Fisheries and Oceans quietly cancels plans to award Indigenous surf clam licence

OTTAWA — The federal government says it has cancelled plans to issue a controversial clam fishing licence to a First Nations company with ties to the Liberal party and several sitting Liberal MPs — including the former fisheries minister.

A news release from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the process to issue a fourth licence to harvest arctic surf clam off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia was cancelled in early July, and that it won't be issued this year at all.

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That multimillion-dollar licence was supposed to go to the Five Nations Clam Co., a company court documents suggest did not initially meet key eligibility requirements spelled out in the government's tender process.

The deal, which would have ended a 19-year monopoly on the Arctic clam fishery held by Clearwater Seafoods, was supposed to offer 25 per cent of the catch to local Indigenous communities as a way of promoting reconciliation and economic growth.

On Feb. 21, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced the deal had been awarded to Five Nations, which he said was composed of "First Nations from Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick."

In fact, the company only had two Indigenous partners at the time: the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick and the Nutashkuan Innu in Quebec.

"The current process to issue a fourth arctic surf clam licence was cancelled in early July, and the reasons subsequently shared with the proponent," Fisheries and Oceans said Friday in a news release. "A new arctic surf clam licence will not be issued in 2018."

Instead, a new process will begin next year in order to issue a licence that would be valid in 2020, with an "independent third party" evaluating the bids, the department says.

The remaining 25 per cent of this year's total allowable catch "may be made available" to the existing licence holder, the release says. "This would allow for the economic benefits to remain in coastal communities while Fisheries and Oceans Canada continues to work to broaden access to this fishery."

The new process, it continues, "will once again focus on confirming and validating the specific direct and significant benefits that will flow to Indigenous communities, as well as the proponents' readiness to implement their submissions."

Conservative fisheries critic Todd Doherty was very pleased with the decision, describing the original process as seriously flawed.

"This is great news," Doherty said. "It's what we said all along should happen."

In its original proposal, Five Nations admitted it was not officially registered in Nova Scotia until Dec. 13, 2017, records show — well past the Nov. 22 deadline to submit proposals. The company was not registered in New Brunswick until Feb. 28 of this year.

Five Nations is partnered with Premium Seafoods, a non-Indigenous Nova Scotia company whose president is Edgar Samson, the brother of Liberal MP Darrell Samson. A newly added Indigenous partner, NunatuKavut, is headed by former Liberal MP Todd Russell.

In the spring, Doherty requested the ethics commissioner to investigate because those Liberal ties. Doherty has also drawn ties between the deal and LeBlanc himself: The Five Nations proposal said it would be headed up by Gilles Theriault, who is cousin to the former minister's wife.

LeBlanc was shuffled out of the Fisheries portfolio late last month and now serves as intergovernmental affairs minister. He was replaced at Fisheries by Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson.

Doherty called the timing of the decision "suspicious," considering the fact LeBlanc was shuffled just weeks later.

The Miawpukek Band in Newfoundland, which had submitted its own proposal during the original process, launched a court challenge alleging LeBlanc breached his duty of fairness in awarding the licence to Five Nations. The office of conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mario Dion has also been looking into the issue.

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