After three years at the helm of FISH-NL, Ryan Cleary contemplates his future
On the fourth floor of a heritage building in downtown St. John’s, Ryan Cleary sits behind his U-shaped desk scattered with papers, books and folders.
Less than 24 hours after publicly announcing FISH-NL would abandon its second membership drive and dissolve, he’s cleared the book shelves, packed boxes and removed posters. A calendar with a scenic shot of a fishing boat is the only thing left pinned to the wall.
The large FISH-NL banner that hung behind the head table at every membership meeting lies on the floor, half rolled up.
“You can tell how many meetings we had,” Cleary said, pointing to the numerous pin holes in the corners of the vinyl sign.
Cleary may be dismantling his office and walking away from FISH-NL, but he’s far from done fighting for what he believes in.
It’s been a long haul for the 53-year-old since he began the drive three years ago to form a new union to solely represent the the province’s inshore harvesters, breaking them away from their current union, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW).
As president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), he says he put his heart and soul into the drive to cleave fish harvesters away from FFAW-Unifor, which represents the entire fishery sector (inshore, offshore, plant workers and fish farmers).
But when it wasn’t possible to collect 4,000 membership cards — representing 40 per cent of the 10,000 harvesters said to exist in the province — Cleary and the executive decided to call it off. Forty per cent is the bar set by the province’s Labour Relations Board to trigger a vote.
“I’m devastated,” Cleary said, comparing the disbandment to a funeral. “But then there’s not one fisherman in this province today who believes there are 10,000 harvesters on the water today.”
The bleak state of his office seems to match his state of mind on this day. Accepting it’s over is tough on a man who has no off button.
“How do you feel when you go from 60 to stop? How do you stop?” he said. “I’ve been in the spotlight for three years and I fought so hard because I believe in what I’m doing. That’s why I gave it everything that I have.”
It’s that tenacity that has defined him in many aspects of his life, but particularly in his relationship with the fishery.
Born in Gander, Cleary grew up on Fisherman’s Road in Riverhead, Harbour Grace, a town where the fish plant was the town’s main employer.
“The whole town smelled of fish,” he said.
But he says his passion for the fishery was truly roused when he got an up-close look at the fishery during 12 years as a fisheries and investigative reporter with The Telegram (1990-2002).
Covering the fishery at its most crucial time, in 1992 when the federal government announced a moratorium on cod fishing, Cleary got to travel to many rural communities and talk to the people directly affected.
“That’s when all this got in my bones, in my blood. You know how dramatic that was — the biggest layoff in Canadian history. Covering all that — the mismanagement of it all and the lack of science, really affected me,” he said.
“I could never let go. I could never let go anything that hurts my Newfoundland. It pissed me off.”
After leaving The Telegram in 2002, Cleary worked for other media — including The Herald and VOCM, plus 4 1/2 years as editor-in-chief of the Independent newspaper.
“I loved the freedom of journalism — the ability to go where the story took you, to say what needed to be said.”
Cleary then decided to try his hand at politics.
After losing a close race for the NDP in the 2008 federal election, he was elected in 2011 and served 4 ½ years as an MP, where his first order of business in Ottawa was to push for an inquiry into the province’s fishery. He also served on the House of Commons standing committee on fisheries and oceans.
“It’s not easy being a politician. It’s not a job. It’s a life. It’s not 9 to 5. It’s every moment of your day,” he said. “It impacts not only you, but your entire family.”
Cleary lost to Liberal Seamus O’Regan in the 2015 election, but it was his next move that brought him the most heat.
He decided to run in the provincial election for the Progressive Conservatives and was defeated by the Liberal incumbent, Cathy Bennett, in the Windsor Lake district.
“Part of the reason why I did that was I didn’t know how to stop,” Cleary said. “And the thought of working under (then-NDP leader) Earle McCurdy wasn't for me.
“What I really didn’t factor was the impact that would have on my family — the negativity, the blowback.
