The future is now

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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.

Organizations: Fishery Products International, Canadian Press, OCI The Telegram Marystown and Port Union Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Marystown, Clearwater, Nova Scotia Bay Bulls

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Recent comments

    July 04, 2012 - 09:53

    Mr. Crosbie's announcement of the cod moratorium twenty years ago was the climax of one of the saddest and most disturbing sagas in Newfoundland's history. It owed itself to many things - indifference, greed, stupidity, arrogance and negligence - but above all it was the most tangible evidence to that point in our relatively short tenure as a province that confederation itself had been an failure. Those of us who had reconciled ourselves to this grim reality by 1992 have seen nothing that would alter that view in the intervening years. Indeed there has been much to reinforce it. What has long intrigued me is why Crosbie - a Newfoundlander whose father had vigorously opposed confederation - would have allowed himself to become the lightening rod for public outrage in this province. He was widely, and unfairly I think, reviled as a traitor by many fishermen and their families at the time - an aspersion not altogether unearned nevertheless a decade later when he waded in on behalf of corporate vultures like Risley to grab-on-the-cheap the surviving pieces of a once great industry. When a red faced Crosbie shouted back at demonstrators that he didn't take the fish from the GD waters, I thought 'no, but you're standing there representing a government that did - and that fact seems to bother you less than it should'. For those of us for whom that day is burned in our memories, among the most bizarre elements of the surreal experience was the decision to consign those most impacted by the announcement - the fishermen - to an anteroom safely and securely away from the government officials and the media. It was in expectation of, if not an outright invitation to violence. Although there was remarkably little violence, the national press painted it otherwise - once again branding Newfoundlanders as a rough, loud and volatile crowd. One could only wonder at the time what violence would have ensued if the national government were announcing the closure of all car plants and part manufacturers in southern Ontario. It is true that Mr. Crosbie subsequently fought to improve the miserly fisheries adjustment package first introduced by government - the word 'adjustment' itself representing a pitiful interpretation of the damage that would be wrought by the moratorium. My guess however is that he could have achieved at least as much if not more by simply walking out the door of cabinet - in effect, bluntly refusing to become the poster boy - some would say the patsy - for a government that had callously wiped out not only one of the great marine biomasses of the world, but a way of life - one that with all its harshness and heartache had sustained a distinct culture for half a millennium. 'Send out one of their own to break the bad news' was no doubt the sentiment that pervaded the PMO at the time and indeed, in the shamelessly sleazy world of spin-doctoring, it no doubt went down in the books as a great success. There were a few sporadic protests but little if any violence and, even more strangely, no class-action lawsuit against the government on whose watch the destruction of the cod had taken place. One of the saddest legacies of this federal crime against the people of Newfoundland and Labrador is not one you'll have read in the Telegram or media retrospectives on the cod moratorium. It isn't just the death of towns like Trepassey and the maintenance of hundreds of others on life-support, it is the deeply disturbing inclination by some Newfoundlanders - especially oil soaked urbanites - to somehow blame fishermen for their own demise. It seems lost on many non-fishermen that this one industry that for centuries had sustained rural and urban Newfoundlanders alike is deserving of more attention and support than it has grudgingly received. Lost on them is that when the oil, iron ore and nickel run out, it is renewable industries like the fishery to which our children and grandchildren must turn back to if this province is to survive. Instead what we hear and read is a nasty rhetoric that rural Newfoundland should be cut loose. That the fishery and that way of life are too much like a dory towed behind a fish-laden longliner that - yes while it might represent the only means of survival in a crisis - in the meantime is slowing down our progress and should be cut adrift. I'm not sure it is the prevailing view but it is a pervasive one that witnesses Newfoundlanders turn on one another with an uncharacteristic lack of empathy and compassion. It is fuelled by a federal government that is without any doubt the most regressive and mean-spirited in modern history and by a provincial government that has so exhausted itself intellectually on mega-projects that it has nothing left to offer the fishery and communities still dependent on it. If there is some blame that attaches to fishermen for this lack of public support, it can probably be found in their union leadership. In the aftermath of the moratorium, the FFAW took what I think was a very selfish and shortsighted stance against the right of the ordinary Newfoundlander to jig a codfish for personal use. By claiming exclusive ownership of every fish still left in the ocean, the FFAW unnecessarily and unwisely alienated many thousands of people whose annual trip to the cod jigging grounds allowed them to retain a spiritual and emotional connection to the fishery. If the fishery truly belonged to all of us, then more of us would be prepared to fight for it. That is a sentiment on which the fishermen and their union have failed to capitalize. Ray Johnson spoke eloquently to this point yesterday. Mr. Johnson has it right and unfortunately, even after all these years, Mr. Crosbie still has it wrong.

  • Harvey
    July 04, 2012 - 08:04

    "I didn't take the fish from the God Damn water". Well, indirectly he did. He was Fisheries Minister in Ottawa and did nothing to help prevent the destruction of the stocks. And for his swearing, his bullying and his govt's inaction he became Lt. Governor of the province. Now, beat that !!!