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Protecting the Owner-Operator: Breaking free of company control

April 2, 2018

Article printed in the Spring 2018 edition of the Union Forum, written by Dwan Street, FFAW Projects Coordinator

On February 6, 2018, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Dominic Leblanc, announced proposed amendments to Canada’s Fisheries Act. For fish harvesters, their families, fisheries organizations and coastal communities, it was an emotional day, one that many waited on with baited breath for decades.

I cannot recall the first time I heard the term “trust agreement.” I try to pinpoint it as it was a pivotal moment that shaped me and my future academic and career paths. When the dirty little tool called the “trust agreement,” or “controlling agreement,” entered into our fisheries, it negatively altered an industry once built firmly on kinship and survival.

I grew up in Spillar’s Cove, a rural town outside the historic fishing community of Bonavista, the original “company town” in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery. When then-Minister of Fisheries Romeo LeBlanc introduced limited entry licensing and the policy of Fleet Separation in 1979, five licenses were grandfathered and permitted to remain property of now-defunct Fisheries Products International.

The names of these vessels exist still in policy documents – Margaret R, Random Buster, Silver Jubilee, Rose Venture, and the Edwin Charles, a name I often said as a child and repeated over the VHF radio in our little dining room, waiting for a response from my father – “Edwin Charles, do you read, over.”

The fishery was family to me. My grandfathers, father, and uncles all made their livings from the sea; my grandmother, mother, and aunts all worked in the fish plant.

The dichotomy of the independent harvester and the company boat was evident. While company control had not yet turned into the monster we are now faced with, the pieces were there; the creation of a class structure within the social fabric of our little coastal town. The result was a class of hardworking people who lived an industry that ran through our veins as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and yet often produced nothing more than a small paycheck and a suit of oil clothes.

As I grew up, our fishery changed. As value increased, there were forces under the surface, from deep corporate pockets, that were morphing the relationships within our industry and within our towns.

Trust agreements began to rear their heads in the 1990s, as our fisheries shifted to rely on more lucrative shellfish like snow crab and northern shrimp.

I remember standing on the wharf in Old Perlican in 2005, an excited 23 year old Masters student. I wanted to explore the dynamic of trust agreements in a community other than my own, I wanted to speak to harvesters about their experiences, and I wanted to produce work that would open up the discussion on what were being referred by many to as contracts with the devil.

I sat at the table of the only harvester who had agreed to speak to me. It was then and only then that the true control exhibited by a trust agreement became clear. Like Fight Club, the first rule of a trust agreement is, “Do not talk about a trust agreement.”

In 2007, then-Minister of Fisheries Loyola Hearn announced that there would be a 7 year period for harvesters in trust agreements to get out; in 2014, the efforts had consisted of nothing more than high priced lawyers finding more ways to open loopholes.

Since, the deep pockets of corporations have meant more licenses have been stripped from the hands of young harvesters who long to sail on the Atlantic. Plants continue to outbid those who try to better their enterprise and have driven the prices of licenses far beyond the reach of the harvester. As a result, the autonomy of the independent harvester is overshadowed by a corporation making decisions on when one sails and who crews a vessel; while watching money roll into their bank accounts without regard for those on the decks who bring the wealth to shores.

Trust agreements and corporate control beat down and strip what we, as resilient Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, have survived on for generations – hard work, and preservation of our marine resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods in our coastal communities for the future.

When Minister Dominic LeBlanc stated and restated his commitment to enshrining Owner Operator, Fleet Separation and PIIFCAF in legislation, a ripple of hope could be felt throughout coastal communities. The corporate lobby came out swinging, seeing their death grip on the fishery loosening, and finally being told that value would no longer be funneled from our coastal communities and into banks on Bay Street. No more.

The five grandfathered vessels from Bonavista are more than names immortalized in fishing policy; they served to be harbingers of decades of erosion of identity and the social fabric of entire communities. The circumvention of these policies have had an effect far beyond the simple ownership of licenses and the concentration of wealth into corporate coffers.

To hear Minister LeBlanc’s announcement has been equally as surreal, emotional, and the result of decades of activism and dedication from those who hold the fishery dear to their hearts.