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Inside the NWT’s fishing rebuild, crises with slivers of hope

Fishing on Great Slave Lake is in deep trouble, and personalities aren't helping. But maybe there's a chance.

Jamie Linington. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Jamie Linington. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“Until we have had time to discuss possible options for respectful communications, if you require assistance from ITI, support and services will be provided via email only.”

In an email on March 31 this year, after weeks of deteriorating relations, Pamela Strand told the Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative it could no longer call NWT government staff.

“I expect that you will be more mindful with your behaviour and language as part of any future interactions when dealing with ITI staff, and I expect the same of staff as well. Inappropriate behaviour from staff or clients will not be tolerated,” wrote Strand, the deputy minister of industry, tourism and investment.

Tu Cho’s interim executive director, Jamie Linington, replied in part: “This isn’t politics, Pam, this is livelihoods, business and an industry. No one has time for the petty politics and bureaucratic cruelty or games. Your staff are entirely out of line and FAILING and lying.”

Against this backdrop, Great Slave Lake fishing’s new era begins this week.

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A new fish plant in Hay River, which forms a massive part of the NWT government’s plan to revitalize the industry, is set to start operations.

The Tu Cho cooperative – a group of Hay River fishers for whom the plant was built at a cost of well over $10 million – says its fishers won’t go near it, or at least not until their concerns are addressed.

Those fishers say the plant is too big, has the wrong equipment, and is being managed by the very people they hoped the plant would allow them to escape.

Meanwhile, relations between Tu Cho and the NWT government have dangled by a thread for months if not years, with accusations of people hanging up on calls, the territory mismanaging Tu Cho’s finances, and fishers using “unacceptable language” to GNWT employees.

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In May 2021, industry minister Caroline Wawzonek proudly declared the fishers would run their new fish plant, “a foundational step in our ongoing work alongside the Tu Cho Cooperative.”

In May 2023, her department said the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation – a federal Crown corporation that has held a monopoly on Great Slave Lake fish for decades – will run the plant instead. That press release did not mention Tu Cho once.

Clearly, a lot happened.

The fish plant isn’t the only issue. There are all kinds of obstacles that the territory’s small and beleaguered industry is trying to overcome. Even though opinions on who is to blame vary significantly, most people agree on the basic problems.

But there are also reasons for optimism, because there are signs of agreement on some solutions, too – if everyone can get it together, and some key differences can be settled.

First, here’s what’s going wrong.

Hay River’s new fish plant is seen in March 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

The new plant is too big.

The plant – right next to the old one, which was built in 1971 – is opening its doors three years later than initially planned and is understood to be smaller than originally envisaged.

Even so, the Tu Cho fishers say it’s still too large.

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“Everyone thinks that we designed it. We didn’t design it. It’s huge,” Linington told Cabin Radio in March. As interim executive director, she is normally the voice of Tu Cho’s dozen or so fishers, who operate their own businesses but are represented as a collective.

“We’re scared,” she said. “We’re very concerned that the enormity of this fish plant – the way government just kind-of gets carried away with spending and building things – we have to live with that. It’s not what we asked for.”

Why is there a new plant? In 2017, when the NWT government launched a strategy to revitalize the Great Slave Lake fishing industry, the fishers were pulling in more than 500,000 kg of fish per year and the old plant was “operating at close to full capacity.”

A new plant would be able to handle around 900,000 kg of fish per year, plus it could be built to achieve Canada Fisheries Inspection Act (CFIA) compliance, which unlocks a whole new world of sales for NWT fish.

Without a CFIA-compliant plant, all fish for export was being sent to the Freshwater Fish Market Corporation – the federal outfit in Winnipeg, known as FFMC or Freshwater – which has a CFIA plant.

With a new, compliant plant, you could find ways to back out of the deal with Freshwater and sell directly around the world, keeping more of the proceeds for NWT fishers (and doing a better job of marketing the product as NWT fish).

