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New fisheries minister discusses reversal on controversial surf clam licence

Last Updated Aug 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm EDT

CONCEPTION BAY SOUTH, N.L. – The new federal fisheries minister is offering more details on the recent cancellation of a controversial surf clam fishing licence given to a First Nations company with ties to the Liberal party.

Ottawa said Friday the process to issue a fourth licence to harvest arctic surf clam off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia had been cancelled in early July, and that it won’t be issued this year at all.

The multimillion-dollar licence awarded to the Five Nations Clam Co. was supposed to offer 25 per cent of the catch to local Indigenous communities.

But it came under scrutiny after court documents suggested the company did not meet the federal government’s initial eligibility requirements, and that the company had close ties to the federal Liberal party — including former fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc.

In Conception Bay South, N.L., on Tuesday, new minister Jonathan Wilkinson said LeBlanc made the decision to cancel before he was shuffled out of the portfolio last month, and said it came after a “series of interactions” between the Five Nations Clam Co. and the department.

The licence would have ended Clearwater Seafoods’ 19-year monopoly on the Arctic clam fishery.

The award was supposed to promote reconciliation and economic growth within local Indigenous communities, but court documents suggested the company did not meet the federal government’s initial eligibility requirements.

The Five Nations only had two Indigenous partners at the time the award was issued: the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick and the Nutashkuan Innu in Quebec.

LeBlanc announced the award on Feb. 21, but records show that in its original proposal, Five Nations said it was not officially registered in Nova Scotia until Dec. 13, 2017 — well past the Nov. 22 proposal 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.

Conservative MP Todd 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.

Wilkinson said Tuesday cancelling the licence had “nothing to do with the ethics issue,” it had to do with the department’s interactions with Five Nations Clam Co.

“I don’t think that the process itself was terribly at fault, and I certainly don’t think that Minister LeBlanc did anything inappropriate,” said Wilkinson.

“There were interactions between the proponent and the department, and the minister came to the conclusion that the most appropriate course of action based on those interactions was to start again.”

Wilkinson said the details of those interactions were “based on commercially confidential information” that he could not discuss.

Representatives from the Five Nations Clam Co. and Clearwater Seafoods were not immediately available for comment.

Wilkinson also met with provincial Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne on Tuesday to discuss the surf clam catch and other issues.

Byrne had previously said the licence process was “flawed,” that Indigenous communities were “pitted against each other” in the bid, and that the deal could cost jobs in the eastern part of the province.

Byrne said Tuesday he was encouraged by their “very productive conversation,” and said he thought the new federal minister was “well-briefed” on the province’s point of view.

“I acknowledged and appreciated his decision to look at the issue with fresh eyes, with a new lens or a new point of view, and decide to terminate the award,” Byrne said.

A new process will begin next year for a licence that would be valid in 2020, with an “independent third party” evaluating the bids.

Byrne recommended applying a principle of adjacency, where Indigenous communities closest to the resource are given priority.

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 case was dropped in late June.

The office of conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mario Dion has also been looking into the issue.

Wilkinson said Tuesday Five Nations could apply for the licence again.

“The proponent obviously is disappointed, that’s understandable, but our hope is that the proponent will think about that and potentially regroup and provide another submission next time around.”