Chief Terrance Paul and Clearwater CEO Ian Smith do their photo-op aboard the clam vessel, Anne Risley.

Last week, Clearwater Seafoods Inc. released a triumphant joint statement, announcing a 50-year partnership agreement with 14 Nova Scotia and Newfoundland First Nations to benefit together from the $100-million-a-year surf clam fishery.

The announcement was full of the usual bluff and bonhomie, including the requisite thank you, thank you, no, really, thank you from a local MP,  who just wanted “to thank Clearwater Seafoods for this initiative in building relationships that will protect jobs, grow the economy and strengthen our rural communities while continuing Indigenous reconciliation.” Hosanna in the highest.

“The strength of this agreement,” declared Membertou First Nations Chief Terrance Paul, “is the opportunity it creates for the 14 First Nations adjacent to the resource to become meaningful participants in the commercial fishery.”

Self-congratulated Clearwater CEO Ian Smith: “We know we can be a leader for our industry and demonstrate that Indigenous reconciliation can unite and strengthen communities, build trust, secure existing jobs, create new ones and provide greater prosperity for all. Clearwater supports the objectives of reconciliation and believes business has a role in increasing Indigenous participation in the Canadian economy including the seafood industry.” And blah, blah, blah.

As always, there is a story behind the story.

This one began in September 2017 when Ottawa announced one of what it called its “signature acts of reconciliation” with Canada’s First Nations. The government had decided to take back just one-quarter of the lucrative surf clam quota from Clearwater, the massive multinational seafood company that had claimed surf clams as its own private harvesting monopoly on for close to 20 years.

Instead, Ottawa would open a bidding process to ensure — in the words of pre-disgraced Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc — “the benefits of this lucrative fishery… flow to a broad group of First Nations [and] help create good, middle-class jobs for indigenous peoples… This is a powerful step toward reconciliation.”

The key point was that the winning bidder had to be majority-Canadian owned and include an Atlantic Canadian or Quebec-based Indigenous entity in its consortium.

Fishing companies, including Clearwater, rushed to make First Nations bands around the region their bid partners and new best friends.

Of course Clearwater, which had teamed up with 13 Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq bands for its bid, also simultaneously exercised its lobbying muscle among the political powers that always are. Billionaire company founder John Risley, whose Rolodex includes the prime minister’s office, offered in “remarkably blunt language” to trade two of his company’s licences for a guarantee Clearwater could continue harvest, process and peddle all the molluscs.

Ottawa said no. In the end, in fact, the government awarded the licence to another company with another First Nations partner.

Suddenly, Clearwater, which had publicly claimed it was OK with the process — “Over the long term we gain from having [an Indigenous] partner that is committed to the long-term success of the fishery,” explained a sanguine Ian Smith — began singing a more sinister tune. Ottawa had decided “to expropriate investment value and undermine the good faith capital investment decisions of the private sector,” the company argued, and declared it would be “pursuing legal options.”

In the end, it didn’t have to. The fisheries minister had made such a partisan, patronage-riddled cock-up of the process — start with nepotism, conflict of interest and work your way through corruption and a secrecy-shrouded bidding process — Ottawa was forced to cancel the awarding of the new licence.

That was good for Clearwater.

It got to keep its monopoly for another two years and has been able to convert its “restored harvest access into record sales revenue for clam, at lower costs and better margins than in the prior year.”

Better, since Ottawa insists it will re-open the bidding process for 2020, Clearwater gets a second chance to make a better first impression. And to lobby for itself.

Hence, last week’s deal with the 14 First Nations, who will now work together “to submit an Expression of Interest in any new upcoming DFO process.”

But there are questions.

  • What will happen to that “landmark” 50-year deal if the Clearwater/First Nations consortium doesn’t win Ottawa’s upcoming re-opened bidding process? Will the arrangement continue to apply to the remaining three-quarters of Clearwater’s surf clam monopoly or are all reconciliation bets off then?
  • Will Clearwater continue to argue “business has a role in increasing Indigenous participation in the Canadian economy including the seafood industry” or will it return to its “undermine-the-good faith-investment-decisions-of-the-private-sector” mantra?
  • And what does this partnership really mean anyway? Is it part of a reconciliation process that will see First Nations groups ultimately own and control the quota, or is it carefully designed so First Nations groups will always be subservient second-class partner/supplicants in the process?

My guess is that Clearwater will be the real winner. Again. Still. Always. And forever.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. For Clearwater to try and make the public believe they are a good corporate entity beggars belief. With any luck the First Nations folks will end up taking John Risley to the cleaners.

    It’s long past time for east coast First Nations groups to understand their potential power. Don’t give it to John Risley.

  2. From my perspective it seems that the various first nations are being played against each other in a prisoner’s dilemma – the group that sells the fishing rights the cheapest wins, and every other group gets nothing.

  3. WIsh I could understand this in depth, as you do. When I saw smiley faces on both the Frist Nations rep and on the Clearwater rep, I thought it must be a good thing. Now I’m not sure I trust anybody, anytime, anywhere. I’ll go watch puppy videos.