Unless you’re from a province where fishing is the major industry, fisheries policy is probably not a topic you’ll encounter very often. But in between rescuing fair damsels from the Black Pearl and flogging the carpenter’s mate for insubordination, or whatever else The Beaverton wishes he did, Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc has found a way into national headlines, one that exposes just how much of federal governance in Canada is in desperate need of depoliticization.
The story centers on the Liberal government’s efforts to diversify ownership in the Arctic surf clam industry, which is currently the sole province of Bedford, N.S.-based Clearwater Foods. In an effort to open up employment in the industry to First Nations residents of the Maritimes and Quebec, the government asked for bids for a licence to catch 25 per cent of the surf clam quota, worth nearly nine thousand tonnes of clams. Assuming prices hold, that means the winner would enjoy $6.2 million in quarterly sales.
What’s so bad about breaking a monopoly? According to Conservative fisheries critic Todd Doherty, the Five Nations Clam Company, a partnership of five First Nations across Eastern Canada, was simply “an entity on paper” when it won the bid in February. Court records indicate that Five Nations is only 25 per cent Indigenous-owned, the other 75 per cent under the control of Arichat, N.S.-based Premium Seafoods – whose president, Edgar Samson, is the brother of Liberal MP Darrell Samson. That’s why Doherty is now asking the federal ethics commissioner to investigate the bidding process, which he believes was executed in violation of the House of Commons conflict of interest code.
Responding to criticisms, the Liberals have framed the bid in terms of Indigenous reconciliation, which they want Canadians to believe the Tories have zero interest in advancing. Leblanc, who had the final say in selecting the winner of the surf clam bid, has been unapologetic; he says his decision “is a powerful and real move toward a true nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his own opinion during Question Period in late March, casting Doherty’s objections as an example of the Tories’ “disgusting” “habit of pitting Canadians against indigenous Canadians.”
It’s a classic Liberal deflection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up when you consider other Indigenous bidders, including the Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Mawi’omi First Nation in Newfoundland. They claim that only one band, the Elsipogtog First Nation, comprised the Five Nations Clam Company when the licence was awarded; the other four bands joined after the fact, and their proposal document used placeholders in the meantime. There’s also the small matter of the Five Nations Clam Company lacking a boat of its own, as well as presenting a business plan that would see less profit directed to its Indigenous partners than other bidders had promised to theirs.
So why Five Nations? Given the weaknesses in its proposal, it’s easy to see why Doherty might think the only thing tipping the scale in their favour is their industry partner’s CEO’s family ties. That the Liberals would attempt to sidestep this is predictable enough. But if they are truly committed to reconciliation, they will at least respond to the complaints of other First Nations that might have prospered from access to the clam catch and, arguably, deserved it more. There can be no true progress toward reconciliation if Ottawa connections take precedence.
Which brings up another question: Why was the Fisheries Minister, an elected partisan, involved in the bidding at all? No cabinet minister should enjoy that level of authority over a process that should be as disinterested and criteria-dependent as possible. This should have been a matter of awarding the licence to whomever presented a proposal that ticked off the most boxes on a bureaucrat’s list. As it is, any Fisheries Minister in any government is wide open to accusations of conflict of interest. If it’s this easy to influence something as mundane as a licence to catch surf clams, you have to wonder what else is too politicized for its own good.