The president here, Mary Makalese, her term is up in a couple of months. There isn’t a greater person anywhere. Very few people have made the type of impression on me that that woman has. You can talk to anybody in Ireland. It doesn’t matter which side of the border, young or old will tell you of the great respect and admiration they have for the woman who’s president here. She is just something else. She was the one who really got the Queen here. She was the one who more or less set the Queen up in what she was doing, what she did, where she went. She is just a fabulous, unassuming person. Just like the woman next door. I’ve had a couple of major chats with her and just to watch her operate … she’s one of the finest people you will ever meet in your life. She’s going to be sorely missed when she retires.
As an Ambassador, you understandably have an expanded world view. Do you find yourself thinking of Canada and thinking, perhaps, that you’ve taken it for granted? Does this experience make you more appreciative of Canada?
I’m sort of a realist. I’ve always kept my feet on the ground. I grew up in a small community on the Southern Shore of Newfoundland. Lived there all my life. That’s home when we go home and always will be. I have never owned a piece of property outside of that. So I look upon things pretty realistically. Now that I’m over here and to say I realize how good it is back home – I do. But I think I always realized that. When you look at the financial situation of Ireland now and the concerns right across Europe with Greece and Spain and Portugal and Italy, some of the other countries, all of them expressing some concerns. And I look at the great country we have, Canada – from coast to coast. Looking at the potential we have, the great resources we have yet untapped, the stability we have in government, generally speaking an extremely stable country. And when you have meet people here and in other countries, and they say to you, ‘boy, you have a great country’. I say yes, we do. I always believed that, but it’s being re-emphasized now when you meet people from other areas. It makes you realize, more fully perhaps, how lucky you are to live in a great country like Canada. More especially to live in a great province like Newfoundland. Then I always say, more especially still to live on the Shore. (laughs)
But we are, we are pretty lucky you know to be where we are.
There have been some calls in Newfoundland and from MP Ryan Cleary for an enquiry into the fishery. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I’m not supposed to comment specifically politically, but generally – look, that’s a lot of hype. It’s not very hard to find out what happened to the cod fishery. It’s there. It’s documented over the years quite clearly. You can point fingers in all kinds of directions, in some cases inwardly. You had heavy foreign overfishing. At the same time, you had heavy environmental conditions. You had the fresh fish processing plants coming on stream, in the 50s in particular, with a tremendous appetite for product. You had draggers coming out of your ears. You had foreigners at that time, you could see them in the night time, close to our shores. People ask what happened to the fishery. That’s what happened to the fishery. Who’s to blame? There’s blame enough to go around to give to everybody. Blame governments for not taking a strong stand originally, but you were into international stuff at the time. You only had the 12 mile limit and you had no say outside of that. When we got the 200 mile limit, the organizations that managed it – NAFO, for instance – really had no teeth. You’ll hear some people say that they still have none. Check it out, see what they have. Look at what happened to a couple of boats that were caught after we went in. It was Newfoundlanders basically who changed NAFO with a couple of strong people from the department who went to a NAFO meeting back in 2007 and changed it completely after a lot of spade work had been done by ourselves on this side of the ocean. We got commitments from the E.U. and others and we made them live up to it with the threat of blowing NAFO right out of the water. The one boat that was caught at the time, taken out of service for eight months, plus the fines, etc… never happened afterwards. Even the skippers whose names are well known, the boats whose names are well known to us from other countries, we asked for meetings with the owners. They said they knew they got away with it. They said, we did what you guys did. Who was I to say no? I said, who was I to point fingers? I know exactly what happened and we’re just as much to blame as you are. However, we’re starting to clean our act up and you have a choice. You either work with us to clean your act up, or we’re going to do it for you. The organizations, the changing governments who are more environmentally conscious, they weren’t going to accept that from their own people any more than they’d accept it from us. A lot of things came together that made some changes. Too bad these changes didn’t take place 20 years before when the draggers, including our own, were out there raping and raiding everything they could get. Fishing on spawning grounds. Maybe in the beginning they didn’t know the difference because the attitude was, there’s lots of fish. There’ll always be lots of fish. It’s easy to look back and blame somebody, but those people thought it was wonderful. They were making money for a change.
But there’s no inquiry. That’s just the same old political stuff. You can easily figure out what happened. The thing is, have we learned anything and what are we doing now to make sure it doesn’t happen again? We are making more money today on the fishery than we ever did. If we look after the stocks … and it depends on what you want to bring back … and the ones that come back, what effect will they have on the ones that we have now? If the cod comes back and they happen to destroy the shrimp and crab, where does that take us? Here’s where science really comes into it. They say we haven’t got a lot. But maybe they should look into the money that was put in science and research over the last four or five years, most of which is building boats and so on which you don’t build overnight.
