenous bidders who find themselves on the outside looking in on a process that seemed stacked against them. And, of course, there is the chance the court case will mean a hold on this year’s surf clam harvest.

Good intentions are never enough.

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