I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number nine of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. Pursuant to the motion adopted by the House on May 26, 2020, Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on June 1, 2020, the committee is proceeding to a briefing from the minister and the officials on the government's response to COVID-19.
Today's meeting is is taking place by video conference, of course, and the proceedings are public and are made available via the House of Commons website. So you are aware, the webcast will show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
For the benefit of all members and also our minister and witnesses, I should remind all of you of a few rules to follow. However, since everyone here was here yesterday, except for Mr. d'Entremont, shall I skip over that part? If everybody's been on other committees, they've probably heard them many times.
Should any technical challenges arise, for example, in relation to interpretation or a problem with your audio, please advise the chair immediately, and the technical team will work to resolve them. Please note that we may need to suspend during these times as we need to ensure all members are able to participate fully.
Before we get started, can everyone click on their screen, in the top right-hand corner, and ensure they are on gallery view? With this view, you should be able to see all the participants in a grid view. It will ensure that all video participants can see one another.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses who are with us again today and, of course, the Honourable Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. We have the same list of participants as yesterday, so can I have unanimous consent not to read out everybody's name and their position so we can get down to business?
Okay. I'll let the minister know that it's her turn for opening remarks for six minutes or less.
Go ahead when you're ready, Minister Jordan.
I would like to make my statement, please.
Thanks again for the opportunity to speak to the members of this committee.
Today I am again accompanied by many officials, including my deputy minister, Tim Sargent, and Canadian Coast Guard Commissioner Mario Pelletier.
I appreciate the invitation to discuss our government's commitment to help Canada's fish and seafood sector get through these unprecedented and very challenging times. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, we're working hard to protect Canadians, support the harvesters and businesses and ensure families have what they need.
I would like to begin by assuring members that my department remains very much at the forefront of managing Canada's fisheries and protecting the marine environment. As this crisis unfolded, our fishery officers kept up the patrols, surveillance of the North Atlantic right whales continues and, as I indicated in my testimony before you yesterday, the remediation work at Big Bar continues to move without stopping.
Our officials have worked overtime to make sure that stakeholders across the country were being heard. We continue to navigate this crisis together, listening to advice from those who work in the fishery about when to open the various fishing seasons and how to adjust our ways of working to make sure that we continue to support commercial and recreational fishing. DFO officials and harbour authority volunteers have worked hard with provincial and territorial counterparts and other partners to ensure the health and safety of essential workers, fish harvesters and, indeed, all Canadians who use our harbours.
The Coast Guard continues its essential operations and remains hard at work every day, delivering much-needed search and rescue, ice-breaking, maritime security and environmental response.
Today I want to reassure committee members that we continue to provide essential services in our fisheries sector so that those working in our fisheries can expect to receive the support they need to safely continue feeding Canadians.
Back in January, we started to see the kind of impact COVID-19 was having on the global economy, particularly in the seafood sector, with the decline of overseas export markets. Since then, my officials and I have been talking to and working with harvesters, aquaculture producers, processors, indigenous partners, and the provinces and territories about some of the unique pressures that the sector has been facing.
As spring approached, we started to plan amidst an uncertain global market. We knew that in order to stabilize the industry as a whole, we would need to develop programs that would provide financial support to both harvesters and processors.
As you well know, the window of harvesting certain stocks is limited, so products needed to be stored longer and new markets needed to be found.
With export markets declining and domestic food supply becoming more important than ever, the industry will need to respond more to Canadian domestic consumption. With the closure of restaurants across the country, Canadians are instead looking to purchase seafood at the store and from local harvesters.
As you know, our government has delivered economic measures to help individual Canadians and businesses get through the pandemic, through the Canada emergency response benefit, the Canada emergency wage subsidy, the Canada emergency business account and a number of other tax credit measures.
We have also been working around the clock to support the Canadian fish and seafood industry adapt to a new reality, as it is the backbone of many of our coastal communities.
This has ultimately led to a significant $500-million investment to support the hard-working women and men in our fisheries. To deliver these funds, we've created the fish harvester benefit, the fish harvester grant and the Canadian seafood stabilization fund.
The fish harvester benefit will provide self-employed commercial harvesters and sharesperson crew members who cannot access the Canadian wage subsidy with up to $847.00 a week. This includes those in inshore and freshwater fisheries and fishing under indigenous commercial communal licences.
The fish harvester grant will provide a non-repayable grant of up to $10,000 to self-employed commercial harvesters who cannot access the Canada emergency business account. Along with the benefit, these funds can be used to cover the costs of running a fishing business, including increasing costs due to health and safety requirements. We're working to ensure that harvesters can receive these supports this summer.
The $62.5-million Canadian seafood stabilization fund is invested directly into the marine processing sector to help tackle a number of challenges and to help plants adapt to market changes and the new ways of working. Processors on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts can tap into the funds to increase their storage capacity, allowing them to buy more from harvesters and aquaculture operators. The funding can also be used to help with rebranding and marketing efforts, to make changes to manufacturing and automated technologies and to offset the cost of implementing health and safety measures.
