Mr. Speaker, I haven’t had a chance to get outside much in the past couple weeks but I’m told that summer is finally here, and that means the commercial fishermen are beginning to head back out on the Great Slave Lake, so it’s only fitting that I make my sessional statement on the fishery.
Mr. Speaker, earlier this month the Auditor General of Canada, or AG, released his report on the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation. For those who don’t know, all fish caught in the NWT that is sold across the border must be sold to Freshwater, which is a federal crown corporation – it has a legislated monopoly on our export fish market.
When the Corporation was established nearly fifty years ago, it was done so with the best of intentions. However, this month’s Auditor General report confirmed what has been common knowledge in Hay River for decades – that Freshwater is not serving the best interests of our fishermen.
The AG found “many weaknesses,” “significant deficiencies,” and outright “failures” in the oversight, management, and operation of the Corporation. Given some of the things I’ve heard, that’s putting it lightly. Further, the report found that the Corporation has no long-term strategic plan, and has exposed itself to considerable risks in a complex. These conclusions are no surprise to anyone familiar with the fishing industry. The only surprise might be that things have gotten worse since the AG issued a similar report in 2010.
The core purpose of Freshwater, according to its vision statement, is to “maximize returns to fishers,” however, it’s the fishermen who’ve borne the fiscal cost of Freshwater’s ineptitude.
Mr. Speaker, if you’d like to see a physical manifestation of Freshwater’s failings, look at the fish plant they own in Hay River. It was once a brand new building, stocked full of top of the line equipment capable of processing fish. Now, the building is an eye sore, gutted of its ability to process fish, and demoted to a receiving plant. Fish are now trucked from Hay River to Winnipeg to be processed.
Unsurprisingly, Manitoba is set to withdraw from the Corporation this year, meaning only NWT fishers will be obligated to sell their fish to Freshwater. I’m not convinced the Corporation will last much beyond that. If it doesn’t last, the situation for our fishermen will go from bad to worse.
We are hitching our wagon to a dying horse, and we need to do something about it quick or we’ll be failing our fishermen just as Freshwater has been failing them for the past 50 years. I’ll have questions about what we’re doing to strengthen our commercial fishery, and finally allow our fishermen to be paid fairly for their work.
MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As we all know, this government recently released its commercial fisheries revitalization strategy. The execution of this plan is in its early stages. Part of the problem that we are facing is that the government does not have authority over the fishery, so we must wait on DFO to make the regulatory changes and the infrastructure investments that are needed to move things forward. So I have a question for the Minister of Infrastructure: since this is a problem that we have to deal directly with Ottawa, how often are you meeting with your federal counterpart, the Minister of DFO, and specifically discussing issues related to these infrastructure investments and regulatory changes that are needed to get this fishery going? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
MR. SPEAKER: Masi. Minister of Infrastructure.
HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Since I obtained the portfolio, I have met with the Minister of DFO twice; once in November of 2016 and once in March of 2017 of this year. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
MR. SIMPSON: I gave the Minister an opportunity to do that because I know he has been meeting with the Minister, and I know he has been pushing this in Ottawa, and I know he is working hard for Hay River to get this fishing strategy going. When it comes to talks with Freshwater — as you know in my statement, I outlined some of the problems with Freshwater. Where are we at the talks with Freshwater to get this fish plant either rebuilt, refurbished, or build one of our own?
HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: As all Members are aware, in the Member’s statement today that Freshwater Marketing Corp., its future is very uncertain, as the last person standing technically is the Northwest Territories. We are waiting for a ruling out of Manitoba, as it sounds like they are pulling out of the Freshwater Marketing Corporation, so that is 80 per cent of their market gone. How do we move this forward? We have been working with Freshwater to this point, and it has been very challenging, and with the situation that has arisen around the Manitoba thing, it has put a lot of things into question. The last time that I met with the Minister of DFO, we had an opportunity to talk about this stuff. We are talking about a range of opportunities that have been presented to us now with the possibility of Manitoba pulling out, and we are in discussions directly with the DFO office on this matter.
MR. SIMPSON: As we can tell from the Minister’s answer, it is tough to deal with Freshwater. I mean, it is an organization in disarray. We need this fish plant. At what point is this government prepared to pull away from Freshwater and just build our own fish plant?
HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: I am not sure if this is the time to be walking away from the table, just yet, because this is going to take a lot of resources to get this figured out and how to build something and get the processes and money in place to be able to build something like this. The challenge, like I say, is particularly around the resources, and I think we need to be engaged, which we are now, directly with the Minister’s office on how we are going to move forward. Hopefully, we are going to be able to come to some solution between us and the federal government in the near future.
MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Processing fish is one part of the equation. The other part is marketing this fish ourselves or having the fishermen market it themselves, and part of the revitalization strategy is to build those markets, whether they be in the territory, they be in Alberta, or overseas. What are we doing, what is the government doing, to create those markets now? The plan calls for getting out of Freshwater. That is what the plan calls for. We need those markets, so where are we? Do we have someone hired? Do we have markets developed in the South? Can I get an update on that? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
HON. WALLY SCHUMANN: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As everyone knows, the quota system being signed onto Freshwater Fish, a hundred per cent of our fish goes to the Fresh Water Fish Marketing Corporation. We believed, as we went into revitalizing the fishing strategy, that there are market opportunities for us outside of Fresh Water. Being that we are still signatory to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, we are still obliged to sell our fish to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation. We are looking at expanding our opportunities outside of that, but, before we can do that, as I said, we have got to figure out our relationship with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, and now we are dealing directly with the Minister of DFO on this situation. Hopefully, we can figure this out sooner rather than later and get on with the revitalization of the Great Slave fishery.