Fisher River Cree Nation’s fishers sent a blunt message to the provincial Conservatives by “opting in” to a formal contract with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation.
FRCN’s McBeth Fisheries signed the contract
April 21, becoming the first community to definitively
stand with the federally run corporation with
which the province intends to sever ties.
The contract will take effect upon the passing of
Bill 23, which will remove Manitoba from the Freshwater
Fish Marketing Act.
“We’re standing united on this issue,” said Sam
Murdock, who’s a fi sher, the First Nation’s director
of operations and co-chair of the Lake Winnipeg
Fishery Co-Management Board.
FFMC had provided the contract to Fisher River a
few months ago so that it could consider its merits.
“We did our due diligence by having our legal
counsel review it,” said Murdock. “The only thing
you’d fi nd in there is how you opt-out of it. He’s [the
lawyer] good with that. The contract is good. It’s
clean.”
Fisher River has about 148 fishers and a number of
helpers, employing approximately 206 people year
round.
In January, Sustainable Development Minister
Cathy Cox sent FRCN an infl ammatory letter stating
Aboriginal people do not have treaty rights regarding
fi shing for commercial purposes, despite
precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada rulings
saying they do.
FRCN had criticized the government for failing in
its “duty to consult” First Nations on matters that
affect them. The province’s hiring of Signature Mediation
to tour various communities had not been
considered a “consultation” by a number of fi shing
communities.
After the Conservatives’ opt-out announcement
last August, fi shers from across Manitoba expressed
concern about the potential loss of benefi ts
they currently enjoy under FFMC: stable prices,
Employment Insurance, freight subsidies for transporting
fi sh long distances, profi t-sharing (a yearly
fi nal payment) and loans backed by FFMC under
the Communities Economic Development Fund to
buy fishing equipment.
Entrepreneurs who’ve expressed an interest in
building fi sh plants have yet to confi rm what benefi
ts they’ll offer fi shers other than better prices for
their fish.
Murdock said FFMC’s benefits are important, especially
to Indigenous fishers, who make up about
85 per cent of all Manitoba’s fishers.
There’ll be no changes to those benefits under
an open market, said FFMC’s Dave Bergunder and
John Binding, who met with fi shers at the community
hall to explain each clause in the contract and
answer questions before it was signed.
Contracts will provide stability to fishers, said
Binding, who oversees fi eld operations in southern
Manitoba. They’re a “commitment” by FFMC to buy
all of their fish.
Contracts will also provide security for the corporation,
enabling it to determine its future production
capacity and be a “consistent supplier to the
marketplace.”
“We’re getting ready because it would not be prudent
for us to not have a plan,” said Bergunder, director
of fi eld operations. “The [FFMC’s] board of
directors … told management this uncertainty is
creating a lot of problems for the fi shers. Come up
with this plan and go out and share it with fi shers so
it quells uncertainty. Nobody knows what’s going to
happen. So what we’re saying is not to fear.”
In an open market, FFMC would be free to choose
whether or not to purchase fi sh from non-contracted
fi shers, said Binding. Those fi shers “could receive
lower prices and probably will. And there’s no
profit-sharing.”
The corporation’s priority will be to protect fishers
who sign contracts.
“We’re looking after our membership first,” said
Bergunder. “If they [non-contracted] have some fi sh
for sale that will benefi t our members, then, yes,
we’ll buy it.”
The contract is a flexible document that enables
fishers to adjust their catch sizes (e.g., if they purchase
or sell quota or if fi sh populations change),
and permits them to “opt out” of their contract with
no penalties.
The contracts are similar to those FFMC has with
95 per cent of the fi shers in Saskatchewan, said Bergunder.
If fi shers opt out of their contracts for a spell, then
ask to sign on again, they may be offered reduced
prices.
Fishers can cancel their contracts with 180 days’
notice.
“That is enough time to make adjustments on
both sides,” said Binding. “You can’t pull out in the
middle of a season because that would really disrupt
your business plan as well as ours.”
Those who breach a provision while under contract
(e.g., sell fi sh to a buyer other than FFMC, falsify
records, etc.) would have their contract terminated
by FFMC with the same 180 days’ notice.
“We won’t leave you until the end of the season
even if you do something bad,” said Bergunder.
Fishers asked how the governing structure of the
corporation will change under an open market and
how Manitoba’s fi shers will be represented on the
FFMC board.
“We’re not sure how this whole thing will evolve,”
said Bergunder, “but there’s going to be discussion
between fi shers groups and the federal minister.”
Murdock said the corporation may become a cooperative
“where we have members actually paying
into it. So when you retire, you have something
there. It’s yours. And it’s based on your production.”
Murdock said staying with FFMC is the best
course for Fisher River.
“If somebody’s telling you the grass is greener on
the other side, I don’t think so,” he said, citing an
American fishery and pricing that benefits its operators
rather than fishers. “We get more money for
our fi sh on this side. Plus they [fishers] don’t get any
EI, they don’t get a share of the profi ts, and if they
want to buy anything in terms of equipment, then
it’s on their own.”
Bergunder and Binding will be visiting every fishing
community that sells to Freshwater to provide
fi shers with information on contracts and address
their concerns.
Preliminary discussions they’ve already had with
some communities indicate a willingness to remain
with the corporation.
“Right now I believe probably 85 per cent of the
fi shers are supporting the corporation in Manitoba,”
said Bergunder. “I think there’s going to be areas
where that’s not going to happen, but that’s talk.
Until people sign, we’ll see.”

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