Sounds great. More room for fish production, check all the CFIA boxes, ditch Freshwater, more money, away we go.

But that assumed fish production would keep going up. Instead, it has dropped markedly since 2017.

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In 2022, according to GNWT figures, summer production on the lake was 154,000 kg. That isn’t the full year’s haul, but summer usually accounts for the majority of the annual catch according to territorial data. (Why has the number dropped so much? We’ll come back to that.)

So the territory built a new fish plant to accommodate great expectations of a thriving industry, but the plant is opening to a post-pandemic world where the fishers are just barely clinging on – and producing far less than what the plant is set up for.

“It is the plant that we have now,” said Wawzonek, the minister responsible for fishing, asked about this problem.

“I guess in some ways, I’m not concerned about the size of the plant being right or wrong. It’s the plant we have, it’s new, it creates a tremendous opportunity. And we need to get production numbers up.”

A Métis flag flies from a boat in Hay River during winter. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

The bad guys are running the plant.

Look, with all apologies to Freshwater, there is no getting away from the fact that it is not beloved by NWT fishers. Nor has it ever been.

In some respects, that isn’t fair, and fishers will also acknowledge that Freshwater plays one very important role: it guarantees to buy the NWT’s fish, come what may. It also accepts virtually any type of fish you can catch in Great Slave Lake. So no matter what happens, fishers know Freshwater is going to buy the fish they come back with.

That’s not how the private sector works, and it can be a critically important safety net for a small industry.

But it comes at a price: a low price.

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The deal you make with the Freshwater devil is that in return for guaranteeing to buy any fish, Freshwater holds the monopoly. Great Slave Lake fishers currently cannot sell fish for export outside the NWT to anyone but Freshwater, and they must put up with the prices Freshwater sets, which the fishers say are a fraction of what they could otherwise earn.

This system has been in place for decades.

Other parts of Canada, like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, backed out of the same deal because they didn’t think it was working for their fishers. In those provinces, Freshwater now has to compete against private firms and, in return, Freshwater’s guarantee to buy anything no longer applies there.

The NWT is now the only jurisdiction in Canada where Freshwater still holds a monopoly, but even the NWT and federal governments are fairly convinced that Freshwater isn’t doing a very good job.

In 2021, an independent report commissioned by the federal government recommended turning FFMC into a corporation run by the fishers it represents. But progress on that has been extremely slow, to the point that both the GNWT and fishers have criticized that process.

So the GNWT and the fishers are eager to see the back of Freshwater and start running the show themselves. That’s why, in 2021, Wawzonek was talking about Tu Cho operating the new plant: it would be a fresh start with the fishers in charge. The territory would still sell some fish to Freshwater, but would use the CFIA-compliant plant to break free and let Tu Cho decide how to sell the rest, with GNWT help.

But somewhere between 2021 and 2023, both the NWT government and Tu Cho lost confidence in that plan.

For the GNWT, the problem is Tu Cho’s ability to handle the task.

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In 2022, an independent consultant identified 27 recommendations that would help strengthen Tu Cho’s governance, finances and day-to-day operations.

In March this year, deputy minister Strand told Tu Cho by email: “Significant progress needs to be made on these recommendations before we can confidently renew plant operation discussions.”

“Obviously, the last couple of years have been challenging for many, including the fishers and the fishing industry,” said Wawzonek. “It became apparent that they weren’t going to be in a position to take that on immediately.”

Wawzonek says Freshwater, despite its other perceived failings, does at least know how to run fish plants, is aware of the NWT’s fishers, and possesses the ability to train Tu Cho to take over. Like one of those fungi that assume control of ants, steer them around for a bit and then kill them stone dead once they’ve been useful, the NWT would quite like to borrow Freshwater to get Tu Cho in a position to run the plant, then wave it goodbye. Wawzonek has set a goal of that happening in three years’ time.

Tu Cho agrees that it probably isn’t in a position to run the plant, but for different reasons.