There are a lot of good things happening. I’m the eternal optimist, but I challenge anybody to look at decisions that were made over the last few years – pretty positive. We had a hiatus maybe for a while because we thought everything was ok. Now that we know it’s not, a lot of people are working together, people who are really concerned. They’re doing their work and not saying nothing, not out there playing petty politics. That’s part of our problem.
Will a substantial seal cull bring the fishery back even further?
Absolutely. We have to have one. I noticed they’re talking about a major cull in the gulf. These are the big grey seals. I brought to Ottawa, when I was involved, I brought a cod fillet that you hold up to the light and it was just like it was covered with freckles. Parasites. It’s not only what they are eating, it’s what they are destroying with parasites, etc… That whole area needs a major cull. If you have eight or nine million seals with only eight to 10 per cent of the stock that we once had, 10 times the seals … one tenth of the fish … they say a seal eats 40 pound of product a day. If they only eat 10 pounds a day, that’s 80 to 90 million pounds of ground fish a day, what an effect it’s having on our stocks. Definitely, we have to do something to control the seals. If not, all the other things we’re talking about, it’s all for naught.
If anti-sealing protestors had shown up back in March, would you have gone out to meet them?
Absolutely. I would have invited them in, or some of them at least to have a good session in relation to why they were there, who’s sponsoring them, what’s behind it all. Are they just local people who are concerned because they still see these pictures of fellows whacking a white coat on the head with a hackapic? They’re still showing those 30 year old photos. Or are they concerned with animals generally? Or are they just part of some of these organizations that tend to be anti-seal hunt for the sake of raking in the money? I’d like to really sit down and have a chat … that’s what I do.
With some of the problems that we had with the fishery, whether it be dealing with the Europeans or meeting with the First Nations out in British Columbia, we sat down, brought them all around the table. We’re trying to do it here with some of the things we’re trying to do: bring all the groups together in a coordinated fashion, say very little about it and get the job done. I love to sit down and just pick their brains. I respect them if they feel we shouldn’t kill animals, that’s it. I have no problem with that. But I doubt very much if that’s what drives most of them. I would love to at least be able to tell our side of the story. You know, it’s your own cousins who are over there, out hunting seals. In some cases, it’s a way of survival.
The first thing I did when I came here, the first ambassador I went to meet was the Chinese ambassador because China had just announced that they would be buying seal products. I went to meet him and he and I became exceptionally good friends. He just moved back to China. We became really good friends. Everywhere I went, he’d be the first guy to run up to me. In fact, I have a lot of good friends. That helps too because now I can talk to them about things like the seal hunt, or about exports or about the free trade agreement or whatever.
We have made some really good friends. There’s a Russian guy who has become a major friend of mine. He and I share a great interest in hockey. My son sent me a video of the 87 series and I slipped it over to Sergei and said “enjoy this” right.
You meet friends like that and you talk about stuff, then you get into the real stuff. You get to know each other a lot more and you can talk about your fishing problems, sealing problems and the support you need here and there.
The Russians are big supporters of the seal hunt, as are the Norwegians. The Norwegian ambassador here is a great supporter. He and I work very closely together.
I’ve been in circles where the Norwegian ambassador, or the Russian ambassador would bring up the seal hunt, where we had three or four other ambassadors from countries that were against the seal hunt. Here you had three or four people who knew what they were talking about, explaining what it was all about, and what a difference it would make in at least their attitude. I don’t know how far it went from there, but these are influential people. It doesn’t hurt when you do that.
You’re only going to be here for a few short years. Anything in particular you’d like to accomplish before your term is over?
I said when I came here, there were two things I wanted to accomplish before I left. I wanted to see direct flights between Canada and Ireland, year-round direct flights. That is going to make so much difference to our trade, to our tourism, to our student exchanges, to people travelling in general.
The second thing I said I wanted to see before I left, I wanted to see hockey played in Dublin. There isn’t a hockey rink in Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland. There was one in Dundock, and it shut down. I hoping to visit that some time in the next few weeks. In the meantime, some people I’ve been working with and encouraging, helping, advising, whatever, who wanted to get involved have had a couple of breaks. As we speak, the boards are up and the pipes are being laid in an abandoned building here that they’re turning into a rink. You’re going to have hockey played in Dublin this fall.
That opens a lot of doors because hurling is being played in Newfoundland. Hockey and hurling is very similar. Hockey is supposed to have evolved from hurling originally. Certainly, it’s another door opener. Hockey is Canada.
We have now surpassed the United States as the destination of choice for the Irish young people. The only country that surpasses us in relation to drawing the Irish is Australia. It’s always been that way. But we have now surpassed the United States. They are now coming back home and talking about Canada. Having hockey here would add to that.
Anything we can do to increase trade opportunities and cultural linkages.
Hopefully, it’ll all culminate in closer relationships, better knowledge of each other, to the benefit of both countries. If I can say I helped that a little bit, it’ll be a real feather in my cap.