“I don’t know how many people in their lives will experience a media avalanche, a media tsunami, a media pounding, and I hope they never do. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
But it wasn’t long before Cleary’s drive was sparked again.
In 2016, when several fishermen, one by one, approached him for help to start a new union, apart from the FFAW-Unifor, Cleary was full steam ahead.
The first two meetings held to gauge the interest in a new union in 2016 “were blocked to the rafters,” he said.
FISH-NL was officially formed at a Gander convention in October 2016, and went directly into a membership drive.
“The odds against us were almost insurmountable, but that didn’t stop us.”
Many doubted him, but Cleary pushed on and submitted an application for certification to the Labour Relations Board in December 2016. It was another 22 months until the board rejected the application, saying FISH-NL didn’t have the support required.
Undeterred, Cleary and FISH-NL kept pushing ahead with the support of more than 400 fishermen who paid dues to keep the organization running.
Last August, FISH-NL began a second membership drive, which was aborted this week.
Cleary says he went months without pay.
“It felt incredible fighting for what I believed in,” said Cleary, who is a self-confessed huge admirer of anti-Confederate Peter Cashin.
Still, FISH-NL didn’t succeed in getting 4,000 sign-ups.
Cleary contends labour rules are designed to protect the union executive, and not the individual worker. He believes an independent body should police labour unions.
But he doesn’t see his efforts as being for naught.
“FISH-NL had a great life and I look at what we’ve done as a success. Do I think the inshore fishery is better off than (when) we found it? Absolutely. Every inshore harvester who reads this can answer that question for themselves, but I believe that it is,” Cleary said.
“And I’m hoping this will lead to change. I’m hoping that the seeds of discontent have been planted so deep that the FFAW’s fall is inevitable. … Have the inshore harvesters been freed yet? No. Will they be freed?"
He leans forward in his chair before answering his own question: “Yes. We will find a way.”
More than anything, Cleary says, he's grateful to have met so many great people through FISH-NL.
“And I will never stop fighting for my friends,” he said.
Cleary’s FISH-NL vice-president, Peter Leonard of Southern Harbour, said he’s proud to call Cleary a friend.
“I would stand shoulder to shoulder with Ryan Cleary any day on any issue, because I know he’d always have my back,” Leonard said.
“He cares about others and he’s strong. He’s no pussy. You’re not shoving him around.”
Having spent days on end with Cleary in an RV travelling the province, Leonard said he’s never seen anyone work so hard.
“I’d wake at 4 a.m. and could hear him, up in the bunk, pounding away on the computer keys, writing daily reports or scheduling the day. There were many 16-hour days,” Leonard said.
“My hat comes off to Ryan Cleary. We owe him so much. When it comes to the fishery, Ryan has more compassion than anybody that I have ever, ever known.”
What’s next for Cleary?
“I’ve got to clean up the house,” he says, laughing, pointing out that his downtown home is painted pink, white and green, the colours of the old unofficial Newfoundland flag.
Cleary — father of Ben, 24, and Chris, 20 — plans to take a break and spend time with family.
In the long-term, he’s not sure where the tide will take him. But he knows it will involve fighting for the province and the fishery, in some capacity.
“Newfoundland and Labrador needs to grow up, to take control of her destiny,” said Cleary, who likes the idea of an independent party to represent Newfoundland Labrador, both federally and provincially.
“That doesn’t mean independence from Canada. Quebec has taken control of its own destiny within the federation. Newfoundland and Labrador must do something similar.
“Right now, we’re not in control of our own destiny. Until that changes, we don’t have a future, not economically, not with our fishery, and not in this Confederation.”
“So, do I have fight left in me? Hell, yeah. Bring it on! I’m ready to go.
“And yes, I’ve got scars, but at the same time, I’m still standing and I’m still fighting for this province and what I believe in. I won’t stop. I will not stop. Mark my words.”