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The tainted Star-Kist tuna scandal

Pepper spray, tainted tuna and miracle cucumbers have all played their part in Canada’s long tradition of political misconduct. Be it lack of judgement or for personal gain, politicians misbehave. They get caught. The public is outraged. Then all is pretty much forgotten. And the cycle starts again. From John A. Macdonald and the Pacific railway fiasco to the sponsorship affair, CBC Archives looks back at some of the biggest scandals, boondoggles and white elephants in Canadian politics.

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What became known as "Tunagate" erupts after this Fifth Estate report airs on Sept. 17, 1985. The CBC's Eric Malling reveals that Progressive Conservative Fisheries Minister John Fraser had knowingly approved a million cans of rancid Star-Kist tuna for sale. Fraser ignored numerous reports declaring that the tuna with the "powerful smell" was unfit for human consumption. Star-Kist Canada Inc. and New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield were pressuring Fraser in order to protect the 400 jobs at the St. Andrew's, N.B., plant.
• On Sept. 19, 1985, two days after the story broke, a flustered Fraser announced a recall of the tainted tuna. "It was better late than never," the Vancouver MP told the House of Commons. When the attacks on Fraser and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney showed no signs of dying, the minister tendered his resignation from cabinet, effectively closing the lid on "Tunagate."

• Fraser recovered from the scandal and was elected Speaker of the House in September 1986, a post he held until January 1994. Fraser was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1995.
• The problem with Star-Kist tuna was one of quality, not safety. The federal fisheries inspectors ruled that although the tuna was edible, it didn't smell, taste or look as good as it should. Although there were reports of Canadians getting sick, the tainted tuna claimed no casualties.

• Before Tunagate, Star-Kist, the largest employer in New Brunswick's Charlotte County, had enjoyed a 39 per cent market share. But that share collapsed to near zero following the scandal. The company eventually pulled out of Canada and the 400 employees at the St. Andrew's, N.B., plant lost their jobs.

• Just when and how much Prime Minister Brian Mulroney knew about the events leading up to Tunagate was never made clear. Mulroney initially said he knew about the decision to sell the tainted tuna but later recanted, saying he only learned about the affair when the CBC's The Fifth Estate story aired. Mulroney was also accused by the Opposition of not telling the whole truth when he told the New York Times he had fired Fraser as soon as he had heard of the affair. In fact, it had taken six days.

• Weeks after the Tunagate scandal broke, baseball fans booed Mulroney during the opening game of the American League championship playoffs in Toronto by chanting: "Tuna! Tuna! Tuna!"

• One year prior to the Tunagate scandal, New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield found himself at the centre of another controversy. Airport security found 35 grams of marijuana in his luggage while he was travelling with the Queen during her 1984 visit to Canada. Hatfield claimed that a reporter had planted the marijuana to get a sensational story.
• Hatfield was acquitted in January 1985. Judge Andrew Harrigan, who had been appointed chief provincial court judge by Hatfield in 1972, found Hatfield not guilty.

• The suffix "-gate" comes from the famous Watergate scandal in the early 1970s that led to the resignation of U.S. president Richard Nixon. The affair was named after the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., the site of a burglary central to the scandal.
Medium: Television
Program: The Fifth Estate
Broadcast Date: Sept. 17, 1985
Guest(s): John Fraser, Mike Hunter, Bruce Jackson
Reporter: Eric Malling
Duration: 19:18

Last updated: September 17, 2014

Page consulted on September 17, 2014

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