Linington says Tu Cho isn’t ready because the plant is now too large for the fishers to cope with it – and the GNWT has hobbled Tu Cho’s ability to do its job.

“It was supposed to be for fishers, right?” Linington said last week. “And somehow we’ve been eliminated from that.”

A weigh scale inside the old Hay River fish plant. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A weigh scale inside the old Hay River fish plant. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Relations are super strained.

How has the GNWT hobbled Tu Cho’s ability to run a fish plant?

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If you ask Linington, she would have to stop to count the ways. She is not remotely a fan of the way she has seen the NWT government handle the revitalization to date.

In one March email, she tells ITI that the tone of a meeting between the two in February was “not healthy or appropriate.” A day later, she writes to Strand: “It is apparent we cannot rely on your respective office, Pam, to ensure the industry sector is protected from your department cronyism.”

In a text message, she tells one GNWT employee they have “got some growing up to do” and asks them: “No more lying, please.”

To another GNWT employee, she writes: “I don’t know if there is much point in communicating with your department, since there is no support after the continual veiled threat of withdrawing support for Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative. It appears your department is following through.”

Even from the email record, it is clear that relations between Linington and ITI are a big factor in how the revitalization is unfolding. Reviving the fishing industry was supposed to be a collaboration between the GNWT and Tu Cho, but that can’t happen when Linington cannot understand the GNWT’s actions and the GNWT thinks Linington is abusing its staff.

Linington says she stepped in as Tu Cho’s interim boss after that role had previously been filled by an ITI staff member who, she says, left the cooperative in a financial mess.

“I’m not saying that it was stolen,” she said of what happened to Tu Cho’s money during that period. “It was just spent,” she alleged last week, “completely exhausted like a kid in a candy shop. That was what we use for dividend shares, what we use to buy nets to resell. We literally had zero.”

In a separate interview in March, Linington said: “The GNWT is what I call the interloper. They insert themselves and have kept the Tu Cho Fishers’ Cooperative quite incapable of managing and representing its own affairs.”

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Reviewing emails between the two, more than once the process of revitalizing the fishing industry becomes bogged down in minutiae. At one point, there is a back-and-forth over who ought to pay a GNWT employee’s wages during the time they were on secondment to Tu Cho but on leave. That, in turn, threatens to hold up requests for cash to cover other operational issues.

The GNWT, setting out its commitment to Tu Cho, at one point sends a spreadsheet showing contribution agreements stretching to more than $1 million in funding from 2019 to 2022, not counting money for the new fish plant.

But the GNWT’s feeling that it is ploughing money into this industry comes up against some fishers’ perspectives that, by the time those grants filter down to individual fishers, they actually represent much less of a subsidy than small businesses or sole proprietors in other sectors, like agriculture, could pick up.

Hay River’s old fish plant. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A faded Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation logo on Hay River’s old fish plant. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Production is way down.

This, really, is the big one.

When the GNWT committed to a fancy new fish plant, it was trying to get the industry from 500,000 kg to 900,000 kg. Now, six years later, it would be thrilled just to get back to 500,000 kg. If production hadn’t cratered, there would be less of an issue right now.

So what happened?

The pandemic is part of it, but a tragedy in September 2019 has played a large role.

That month, Jamie’s dad, Stacy Linington, and three other fishers went missing while fishing on Great Slave Lake.

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By October 4, RCMP said the search had turned into a recovery mission. The fishers were never found.

For Jamie and the families and friends who lost loved ones, the impact was unimaginably devastating. For the sector, it meant four fishers – including Stacy, a leading advocate for his industry and an exceptional fisherman – were suddenly no longer part of the picture.

“We lost our top producer and we haven’t fully recovered,” Jamie said at a breakfast meeting she held in Hay River’s Ptarmigan Inn on March 17. Hay River’s MLAs, RJ Simpson and Rocky Simpson, attended the meeting alongside a handful of fishers and Cabin Radio. She added later: “After he passed away, we were really leaderless.”

