The crowd was angry. They were in no mood for a speech. But John Crosbie boldly waded into the fray. When he tried to speak, tempers flared and fishermen began to boo and shout. Crosbie dished out as good as he got.
“You can boo the whole night if you like, but I’m going to speak.”
The mayhem continued. Crosbie turned to then fisheries minister Gerry Reid, sitting at a table at the front of the room. “This is a disgrace to the government,” he shouted. “This is an affront to democracy.”
“Throw him out! Throw him out!” someone in the crowd shouted. They were on their feet now. “You’re a two-faced liar,” said another. “Traitor!”
Crosbie glared at the crowd a little longer, then quietly sat down as if nothing had happened.
That was Canadian Press reporter Michael McDonald’s first-hand account of a committee hearing in Marystown in January 2002.
Crosbie was there as spokesman for a new board of directors that had taken over Fishery Products International. He and his fellow board members, John Risley and chairman Derrick Rowe, were proposing to take over Risley’s Clearwater Foods in Nova Scotia. They also announced that hundreds of plant workers would lose their jobs — breaking a promise they’d made only months before.
Responding to a public uproar, then premier Roger Grimes threatened to veto the Clearwater takeover — a power he had under the provincial FPI Act. Hearings were held to gauge public response.
For the past week, The Telegram has been revisiting the cod moratorium of 20 years ago — including then federal fisheries minister Crosbie’s famous retort to angry fishermen in Bay Bulls: “I didn’t take the fish from the God damn water, so don’t go abusing me.”
But the Marystown incident 10 years later was, in many ways, a more pivotal moment. It was the beginning of the future of the fishery.
The Clearwater takeover did not go ahead. When Danny Williams’ Tories took power in 2003, they continued to battle the new FPI. But the writing was on the wall; the company was losing money. In 2007, Williams finally threw in the towel and allowed the piecemeal sale of FPI’s major assets.
FPI was no more.
The new reality has been taking shape ever since. Ocean Choice International has shut down former FPI plants in Marystown and Port Union. Unionized trawlermen were locked in their own bitter dispute with OCI earlier this year.
At the time of the takeover, FPI was not languishing. The Crown-legislated company made reasonable profits, even after the collapse of the cod moratorium. CEO Vic Young was a darling of the business press.
“From 1989 to 1992 our core business collapsed with the collapse of the cod,” Young told The Globe and Mail shortly after being ousted from his post. “We had to lay off 6,000 of our 8,000 employees. I don’t see how anyone can say we were drifting aimlessly. It was the greatest survival story ever told.”
The resource itself may “belong” to the people, but the fishery has become more of a business than a birthright. The FPI saga symbolizes a turning point away from government intervention towards untethered free enterprise.
Cod stocks collapsed 20 years ago, but the future fishery is already here. For fishery workers, the ride is a lot more turbulent.