Furlong | Let's talk about the fishery without fear of recrimination

Fisheries Broadcast Host John Furlong asks questions about the future of the province's fishing industry

Are we wasting energy trying to keep things the way they were?

When I was a young boy growing up on Pleasant Street in St. John's, Dalton's Store was almost directly across from us.

From our front step you could see another store, Pickett's, on the corner of Carnell Street. Down the hill, at the intersection of Pleasant and Springdale Streets was Motty's. Further up, on the corner of Patrick Street was Callanan's Grocery and directly across the corner from Callanan's was Stowe's Pharmacy.

Today they are reduced to memories from the dim and distant past. Although no one knew it at the time, they were early 'victims' of economies of scale, if not globalization.

Now, people go to an Irving or an Orange Store or a Needs Convenience. You can buy milk, eggs, a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee, a dozen beer, a slice of pizza, a pound of bologna, Lotto tickets for the office pool, gift cards for the next occasion and in some places you can even still rent a movie. I'm not so sure that's good, but I do know that's the way it is. It's a different world.

And so it is in the fishery. 

As long as people refuse to see the big changes that are inevitable in the fishery, the longer the industry will spin its wheels, and be a source of angst to all of us.

For instance, we can talk all we want about making the industry attractive to young people, but guess what? Young people of today will not grow up to be the sealers of tomorrow; young people of today will not grow up to be the moose hunters of tomorrow; and young people of today will not be the backbone of tomorrow's fishery.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Young people should be encouraged to get out and explore the world, before they follow a course of study or enter the work world. As a matter of fact, that's probably the only benefit to come out of the moratorium in 1992 – it forced young people to stay in school and get an education.

Live in the present

The provincial government can do an enormous favour to the fishery and its future and so can Ottawa and so can the FFAW – stop letting people live in the past. Challenge and invite them to live in the present.

Here's a good example: I did an interview recently with someone in Marystown who still holds out hope that the OCI plant will re-open! If I point to the folly of that belief, people call me defeatist.

Well, if the Marystown plant still has a chance at re-opening it won't be by OCI. They've stopped beating their heads against the wall and bleeding millions of dollars in losses. But if it's such a great operation, such a gold mine, such a money maker, let the union buy it, let the Marystown Town Council re-open it and make a few bucks. FPI couldn't. OCI couldn't. But perhaps someone knows something they don't know.

In Port Union, programs to help displaced workers haven't started, according to the local MHA, because the province is still waiting for letters from the union and/or from the town that accepts the fact the plant won't reopen!

Asking questions

I am fully aware that when you give voice to an issue or articulate a worry or a concern, you're dismissed and criticized as someone who thinks he has all the answers.

I don't work on a boat or out on the ice or in a fish plant, but my role as host of The Fisheries Broadcast gives me a chance to hear all those voices and funnel them into an honest opinion or reshape them, as important questions.

I offer these opinions and ask these questions because, just as people in the fishery are passionate about what they do, so, too, am I passionate about what I do. I like to ask questions that are inside me, that intrigue and irritate me. The goal, one hopes, is that questions will lead to more understanding, not less.

I don't know if Ottawa's Fleet Separation Policy or the Owner/Operator Agreement have outlived their usefulness. Maybe the review of these policies will indeed be the end of the independent inshore fishery as we know it. Maybe we'll see a resurgence of the old merchant/fisherman model and the crowd with the deepest pockets will control the fishery.

Can we talk about that? We need dialogue about the fishery -  all aspects of it. Discussion without fear of recrimination.

It doesn't bother me, mind you. I'm cursed – or blessed – with a thick skin.

Replacement workers wrong?

Perhaps it takes a thick skin to ask questions like this: In the recent furor over OCI's use of replacement workers where is the other side in that debate? Where is the argument that says workers, replacement or otherwise, have a "right-to-work" that's every bit as enshrined in our constitution as other workers "right-to-strike"?

Workers can withdraw their services, but doesn't a company have the right to continue to operate? And those replacement workers - Are they defiantly taking a stand on this labour-management issue? Are they sorting through this on a philosophical level, or are they just hungry for work?

The FFAW drew a line in the sand with its stand against the replacement workers who boarded the Newfoundland Lynx in Bay Roberts.

The company has drawn its own line in the sand. They are running a business and they need to make money.

If that means pulling the plug on Marystown after the union rejected the employer's offer of work, if it means crewing a vessel with replacement workers, so be it.

It may be the company sees no other option. That's as valuable a position as the union's.

Ottawa's role?

Now Ottawa has taken its own stick and drawn its own line. The owner-operator principal and the fleet-separation policy are being addressed. Changed? Not sure. Scrapped? Maybe. But addressed? Yes.

The federal government is encouraging input about the fishery from any interested party and, one source tells me, decisions will likely be made based on more solid business models. The fishery won't be run by the union anymore, because it wasn't too long ago that people felt decisions were made based largely on how the union would react!

The federal government may want to make changes that might appeal to the harvesting entrepreneurs. Is that so wrong? If you ask ANY entrepreneur if they would like less or more restriction on their business, the answer would always be the same. Of course they want fewer restrictions.

Another federal insider tells me these 'modernization' discussions are about Ottawa's desire to see better business models for the fishing industry – not the same amount of total value spread around to as many people as possible. Share the wealth, not share the poverty.

The social engineering experiment did not work in the past and will not work in the future. Add to that a growing public weariness with suggestions of more bailouts, more handouts, more subsidies, more fights, more protests, more shutdowns, and more EI.

King wrong to pull union money?

Now the province is making its stand. Fed up with what it sees as constant and unfair criticism from the union, Minister Darin King is saying enough is enough. He has frozen money the union gets from the province until he is satisfied that it is money well spent.

If there is a side benefit from that, it is the discussion which has started about whether financially sound unions like the FFAW should get taxpayers money.

I, for one, would be interested in knowing what other labour unions get. Is it right or wrong? I'm not sure, but I'm interested in hearing the discussion.

I raise all these issues again, because I do have an opinion on the fishery and my opinion is the same as the one I hold on the seal hunt.

Let's talk about every single issue that needs to be talked about and let's stop living in the problem and start living in the solution.

About the Author

John Furlong

John Furlong is a host on CBC Radio One in St. John's.