Just pawns in the province’s game

Russell Wangersky
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It’s an interesting window into an unsettled future for the Newfoundland fishery.

Late last week, the provincial government released a series of documents on the province’s involvement in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union. Premier Kathy Dunderdale had promised to table the documents, which show primarily that the province played the role of dog-in-the-manger to wring federal concessions in exchange for agreeing to drop minimum processing regulations (MPRs) for fish going to the EU.

What’s interesting is the change in the provincial government’s view of the impact of the removal of MPRs. After they were dropped, Premier Dunderdale went as far as to say not a single job would be lost as a result of the deal. Later, she tempered that by saying only a limited number of jobs would be lost.

But during the negotiations, the picture was far darker. Here’s what one provincial document said about dropping the requirements: the elimination of MPRs “will have an adverse impact on the province’s fishing industry, predominantly the fish processing sector which currently employs over 9,000 people, many of whom are located in rural communities. The province requires adjustment funding to: 1) support measures to promote harvesting sector rationalization to improve economic viability; 2) provide transitional supports to assist impacted fishery workers; and 3) assist communities to adjust to the economic impacts of plants closures.”

Pretty clear: fewer fishermen, laid-off plant workers and plant closures.

And the federal government agreed, with International Trade Minister Ed Fast writing, in part, “the federal government is committed to deliver, cost-shared equally with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a transitional package of up to $400 million for those workers who experience job displacement … as a result of MPRs no longer being applied to product destined for the EU.”

Then the haggling started. At first, the province wanted all the money to be federal and didn’t want the spending limited to displaced workers — it wanted to be able

to use the money for  unspecified “industry transition” as well as aiding displaced workers. The feds moved its offer to a 70/30 cost-shared deal, but still wanted the money to go to any displaced workers.

And back and forth it went, until there was a final deal that required both sides to give ground: it didn’t come without brinksmanship, with the Newfoundland government finally agreeing  to fund 30 per cent of the package, but protesting, “We take great exception to the inflexibility demonstrated by the Government of Canada in this process and your threat to conclude a CETA without this province.”

For their part, the feds agreed to add industry transition funding to the package, but brushed off other provincial demands, like search and rescue changes and negotiation for the province to take over the federal stake in Hibernia.

It’s clear, though, that the feds weren’t happy with the provincial approach (keeping MPRs would have meant a broad range of EU tariffs on fish products would have stayed in place).

Letters from the provincial government repeatedly requested federal officials to be present at the announcement — “we welcome a joint announcement between our governments as soon as possible,” one letter reads, while another, from Innovation, Business and Rural Development Minister Charlene Johnson gushes, “I sincerely hope the federal government will be able to participate in this momentous event as we announce to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador our commitment to support positive change in the fishery.”

The federal government resolutely did not attend. (Interestingly, there’s reference to another memorandum of understanding signed by the federal and provincial government — one that limits dockside and over-the-side sales of fish, meaning the ability to sell unprocessed fish will stay solely in the hands of licenced fish processors, unless otherwise approved by the province. The actual MOU does not make an appearance in the released documents.)

So, in the end, it’s heads or tails: either there’s going to be enough displacement for fisheries workers to need up to $400 million in assistance, or the provincial government used the threat to those workers as a bluff.

In either scenario, workers were the bargaining chip.

Even the province said, in writing, you might lose your job. Now, they claim they didn’t mean it.

Either way, if you’re a fish plant worker, it’s not exactly comforting.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: European Union, International Trade

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Dolf
    December 11, 2013 - 15:40

    And to think businessman Boyd Cohen was so ebullient in his praise of the CETA package when even the government didn't know what was in it.

  • Agnes
    December 10, 2013 - 12:49

    Federal Minister Gail Shea was a guest of Jamie Baker, host of CBC's Fisheries Broadcast show last Friday. Mr. Baker did a wonderful job of bombarding her with many questions on the CETA Agreement. I was shocked to glean from her answers to Mr. Bakers questions that if the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador did not agree to drop minimum processing regulations (MPRs) for fish going into the EU, then there would not be a CETA Agreement between the EU and Ottawa . Can't the ordinary Newfoundlander and Labradorian understand that what has been given away by the Premier of our province to appease the European Union is, in essence, a gold mine for the EU and for Canada, but not for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

    • Morris
      December 10, 2013 - 16:32

      I would suggest that receiving 280 Million $ from the Feds was a gold mine deal for NL, and the the FFAW " nailed it" with their support. Agnes, "Ordinary" fisherman know it was a good deal, and I suspect " ordinary" citizens of this province do understand more than you imagine!

    • Agnes
      December 12, 2013 - 11:31

      Morris, since neither you nor the rest of us Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including the fishers, know anything about the duration of the CETA Agreement nor anything about the conditions attached, I am assuming, given our knowledge on past management of the fishery by the Provincial and Federal Governments that we have given away for a song a very valuable renewable resource that can be worth Billions of dollars annually to the European Union and Canada, excluding Newfoundland and Labrador. The poor fishers have been in the dark about how their fishery has worked since the beginning of time. You hear them on the Talk Shows from time to time telling us how they don't know what is going on with their fish resource. When the Provincial Government puts all of the details on the table of what it has signed off on, then and only then can you or I and the fishers know what is entailed in the CETA Contract and how it is going to impact upon us. We can only deduce from the past that it will not be good for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as we have never ever gained from our natural resources anything near what they have been worth to others areas of Canada and the World, being forever sent out of our province in the raw state.

  • Corporate Psycho
    December 10, 2013 - 12:35

    Nailed it.

  • Hallmarks of Harper
    December 10, 2013 - 10:49

    Like I heard a prominent PC say the other day, " The people aren't allow to know what the MPR's are anyway, so I don't know what everyone one is complaining about!" This reminded me of the fiasco on the Burin Peninsula between the union and OCI and or very own government members like the Premier and MHA Darin King when they were asked to show the PMR's to the people, regarding the shipping out of 80% of our fish unprocessed. We weren't allowed to know then, just like the towns water bills. So the biggest question I would have to ask is, When our Canadian Fishery Ambassador was hired and was supposedly lobbing on behalf of all Canadians, was it business or personal? This position has not been filled since, so to me, It seems to be a position of convenience for people closely aligned with the PM! Ask Senator Manning about that one.

  • Morris
    December 10, 2013 - 09:38

    It appears that the feds real lack of knowledge of NL fisheries issues and their acceptance of NL GOV negotating position that, a loss of MPR'S would have significant adverse impact, was why they offered these funds and later decided not to attend the announcement press conference. Attending the announcement may have meant more explaining to other provinces why this deal was made in the first place. "Exaggeration" of any potential loss is a critical and skilled component of any negotiation. Congratulations to all involved! I would suggest fish plant workers and their Union are not concerned about what was written or stated during the negotiation process", but with the results, which appear to be very good for the entire fishing community. Mr. Wangersky, the fish plant workers along with other players in this industry were the bargaining chips in these negotiations, as they should have been. Would you prefer that the Province had stated that they were not sure of the impact the loss of MPR's will have and from that position attempt to negotiate financial compensation? It is my understanding that the Feds were having simultaneous confidential negotiations with all Provinces, and perhaps this was to the benefit of this province, along with their limited knowledge of our real fishing issues.