The topic of Arctic surf clams led to a bit of rough water Tuesday when talk turned to transparency at the House Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc was at committee for the first day of hearings into proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act, as outlined in Bill C-68. Introduced in February, it aims to update and modernize protections, and expand the reach of a prohibition against anything that alters or impacts fish habitat to all waters where fish exist.
Before long, transparency was the topic of discussion. It was raised by Liberal MP Churence Rogers, who represents the Newfoundland riding of Bonavista-Burin-Trinity. As a newly elected member, he wasn’t on the committee in 2012 when it studied challenges with the Act, but he noted one of the recommendations at that time was that ministerial discretion be subject to public disclosure in an effort to bring transparency to decision making.
“Will there be public disclosure of factors you consider in decision making,” Rogers asked the minister.
LeBlanc said he has thought, and Canadians have told him, “that one of the challenges in managing ecosystem, fish stocks and allocation is the issue of transparency.” For that reason, there are modern safeguards proposed in the bill so that if a minister wanted to make decisions around commercial fisheries or harvesting in a critical zone, there would be an obligation on the government to provide information to Canadians on rebuilding plans.
He said one way to increase public confidence in these issues is to show Canadians the important work the department’s scientists do, the consultations that take place through advisory committees and industry meetings with the department.
“Anything that would bring greater public confidence to those decisions would be positive,” LeBlanc said.
That wasn’t quite enough for Mel Arnold, the Conservative MP for North Okanagan-Shuswap.
“I was interested to hear the question from the member from Newfoundland, Mr. Rogers. I think he was alluding to something he’s probably a little apprehensive to bring out directly because he’s afraid of suffering the same fate as our former chair here.”
Liberal MP Scott Simms was removed as chair of the fisheries committee last week for voting with the Conservatives over a controversial change to the summer jobs program.
“Recently there were some decisions made with reallocation of the surf clam quota. You spoke a great deal about transparency in decisions. That they should be open. There should be consultation,” Arnold said to LeBlanc.
He was referring to a decision earlier this year to award a lucrative new Arctic surf clam license to the newly-created Five Nations Clam Company in Nova Scotia. Up until then, Clearwater Seafoods had been the only company in the $ 100-million surf clam business and held all licenses, processing them at a plant in Grand Bank, Newfoundland — which is in Rogers’ riding.
The move was touted as “a powerful step toward reconciliation,” but has turned out to be anything but. Innu and First Nations chiefs in Newfoundland and Labrador have called for the license to be revoked and the process that led to it to be reviewed. They say the winning bid did not meet the essential criteria set out by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and that efforts were underway after it was awarded to try and meet them.
“It appears the reallocation was made to a non-existent corporation at the time, they had no Indigenous partners at the time and had no boat at that time — apparently not meeting any of the criteria that were set out by the department to be able to meet and qualify for that allocation. Can you consider that transparent or can you be more transparent about why that decision was made,” Arnold asked.
“I’m more than happy to be transparent about why that important decision was made,” LeBlanc said, noting, “I think one of the key words you used was apparently.”
He said his department followed the same bid process as the previous government, but one of the issues he’s up against is commercial confidentiality. The commercial information governments receive in these proposals is not made public.
Arnold interjected: “The corporation wasn’t incorporated until after the actual reallocation was made. How does that meet the criteria?”
LeBlanc said while it would be inappropriate to talk about specific proposals, those that were unsuccessful did not provide the economic benefits the department was seeking to achieve.
“I can tell you this … in the proposals we received, should some of the suggestions you made be accurate … you said apparently, so I think you would acknowledge not all of them are precise … this particular proponent would not have been alone in some of those circumstances.”
“To say that this particular proponent, as you asserted, did not have Indigenous partners (at the time of their proposal), I can tell you on the face of it (is) entirely inaccurate. It’s just an example of some of the inaccuracies contained in this conversation.”
Arnold then asked LeBlanc if he’d just implied there were other applications with similar flaws to the one that was accepted.
“No, first of all I wouldn’t characterize them as flaws,” the minister said. “That’s your word. What I did say is that some of the inaccurate or misleading stories I’ve seen with respect to this proposal, would not be unique to one particular proposal.”