Boats at Hay River's Fisherman's Wharf in August 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A collective of commercial fishers is calling on the federal government to explain why a proposed transformation of the freshwater fishing industry hasn’t happened yet.
Historically, fish from Great Slave Lake (and other parts of inland Canada) has been marketed and distributed through the Manitoba-based Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, or FFMC, a crown corporation.
In the NWT, FFMC has the sole right to acquire fish and sell it elsewhere in Canada or internationally. In other words, it holds a monopoly on exports of NWT fish and is therefore a big part of territorial fishers’ lives.
FFMC is in the middle of a years-long overhaul sparked, in part, by concern from fishers and the NWT government that it has not always acted in fishers’ best interests, nor secured the best prices.
In 2021, an independent report commissioned by the federal government recommended turning FFMC into a corporation run by the fishers it represents.
Leaders of fishing communities and associations formed an advisory committee for that report. Now, they are a group in their own right – Freshwater Fish Harvesters Association Inc – with a stated aim of leading the transformation of FFMC into a fisher-led entity.
This week, FFHAI said the federal government had stalled on that transformation and communication was breaking down.
In a press release, the group said a final federal decision on handing over FFMC “was supposed to be announced during the 2022 fall session, and no information or timeline has been forthcoming.”
Correspondence to Fisheries and Oceans Canada “is now going unanswered,” the press release added, accusing the department of “willful blindness” toward the lack of progress.
“For decades, report after report says that FFMC is failing,” Jamie Linington, FFHAI’s president and also a representative of NWT fishers, was quoted as saying.
“We have done everything we can to advance our release from these invisible chains.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada told Cabin Radio in a statement that it remained “committed to transforming the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation so that it remains competitive in today’s open market and continues to meet the needs of harvesters into the future.”
The department said it had already implemented “many recommendations” from an earlier advisory panel – such as commissioning the independent report that arrived in 2021.
Since then, the department said it had “provided support to the FFHAI to further explore the feasibility of transforming the FFMC into a harvester-led cooperative.”
Asked when FFMC’s transformation would be complete, and what actions fishers could expect the federal government to take this year, the department responded that “information on next steps for transformation will be shared soon.”
‘The only ones that come knocking’
The relationship between FFMC and Canada’s small, isolated fishing communities is complex.
While fishers in the NWT have actively advocated for an alternative to FFMC and the ability to freely enter the market without the corporation dictating the money they receive, others have suggested the industry might be careful what it wishes for.
Firstly, fishers are concerned that FFMC’s transformation might ultimately result in the federal government privatizing the corporation rather than handing it over to the fishers themselves. In this week’s press release, FFHAI expressly raised that “threat,” which is one reason why the group wants Ottawa to conclude the process and sign off on a handover sooner rather than later.
Secondly, fishers in communities where FFMC no longer holds a monopoly – in areas like Manitoba and Saskatchewan – say not everything has been plain sailing.
While FFMC’s control over sales can feel like shackles, it’s sometimes also a safety net: in circumstances where nobody else might buy your fish, FFMC guarantees it will. The price might be significantly lower than you could get elsewhere, but a GNWT report in 2017 concluded that FFMC had “virtually eliminated fishers’ selling risk.”
Manitoba and Saskatchewan previously chose to back out of the deal that gave FFMC full control over their fish exports – the deal the NWT still has. That means other companies can now compete with FFMC in those areas, and FFMC no longer promises to buy any fish placed in front of it.
Langford Saunders was president of the fishers’ cooperative in Norway House Cree Nation, on the northern shore of Lake Winnipeg, when Manitoba announced it would be pulling out of the FFMC monopoly.
At the time, he was a strong advocate for the province staying in. He said his community’s isolated location would make it difficult for fishers to get their catch to market without the guarantee of being able to sell to FFMC.
“I was concerned, and I’m still concerned, the way things are going right now,” Saunders told Cabin Radio last year.
Saunders said his community was frustrated with the low prices set by FFMC, but it was not among those pushing for an open market.
The community still only sells to FFMC, through its local fish co-op, but anticipates there will be a time where this model won’t work any more.
“They’re the only ones that come knocking on our door,” Saunders said.
Regarding the plan to transition FFMC into a cooperative model led by the fishers themselves, he said he remains unclear as to what final shape it will take.
“I’m not 100-percent convinced that it’s going to be better for our fishery,” he said.
No more masters
A new fish processing plant is scheduled to open in Hay River this summer, itself representing a step away from FFMC control of the territory’s industry.
The plant will be operated by the Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative, which signed a 2020 memorandum of understanding with the GNWT. The aim is that the plant becomes a new focal point for Great Slave Lake fish exports, rather than sending fish south to FFMC and beyond.
Again speaking to Cabin Radio last year, Linington said the Tu Cho cooperative felt increasingly confident that the GNWT would not simply replace FFMC’s monopoly with its own, and that fishers will genuinely be entering a free market.
But even in the NWT, there have been hints of reluctance to fully leave behind the FFMC model.
In part, that’s because some of the territory’s fishers have been in the business for decades and have conditioned themselves to accept the FFMC way of doing things. (One of the problems the GNWT has identified, in its efforts to reinvigorate the Great Slave Lake fishing industry, is that many new, younger fishers are required for the sector to reach its full potential – and attracting them is difficult.)
“The conversation has taken place many, many times over the years amongst the fishermen. Some fishers wish to stay with FFMC, and other fishers do see opportunities outside of the federal corporation,” said Andrew Cassidy in early July 2022, speaking at the time as the NWT Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment’s acting director of commercial fisheries.
Cassidy said the NWT remained in the FFMC’s monopoly agreement primarily because fishers had never, speaking with one voice, asked to leave it.
“It’s delicate,” he said. “We don’t want to prescribe a business model, but at the same time we don’t want to lose out on opportunities for our fishers.”
That same summer, Linington said fishers were increasingly united in wanting “no more masters.” From that perspective, ownership of FFMC solves several problems: FFMC still exists and offers some form of safety net to the industry, but is directed by the fishers it is intended to help.
But until FFMC’s transformation is complete, the waters are muddied. It’s hard for some fishers to know if the NWT escaping FFMC’s monopoly is the right thing to do while FFMC is in such flux, and without knowing how a fisher-led corporation would improve.
In this week’s press release, FFHAI vice-president Chris Clarke urged the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to move the transformation to a conclusion.
“There is nothing happening at DFO,” Clarke wrote.
“It’s like they forgot that FFMC’s current value and assets are the result of harvesters’ intergenerational inputs.
“That is our Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers’ years of hard work that went into building up the crown corporation, without being part of the decision-making.”