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 email@example.com.