Tories ask ethics commissioner to probe fishery bid they say favours Liberal insiders

A Conservative MP is asking the federal ethics commissioner to investigate the bidding process that awarded a lucrative Arctic surf clam license to a group with Liberal links.

Company behind winning bid is run by the brother of Nova Scotia Liberal MP Darrell Samson

A Conservative MP is asking the federal ethics commissioner to investigate whether Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc violated the Commons ethics code by awarding an Arctic surf clam harvesting license to a company with ties to a current Liberal MP. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A Conservative MP is asking the federal ethics commissioner to investigate the bidding process that awarded a lucrative Arctic surf clam license to a group with Liberal links.

In his letter to Mario Dion, the newly appointed ethics watchdog, Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty alleges the government's effort to diversify 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 Commons conflict of interest code because it enriches the brother of a sitting Liberal MP and a former Liberal MP.

"I am concerned that the relationship between Five Nations Clam Company and its partner, Premium Seafoods, could have played a role in (federal Fisheries Minister Dominic) LeBlanc's decision," Doherty wrote in his letter to the commissioner, obtained by CBC News.

"For one, Premium Seafoods president and CEO, Edgar Samson, is the brother of Nova Scotia Liberal MP Darrell Samson. Moreover, the president of NunatuKavut, the First Nations partner in Labrador, was only announced weeks after Five Nations won the bid, and is former Liberal MP Todd Russell."

Doherty, the Conservative fisheries critic, points to section 27.1 of the ethics code, which stipulates an MP "shall not act in any way to further his or her private interests or those of a member of the member's family, or to improperly further another person's or entity's private interest."

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

In September 2017, the government announced it would be expanding access to the fishery — currently a monopoly controlled by Clearwater — through a fourth license. 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.

But Doherty alleges that when the license 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.

'A group of Liberal family members'

Doherty also said the group could not provide a "description of the vessel they would be using to prosecute the fishery" — another piece of information the B.C. MP said DFO required as part of the bidding process.

Despite these alleged lapses, the group was awarded a surf clam license 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. Surf clam sales in the second quarter of 2017 hit $25 million.

Arctic surf clams prepared as sushi. (Robert Short/CBC)

"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, echoing some of the points made in his letter to the commissioner.

"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."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the MP on March 28, saying it was "disgusting" for the Conservatives to try and pit Indigenous peoples against non-Indigenous Canadians.

In a statement to CBC News, LeBlanc said a winning bid with significant Indigenous benefits is part of the government's larger push to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

"Our government is always happy to work with the Conflict of Interest and‎ Ethics Commissioner," he said in an emailed statement. "I stand behind my decision, which is a powerful and real move toward a true nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people ...

"This decision will allow the benefits of this lucrative fishery to flow to a broad group of First Nations, and will have long-lasting positive economic effects for those communities."

A spokesperson for the ethics commissioner did not reply to a request for comment in time for publication.

In addition to the ethics complaint, one of the losing Indigenous bidders for the license, Miawpukek Mi'kamawey Mawi'omi First Nation, is asking a judge to quash the decision by LeBlanc. The band, based in Conne River, N.L., argues the winner should have been disqualified because it did not have all its partners lined up at the time it was selected.

The mayor of Grand Bank, N.L., where all Clearwater's Arctic surf clams are processed, has also blasted the licence decision, saying he fears his community will lose jobs if part of the harvest is processed elsewhere.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Paul Withers


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