“It’s difficult when there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Wawzonek in an interview recorded in May. “There was a significant loss in 2019. We lost major producers in a tragic accident that impacted the industry pretty significantly. And then there was Covid.

“When we began the process of revitalization, back in 2017, the market and industry looked very different. But you know, we are where we are now. We have this opportunity. And I’m hoping that having the plant open will be a catalyst to get the production numbers up.”

Strand, in a March email to the cooperative, wrote: “Production needs to increase three-fold over three years, starting with this year.”

With a dozen people left – some of them nearing or even past retirement age – and a leading light of their industry gone, how are the fishers supposed to do that?

Let’s look at some solutions.

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Fishing boats on the Hay River in August 2019
Fishing boats on the Hay River in August 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Attract more fishers.

One way to improve production is more people doing the job.

The GNWT has tried for years to attract more people into the industry, but the pandemic didn’t help for three years, and there can be no doubting that fishing is an industry attractive only to a certain type.

The pay for a rookie deckhand is probably around $200 a day. If you have experience, you might get closer to $300. The work can involve entire days, 12 hours of work or more, pulling in fish. And as the Linington family can attest, it has risks even if all precautions are taken.

That said, the industry is modernizing like any other and fishers running their own businesses work hard to take care of the people they hire. But in a world of Instagram, AI and jobs in warm offices, fishing in the NWT (you can be out there for 10 months of the year) is a bold choice.

One thing that can help is training, which not only equips people to do a demanding job but also, if done properly, gives them a taste of the lifestyle they’d need to adopt.

This is one area where the GNWT and Tu Cho do not see eye to eye, but where an obvious benefit exists if the two can fall in line.

The GNWT says it has funded training sessions and has ongoing programs, but Tu Cho says those programs aren’t appropriate.

“With their training initiatives, I haven’t seen anyone come out of these training things to come fish on a boat,” said Troy Linington, a Tu Cho member, at the Ptarmigan Inn breakfast meeting in mid-March.

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Jamie Linington says some of those training sessions don’t last very long and don’t expose newcomers to the kinds of technique most fishers on the lake now use. She says Tu Cho has had more luck with sessions of its own.

In particular, she wants Tu Cho to run more training sessions in Indigenous communities.

“We did run a training in Fort Providence. It was great,” she said at the breakfast meeting. “We had 43 people come out and then the whole town had a fish fry.

“The way you advertise and communicate this as a fishing sector is much different than the way you do as a bureaucratic department that has literally no connections in these communities. So even when we’re not born and raised here, we are still immersed in it when we sell fish, and when we hire, and when we frequent these communities.

“We don’t ever have an issue with participation, is what I’m saying.”

Fish kept frozen in a container at Hay River’s old fish plant. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Beyond that, Troy Linington says there is genuine hope on the horizon for more people getting into the industry. He has seen it himself.

“I brought a new guy from Alberta this season,” he said, referring to the winter season just past, “and he’s really interested in coming up again next season … I’ve got more people that are more than interested to come up and start really producing next winter.

“I’m pretty confident I’ve got another crew that’s going to be interested in doing the winter, for the next few years anyway. And I’ve been planning to do that again and again. We keep bringing green guys up. The winter gear is very appealing to a lot of people.”

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What’s driving a lot of that interest is a recent increase in fish prices.

Jamie Linington says she convinced Freshwater to let Tu Cho send fish caught in winter “round,” meaning whole. In the past, Freshwater wanted the fish to be dressed (the opposite of round, meaning the fins, scales and sometimes head are removed) before transit out of the territory, largely because of concern that a whole fish might spoil on the way.

That concern didn’t pan out. That’s a big deal, because selling round fish to Freshwater is a lot easier – you just grab fish after fish and send them on, rather than having to work on each fish individually for longer periods. And the price is better, too. If you have to dress a fish first, you’re wasting time and being paid less at the end.

