The fishery … it’s about guts
Once upon a time there was a crisis in the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.
This may surprise you. After all, given how smoothly things are running now, it is difficult to imagine that there were ever any difficulties in the industry that first brought Europeans to this side of the Atlantic.
Not quite so long ago as that, but still obscured in the mists of time at the outer edge of human recollection, a crisis did occur. Several fishing companies were bankrupt, or teetering on the brink. People were losing their jobs and plants were closing. The federal and provincial governments stepped in to restructure the fishing industry.
Fishery Products International Ltd. was formed from Fishery Products Ltd., the Lake Group Ltd., John Penney and Sons Ltd. and other seafood company assets. The feds owned 63 per cent, the province 26 per cent and the banks 11 per cent. For the next three years the newly-formed FPI operated as a Crown corporation. Things seemed to be going well.
After a profitable year in 1986, the govern- ments did what they so often do after bailing out private sector companies unable to make a go of it - they sold it back to them.
But they tried to make sure FPI wouldn’t go down like its predecessors, couldn’t be controlled from away, and would serve the interests of rural parts of the province. To this end, our legislature passed the FPI Act that limited any individual’s ownership to 15 per cent and prohibited a number of shareholders joining forces to take control of the company.
Most important, since it was simply an act of the legislature, any future government could change the FPI Act with a majority vote in the legislature. In a matter of days, if things at FPI didn’t seem to be going in the right direction, our government, the people we elect to manage our affairs, could step in and amend the FPI Act to steer it back onto a path that suited the needs of our province.
There followed a very dark period in the fishery, whose bleakest depths were reached with the northern cod moratorium declared July 2, 1992, 76 years and one day after the mas- sacre at Beaumont Hamel, the previous worst example of management incompetence in the history of Newfoundland.
Though the situation was grave, under the able management of Vic Young, and the sacrifice of many people in the fishing trade, FPI clawed its way back to profitability. Indeed, its profits were growing in the late 90s.
Then, the very situation the FPI Act was designed to prevent, occurred. A fish merchant from away combined with others in a hostile takeover bid for FPI. His name was John Risley.
Claiming he would make better profits for shareholders than the administration in charge, he tried, failed, tried again and succeeded in taking over FPI in 2001.
But before that happened, the fisheries minister of the day, Gerry Reid, had this to say about the impending takeover:
“This government is deeply concerned about and interested in any issue which impacts Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and the rural communities in our province.
“We are unequivocally committed to the long-term survival of FPI and to ensuring that the assets of the company, including access to fish resources adjacent to Newfoundland and Labrador, are utilized in a manner which ensures maximum benefits for the people of this province.”
Heart-warming sentiments. It might have led some optimists to assume the Liberal government of the day would amend the FPI act to stop Risley. Instead, it sat on its hands.
The subsequent Progressive Conservative government of Danny Williams was firmly seated on its hands, too. It watched as Risley not only failed to equal the profits of FPI’S previous board, but broke his word that more workers would be hired. Instead, he laid off hundreds. When Risley’s manoeuvers failed to net him the returns he wanted, he claimed that government was interfering. If only they had. FPI was once more for sale and one of the buyers was Ocean Choice International. The events of recent weeks seem like déjà-vu all over again.
Martin Sullivan was incensed that the Dunderdale government would not give him permanent permission to ship fish round to China, sending our people’s jobs along with them. Many Newfoundlanders applauded the gov- ernment’s stand, thinking that, at long last our elected representatives would stand up for us and not big business. The union even smiled at the move.
Of course, the Sullivan brothers are outraged. They can make more money sending round fish to China. How dare the government step between a captain of industry and his godgiven right to greater profits, no matter what. It’s about being competitive. So what if some people lose their jobs - business is business.
Maybe what happened is as positive a decision as it seems. Darin King and Kathy Dunderdale are going to turn over a new leaf. I hope so. However, this is just the latest chapter in a long history of the big merchant riding roughshod over the people who do the work. Almost certainly not the last.
FPI was an attempt to create an exception, but our governments of both political stripes failed then to do their job: protect our people.
An earlier example, much more successful while it lasted, was the Fishermen’s Protective Union founded in 1908 by Sir William Coaker. At its peak, more than half of all fishermen were FPU members. How ironic it is then, yet so very true to form, that Port Union, the model town Coaker built as the headquarters of the movement he formed, dedicated to throwing off the shackles of greedy merchants, has just had its heart cut out by one.