In a reversal, ethics commissioner to investigate LeBlanc for lucrative Arctic surf clams deal

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion has launched an investigation of Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc's decision to award a lucrative licence for the Arctic surf clam fishery to a group that has both familial and federal Liberal ties, reversing a decision he made earlier this month to pass on such a probe, CBC News has learned.

Tories allege deal benefits brother of sitting Liberal MP, a former Liberal MP and cousin of minister's wife

A brewing controversy alleging cronyism and conflict of interest involving a clam fishing licence awarded by Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc may not be grabbing national attention — but it should be, says a Conservative MP. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has launched an investigation of Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc's decision to award a lucrative licence for the Arctic surf clam fishery to a group that has ties to his wife's family and the federal Liberal party — a reversal of a decision the commissioner made earlier this month to pass on such a probe, CBC News has learned.

Conservative B.C. MP Todd Doherty, the fisheries critic, alleges the government's effort to expand ownership in the fishery — by clawing back part of an existing quota held by Clearwater Foods and handing it to a group with Indigenous representation — violates the Conflict of Interest Act because it enriches the brother of a sitting Liberal MP, a former Liberal MP, and a cousin of LeBlanc's wife. Doherty asked Dion to initiate this examination.

A spokesperson for Dion would not confirm or deny that an examination is now underway, as is the commissioner's protocol to ensure such an investigation is conducted in confidence.

Comment differs

"We cannot comment at this time on whether or not Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has launched an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act in relation to the conduct of the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc," a spokesperson said in a statement.

But this comment differs from the last time CBC News asked the commissioner about an inquiry into LeBlanc's role in the surf clams bid. At the time, the spokesperson confirmed an investigation was "not being contemplated."

It was not then known publicly that a member of the minister's wife's family had been part of the bid.

"Our government is always happy to work with the Conflict of Interest and‎ Ethics Commissioner," a spokesperson for LeBlanc said Friday. "Our decision to introduce Indigenous participation is consistent with our government's commitment to developing a renewed relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples."

Dion had rejected the initial request for examination, telling Doherty at the time that he had been imprecise in his wording for a request, citing the conflict of interest code rather than the Conflict of Interest Act, which includes provisions relating to ministerial conduct. He also said he found no "reasonable grounds to believe that Minister LeBlanc would have contravened ... the Act."

Arctic surf clam is displayed at an event on Dec. 1, 2017, celebrating its new offshore fishing vessel, the Anne Risley. (Robert Short/CBC)

The winning bid for the Arctic surf clam licence was claimed by Five Nations Clam Corporation and its partner, Premium Seafoods. The latter company is controlled by Edgar Samson, the brother of Nova Scotia Liberal MP Darrell Samson. One of the Indigenous partners in the company, NunatuKavut, is presided over by former Liberal MP Todd Russell. A spokesperson for LeBlanc confirmed Gilles Thériault, the minister's wife's cousin, also has ties to Five Nations.

The surf clam licence is worth tens of millions of dollars. The group will now have a quota for 8,924 tonnes of the seafood delicacy, which is harvested in the waters off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador and is often shipped to Asia for sushi.

'Great friend'

A Conservative order paper question, a tool used by the opposition to extract answers from tight-lipped departments, asked whether LeBlanc knew Samson was the brother of a sitting MP prior to awarding the surf clam licence to his company; it also asked when the minister became aware of his ownership stake. A terse response from the department reads, "Yes, and unknown."

Chief Aaron Sock, the president of Five Nations Clam, said in a statement to CBC News that Thériault is "well known to anyone who knows the fisheries business in Atlantic Canada" and is a "great friend to the community."

"Any suggestion that our community, or any Indigenous community for that matter, is incapable of making a case for access to the Surf Clam fishery based solely on the merits of their proposal, is offensive and patronizing, but not surprising."

LeBlanc, too, has said Conservative claims that the company was awarded the bid because of these connections is "ludicrous."

"I made my decision for no other reason than to allow for increased Indigenous participation in the fishery. I reject any insinuation to the contrary in the strongest of terms," LeBlanc said in a statement.

Middle-class jobs

In September 2017, the government announced it would be expanding access to the fishery — currently a monopoly controlled by Clearwater — through a fourth licence. It indicated the winning bid would go to an "Indigenous entity" as part of an initiative to create middle-class jobs for First Nations people in all four Atlantic Canadian provinces and Quebec.

We are talking about a group of Liberal family members who had no boat and were not even incorporated until after the announcement was made.- Conservative MP Todd Doherty

But Doherty alleges that when the licence was awarded in February 2018, the Indigenous-led Five Nations Clam Company didn't even exist and was simply an entity on paper. Doherty also said the bid did not have an "aggregate of multiple Indigenous communities associated with the bid," as was deemed "essential" by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in its assessment criteria for winning bids.

As CBC Nova Scotia first reported, court records filed last month by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) reveal that the winning applicant is only 25 per cent Indigenous-owned, with the remainder in the hands of Premium Seafoods.

"Here are the facts. We are talking about a group of Liberal family members who had no boat and were not even incorporated until after the announcement was made," Doherty said in question period recently.

"They did not have any First Nation partners. As a matter of fact, their bid had multiple placeholders. They still secured a lucrative government quota worth hundreds of millions of dollars without meeting critical bid criteria."

In addition to the ethics probe, LeBlanc's decision is now being challenged in Federal Court by one of the losing Indigenous bidders for the licence, Miawpukek Mi'kamawey Mawi'omi First Nation.

The price of Halifax-based Clearwater Foods stock has cratered since the government announced it would end Arctic surf clam monopoly, dropping some 60 per cent.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.