Gerry Byrne hurls accusations of racism, poaching to critics in legislature

Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne was on the attack at the House of Assembly on Thursday, despite all parties saying they would co-operate in the minority legislature.

NDP MHA Jim Dinn joins Tories in call to boot cabinet minister to backbenches

Minister of Fisheries and Land Resources Gerry Byrne was on the attack Thursday at the House of Assembly, after questions from opposition members. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Gerry Byrne was on the attack at Confederation Building on Thursday, accusing one opposition MHA of marginalizing Indigenous people and supporting racist comments, another of breaking the law. 

NDP MHA Jim Dinn had been asking Fisheries Minister Byrne what plan Northern Harvest Sea Farms had to handle warm water temperatures at its sea cages in Fortune Bay. 

The company has said warmer than usual water, due to climate change, caused 2.6 million salmon to die at its site off the south coast of Newfoundland. 

But the Liberal minister avoided the question by saying Dinn has marginalized Indigenous leaders who have said climate change was a factor in the die-off, by disagreeing — and that Dinn had a pattern of such behaviour. 

"He's marginalized that point of information, and in doing so, he really does marginalize a strongly held Indigenous perspective," Byrne told reporters after question period Thursday. 

I don't appreciate anyone talking about me when I'm not there.- Chief Mi'sel Joe

As for the pattern of behaviour, Byrne referred to a 2018 meeting discussing a salmonid advisory council with Dinn and other members of the Salmonid Association of Eastern Newfoundland, or SAEN.

"This is where it gets very, very regrettable," Byrne said.

He said a member of SAEN said, "Yes, you have to kowtow to Indigenous people," and Dinn tried to clarify the comment by saying Indigenous leaders have a lawful right to be involved.

NDP MHA Jim Dinn says Gerry Byrne was getting personal Thursday in order to avoid answering questions. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The minister said Dinn did not rebuke the comments strongly enough, unlike him, recalling he stopped the conversation and said, "that's not acceptable language." 

Dinn agreed the comment was inappropriate, and said the person was removed from their position with the organization. 

"I think Gerry to assume that that somehow reflects on me is yet another example of the minister grasping at straws to avoid answering questions, and maybe a coverup of his own dereliction of duty in this salmon die-off," Dinn said. 

Dinn said Byrne "clumsily avoided" the question of where the plan to deal with warm water temperatures was. 

"So the next best thing is to go for the personal attack," he said. 

Can't guess cause of die-off: Joe

Byrne noted Dinn hadn't spoken to Indigenous leaders like Miawpukek Chief Mi'sel Joe, while Byrne had. 

For his part, Joe told CBC News that he had indeed been speaking with Byrne but not Dinn, and that he had planned to meet with the minister Thursday morning as well as attend the afternoon session, but something came up. 

Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi'sel Joe was not at the House of Assembly when his name came up Thursday. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

While Joe said he's no expert in climate change, what he explained to Byrne was that they'd noticed a change in the temperature on the coast. 

"Twenty years ago we could drive a dump truck out the bay to haul salmon feed or fish feed and fish, and now the last number of years we couldn't barely get across the bay with a Ski-Doo at times," said Joe. 

"You've gotta be blind not to see what's happening. Whether that's a direct relation to what's happening to the fish farms I don't know. I wouldn't even venture to come close to that one."

Joe said he couldn't comment on whether Byrne was using Indigenous issues to avoid answering the question, as he hadn't heard what was said. 

"I don't appreciate anyone talking about me when I'm not there." 

'New portfolio'

The whole thing had Dinn joining the Progressive Convervatives in calling for the premier to remove Byrne from his ministerial duties.

Along with the accusations against Dinn, Byrne accused PC MHA Jim Lester of supporting poachers and possibly breaking the law himself when Lester asked the minister about a farmer being charged with shooting a moose grazing his cabbages at night. 

Dinn said if Premier Dwight Ball wants a spirit of cooperation in the legislature within which he holds a minority government, Byrne needs a "new portfolio."

"Probably at the back benches of the party where he can do the least harm."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Peter Cowan and Anthony Germain