When Freshwater agreed to this switch, it meant an instant increase in the prices available to Tu Cho fishers.

“The way I got him up here was the increased fish prices,” said Troy Linington of his Alberta hire.

“I’m able to pay him more. That’s been the biggest detriment – the fish price has been too low to pay guys the right amount to get them up here. People get paid a lot of money in Alberta. To get them to come up here to work? You know, everyone’s been to the grocery store, it’s expensive. But with this increased pay that I can offer, I’ve got another two green guys that are more than willing to come up next year.”

If that sounds like a big change for the better just happened, don’t get carried away.

In an email on Tuesday last week, Freshwater said “shipping to Winnipeg in the open-water season creates a quality concern” so it won’t buy round fish in summer until a test can take place, to see if the quality holds up. But the price in the winter season was a significant step forward and gave some fishers hope.

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Fog on Great Slave Lake in June 2021
Fog on Great Slave Lake in June 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Show the fish is ethically sourced.

This is, in some respects, a stunning oversight. At the moment, NWT fish doesn’t get to carry a label stating it is ethically sourced. The lack of that label is actively harming sales.

“New York, Boston, European nations, they don’t want it unless it has these labels,” Jamie Linington said.

To get that certification, you have to bring in biologists and demonstrate fish stocks are being handled based on sustainable populations and not political or economic whim.

“Without having eco-certification, or at least being in the process of it, you will not get access into places like Loblaws, and it’s very important that the GNWT get with that,” said Linington.

“We know how ethical our practices are. The waste compared to the other seafood sectors is nothing. They keep 10 percent of their yields,” she said, referring to fishers in other jurisdictions. “We keep 98 percent.”

Wawzonek agrees with Linington and said the NWT government is pursuing this. She said the Department of Environment and Climate Change will be asked to take the lead.

Choosing to frame this as “an opportunity” rather than something that ought to have been done ages ago, the minister said: “We’re going to hit the market with our wonderful, sustainable fish.”

Look at how the lake works.

At one point, back in the 1950s, fishers on Great Slave Lake pulled in more than two million kilograms of fish a year. The industry used to be far larger than it is now. (Read Fran Hurcomb’s new book, Chasing Fish, to learn more.)

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When the industry was bigger, there were harbours dotted across the lake. Now that it has declined, almost all of the harbours have gone, too.

Those harbours offered convenience and safety. Without them, restarting the industry is difficult.

Jamie Linington points out that her father was fishing 37 nautical miles away from the nearest harbour at the time he went missing. The farther you are from a harbour, the more trouble you’re in if conditions change on one of the world’s largest lakes.

“We went down to area three,” said Troy Linington, referring to an area east of Hay River. “We tried to dock over there. If you get a wrong wind, all those waves are starting to come crashing over your boat overnight. So you’ve got to pull your boat out of the water every day and then relaunch it every day.”

Jamie likens the current situation to building a shopping mall but having the only parking lot five miles away. The lake is huge and the fish are often a vast distance from any harbour, so do you take the risk or not?

“If you have a parking spot five miles away from the mall but that spot is really close to a couple of other stores, you’re going to go to those stores,” she continued.

“So in our area, we have been harvesting exclusively the south basin. That’s not necessarily healthy for anything.”

But regulations also prevent fishing within a certain radius of Hay River’s harbour, she said. So despite the size of the lake, finding a suitable area to fish in – one that complies with the regulations, can be reached in a reasonable period of time and has a safe harbour nearby – is often difficult.

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Building a new system of harbours might not be feasible in the near future, but the fishers say there are steps that could be taken.

In a letter to the GNWT, Tu Cho president Cameron Beaverbones said options for temporary harbours should be explored and the federal regulations limiting fishing near Hay River should be amended.

There are also restrictions on harvesting some types of fish, like inconnu, that the fishers do not fully understand and believe are having an adverse impact on other fish stocks.

Wawzonek said the GNWT can get on board with some of these concerns, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada can be approached about changes.

