Politics

Former Crown corporation boss says he was fired for trying to fight corruption

The former head of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation says he was fired — on the very day his appointment was to expire — after he tried to root out financial corruption in the organization. The Liberal government says he was fired because his actions were "fundamentally incompatible" with his position as president.

Donald Salkeld is planning to set up a rival fish processing plant

The former head of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation alleges he was fired because he began investigating financial corruption at the Crown corporation. (CBC)

The former head of a troubled Crown corporation says he was fired after he began investigating alleged financial corruption in the organization.

But the Liberal government won't explain the specifics of why it decided to formally terminate Donald Salkeld's appointment at the Manitoba-based Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation effective Dec. 21 — the same day his term was already scheduled to expire.

In its order-in-council adopted this week, the government simply says Salkeld was suspended in March and then fired following an investigation because his actions were "fundamentally incompatible with his position as president." It said he "no longer enjoys the confidence of the Governor in Council to be the President of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation."

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc recommended the government terminate Salkeld's appointment. (Canadian Press)

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc made the recommendation to terminate Salkeld's appointment, which pays $147,900 to $174,000 a year. Officials at the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation referred all questions to the department of Fisheries and Oceans. The department and LeBlanc declined to comment on the decision or Salkeld's allegations, saying it's a personnel matter.

Troubled history

John Wood, Salkeld's predecessor, is back at the helm.

Salkeld's firing is the latest twist in the troubled history of the corporation, which was set up in 1969 to buy, process and market all freshwater fish caught for commercial sale in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

In 2010, it received a failing grade from the auditor general's office after a special report found "significant deficiencies in the corporation's systems and practices related to governance, strategic planning and risk management, and in operational areas, including processes to establish prices paid to fishers in order to remain self-sufficient and meet its mandate, capital asset management and procurement, production efficiency and human resources."

In 2012, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released documents showing officials at the corporation were charging expensive dinners, alcohol, golf memberships and tickets to NHL hockey games on their expenses.

'Save the ship'

Salkeld told CBC News he was appointed by Conservative Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in December 2014 to "save the ship." He was to get the corporation into better shape and help the fishers.

"I feel sorry for them. I have a passion for them and I was ordered by Minister Shea to make life better for them. That was my challenge and that's what I did," he said.

"Unfortunately, when you make change to the status quo, you create enemies."

Salkeld, an entrepreneur, said he found plenty of inefficiencies.

"Over the course of the first six months of 2015, I started getting better returns to the fishers."

I started to find corruption in this Crown corporation- Donald Salkeld

But Salkeld alleges he soon began to find even more troubling problems.

"As 2015 rolled along, I started to find corruption in this Crown corporation ... and towards the end of 2015, I started investigating these devious matters."

Salkeld refused to say what kind of financial corruption he believes was going on — he said that will be for another day.

One group he says he did tell, shortly before he was suspended, was officials from the auditor general's office who had travelled to Winnipeg in March as part of a new special examination of the corporation.

"When I left, the auditor general was there and I directed the auditor general to areas that I found suspicious and I found that I had trouble with … I was very open," Salkeld said.

"I said, 'I find these areas very confusing. I find them mysterious. I wonder why they are doing business in foreign countries the way they are. I wonder where the money trail is going. I would like you to investigate on behalf of the fishers.'"

The auditor general's special examination into the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation is due to be released sometime in 2017.

Rival plan

Salkeld says he isn't planning to hire lawyers and challenge the government's decision.

Instead, Salkeld, who has in the past supported ending the corporation's marketing monopoly, recently announced plans to take advantage of the Manitoba government's decision to pull out of the Freshwater Fish Act and build a new, state-of-the-art fish processing plant in Gimli, Man., that could compete with the Crown corporation.

It's not known whether Salkeld's plans played a role in the government's decision.

James Bezan, Conservative MP for the riding of Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, said Salkeld approached his job from the start with the perspective of a private sector businessman.

Conservative MP James Bezan sees political motivation in the Liberal government's decision to fire Salkeld. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"He saw right off the top a lot of waste. He suspected that there was some unscrupulous behaviour taking place as well and rubbed a lot of people within the corporation the wrong way," Bezan said.

"I can tell you the commercial fishers loved Don. They thought he did a great job in turning the company around and he was able to increase returns and he clearly demonstrated how decisions were made that were bizarre to say the least, asinine in many cases, and ultimately that waste without any accountability was being used against the fishers who were out on the lakes trying to make a living."

Bezan sees political motives in the Liberal government's move.

"This is strictly a political decision."

About the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.