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Russell Wangersky: Watching the surf clam spin

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc fields a question at a news conference at a meeting of Atlantic Canadian politicians dealing with regional economic growth in Moncton, N.B., Feb. 20. The Newfoundland and Labrador government is demanding Ottawa reverse its decision to award a lucrative Arctic surf clam fishing licence to a Nova Scotia-based company that says it has Indigenous partners from every Atlantic province and Quebec.
Former federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc

The other shoe finally dropped.

Wednesday, federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion ruled that then-fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc was in a conflict of interest when he awarded a licence to a company that included one of his wife’s first cousins as general manager. (The company also included a former Liberal MP, and the brother of another sitting Liberal MP.)

It’s an all-Atlantic story.

It all centres around a licence to fish surf clams: the federal government wanted to allow Indigenous communities an opportunity to get into the fishery.

Until that point, Clearwater Fisheries of Nova Scotia had held a monopoly on licences to harvest surf clams. The clams are processed at a plant in Grand Bank, Newfoundland for the sushi and sashimi market.

The fishery is a particularly lucrative one; it both helps to power Clearwater’s financial numbers, and it keeps the Grand Bank working throughout the year. The new licence would have affected both of those things.

The other thing about the fishery is that it is capital-intense — it uses big, purpose-built offshore vessels, and that means that new entrants, Indigenous or not, would need experienced, deep-pocketed partners. One Indigenous group that made a bid, for example, had partnered with Clearwater itself.

The commissioner’s findings may explain why LeBlanc was shuffled out of the fisheries portfolio. They almost certainly explain why the new licence was summarily wiped out, with DFO saying they plan to go back to the drawing board for 2020.

Now, LeBlanc says he accepts all of the commissioner’s findings. (He really doesn’t have much choice there.)

But that’s when the spin starts, on all sides.

As LeBlanc carefully points out again and again, his wife has 60 first cousins.

That’s supposed to make things better somehow.

A former federal fisheries minister should know when he’s tossing out a red herring. After all, if your Rottweiler bit someone and injured them, “I have 60 Rottweilers” is hardly a successful defence.

But Leblanc is not the only one using language to muddy the waters.

Ryan Cleary, the head of an upstart fish harvesters’ union in Newfoundland and Labrador, took the opportunity to demand Leblanc be fired from his new cabinet post, saying his actions “amounts to the highest act of treason against our province and people,” and adding, “the premier and all seven (Newfoundland and Labrador) MPs need to be loud, clear, and unanimous in saying, ‘LeBlanc must go.’ Anything less would be traitorous to our province.” You’d think a former newspaper reporter and editor, as Cleary is, would know what words actually mean.

Now, Cleary might be confused. One of his union’s founding principles is that fish harvesters in his province should be able to sell fish to any buyer, even if that takes fish out of province and away from plants in Newfoundland and Labrador. But taking resources from a Newfoundland plant is, in his own words, treason. Which would make Mr. Cleary, by his own definition, a … Let’s just say opportunist.

For their part, the federal Liberals keep making the point that the federal Conservatives started the process of bringing new licence holders into the surf clam fishery — that may be true, but it’s completely unrelated to the total hash-up that the Liberals themselves performed. It’s just more muddying of the waters to try and salvage something from the mess

The point is, everyone in this sorry mix is using language for their own opportunity.

Let’s not lose track of the point: this was a sloppy, careless attempt by people who should have known better. The family and political connections were obvious, and the whole process was a failure from the start. And the Liberals should wear that.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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