“To the extent that we can advocate together and not have infighting about… well, you know, often it’s little communicative things – if we can find common ground about what we need to see change vis-a-vis DFO, or how to attract new fishers, I think those are two areas where we both share the same goals,” the minister said.

Beyond that, there are other infrastructure items that could help. Housing is an example.

Housing is a struggle anywhere in the NWT, but fishers would be excited to have support finding accommodation for crews they bring in.

“Commercial fishers will require support to develop camps for crew and storage for equipment,” Beaverbones wrote in his letter.

“I’m going to start looking at housing in Yellowknife,” said Troy Linington, “because I need to go somewhere else to continue producing the way I want to produce. I want to produce here when I can, but I’m hearing that Yellowknife is where to go early in the season.”

Rocky Simpson addresses the legislature in October 2019
Rocky Simpson addresses the legislature.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek during a briefing with reporters on October 19, 2020
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek during a briefing with reporters.

Set priorities. Pursue them clearly.

Rocky Simpson, the Hay River South MLA, appeared to spend some of March’s breakfast meeting trying to broach a delicate subject.

Well aware of the difficult relationship between the GNWT and Jamie Linington, Simpson tried multiple times to suggest a change in tactics: less confrontation and more unification.

Rather than highlighting the failings of specific staff members, Simpson said Linington and Tu Cho should devote time to establishing key priorities and conveying them clearly.

“We can constantly sit and talk about ‘this is wrong and that’s wrong.’ If you don’t bring them together, it’s never going to change,” he told Linington over coffee.

Simpson envisages an annual forum where all of the fishers and the GNWT staff, and other interested parties, can gather.

“If we had that, we could say: what are the three things that we want out of it?” He suggested. “Then there would be a meeting ahead of time with them, so that they know how they have to prepare and they can be prepared to deliver what’s needed.”

He concluded: “Nobody talks to each other, and that’s why you have to somehow bring them together. But when you do bring them together, you have to have those top items that you want to accomplish. You accomplish those and then, next time, you add three more items – and you bring them together again.”

Since that meeting, some of Tu Cho’s messaging has noticeably coalesced around a small set of concerns where clear paths forward appear to exist: issues like regulations, infrastructure and training.

On the other side of that coin, Simpson wants the GNWT to think about who’s running the show for the territorial government.

“Who do we have that’s actually qualified, that has that fishing background, working within ITI?” He asked. “We should have somebody there that has some actual working knowledge. And if we don’t have that, then why don’t we have it, and can we get that?

“Then their job is to work with the fishers to ensure that we have a viable industry. That’s the only way we’re going to make it work. We need the fishermen out there producing, we can’t be expecting you guys to be sitting in the offices, fighting with government and doing paperwork.”

If some of the above can be achieved, and Tu Cho can demonstrate progress in governance, there is hope that in three years’ time, the fish plant might come under their management.

However, it’s worth noting that barbed emails continue to be exchanged regarding the new plant, and it would be hard to characterize GNWT-Tu Cho relations as anything other than poor.

Wawzonek says handing over the fish plant isn’t necessarily the primary end goal.

“The strategy is about revitalizing the fish industry for fishers,” the minister said. “So if their production goes up and their incomes go up, I think that’s the success.

“I would like to see them own this plant and operate the plant themselves – if not the fishers in some sort of cooperative, then certainly some sort of a northern entity. That’d be ideal. But really, this is about getting a better price for the fishers.”

“They assume that we’re a captive audience,” said Linington last week.

“We’re just not, because we have other options. There are other freshwater fish quotas in other jurisdictions that are under-utilized,” she said, suggesting the fishers might simply go elsewhere if things do not improve.

“We have a whole bunch of varying opinions out there about what should happen or what shouldn’t happen,” she added, confirming that Tu Cho would not start using the plant on its planned opening date.

“But at the end of the day, it’s the producers that are the ones risking their lives. And we have a good core group of those fishers, standing together.”