While these new programs take into account the unique operational structures of the industry, we know that this season will definitely be a challenge. That's why we're proposing changes to the fish harvester employment insurance system, which will allow harvesters and sharespeople to file EI claims based on previous seasons' earnings. The industry went into this pandemic strong, but we know this year is going to be like unlike anything we've ever seen before.
Tens of thousands of Canadians were counting on this fishing season for employment, revenue and food. By investing over half a billion dollars in the seafood sector, our goal is not only to ensure that workers get the financial support they need right now, but that the industry as a whole is placed in a strong position for recovery.
As we continue to move forward in the face of so much global uncertainty, I am confident that we will continue to serve Canadians under these very difficult circumstances. I am now happy to take your questions.
Thank you, Minister, for being here.
Early in the process, fish harvesters and processors and provincial governments repeatedly asked for guidance from the federal government in their efforts to make their workplaces safe for Canadians. Time and again, these requests for guidance were ignored and the federal government didn't provide any guidance. This created uncertainty and delays across our fish and seafood sectors.
Yes, the provinces have a responsibility for workplace safety, but they wanted federal guidance with regard to the unprecedented threats of COVID-19.
Last week, the committee heard that the Coast Guard started developing onboard safety protocols for all vessels and bases in February, as soon as they heard that the COVID-19 crisis was coming.
Minister, why did you refuse to provide workplace safety guidance such as the protocols that the Coast Guard has in hand for vessels of all sizes, or the protocols that the CFIA has provided for meat-processing plants?
Thank you, Mr. Cormier. Also, thank you for all of the work you've done in your riding to make sure your harvesters' and processors' voices are heard.
We have put three specific programs in place: the fish harvester benefit, the fish harvester grant and the Canadian seafood stabilization fund.
The fish harvester benefit is going to provide up to $847 per week for owner-operators as well as share crew. Recognizing that they did not qualify for the wage subsidy and they treat their crews differently with regard to a share as opposed to a wage, we wanted to make sure that these people were captured.
The grant is for up to $10,000. That is a non-repayable amount of money that can be given to harvesters to help with their overhead costs this year for things like bait, insurance and licence fees. These are all things that we know have costs. They are not not going to have quite as lucrative a season this year, based on what we're seeing with our export markets.
Finally, there is the seafood stabilization fund. That was a $62.5-million fund that we put in place for processors to put safety protocols in place. Of course, it's backdated to March, so for anything that they have done they will be able to qualify. It's to put safety measures in place, as well as retool their facilities and do value added to make sure they have the capacity to store. Right now, as you know, we're primarily a fresh market exporter. Having an ability to have fridges and freezers was something we heard a lot about, and we wanted to make sure that we were there for them.
These measures are going to be put through the regional development agencies, but I will say that this would not have been possible without all the input we got from so many great people across the industry, such as people in your riding, for example, and the Maritime Fishermen's Union, the crabbers associations, the harvesters and the processors. We've worked very diligently with all of them to make sure we have the measures in place that they require to get through this very difficult season.
Thank you, Madam Minister.
I would like to talk about something else.
As I told your officials last week, fishing fleets head out to sea right outside my home. They include lobster and crab fishers. Unfortunately, the shrimper fleet has not yet gone out to sea this year. I know that you had a telephone conversation with them last week.
Today, agreements have been reached in Quebec. The shrimpers may be able to go out to sea, but if fishing does not go ahead in our area, I hope specific programs will be in place for our shrimpers.
Could you tell us about the shrimp issue in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but also in other parts of the Atlantic provinces?
So at the moment, there are people in family businesses or worker cooperatives who are not covered for the dates we talked about.
You brought up employment insurance. It is also very important to people in eastern Quebec, since separate changes are being announced for fisher helpers, a certain category of workers in the fishing industry.
However, there are also seasonal workers in the processing industry. There are also people who do not have access to employment insurance, people who do not know if they will be able to accumulate enough hours to qualify and receive benefits, people who believe that their year will be a complete black hole, that they will have absolutely nothing to survive on, except perhaps with an extension of the CERB. However, that would not put food on their tables for the whole year.
Have you made plans to do anything for these individuals faced with having absolutely nothing, either now, or as soon as their CERB ends?
I'm going to circle back to something. Yesterday we were talking about restoration and habitat protection and how important they are. I'll give you an example.
There's a project in my riding, and I've talked to you about it, called Kus-kus-sum. It's a project with the City of Courtenay and the K'ómoks First Nation. Local community groups have raised $1 million in the community and the province has put forward $1 million. They need $3 million to buy this brown field, a former mill site, to restore the area to its natural habitat for salmon protection.
This is one of the most important projects on Vancouver Island, but this group is being told there is no program at the DFO to help them and that they should go to ISC, and then ISC is telling them to go to ECCC. They're getting bounced around, yet the government can find an extra $35 million for the Big Bar landslide, which we support and has to happen.
What we don't support is that the Liberals can find $17 billion for a pipeline but can't find a million dollars to save this project. The deadline to buy this property was supposed to be the end of the month, but instead it's been moved to the end of August. We're looking at losing a really important project, not just for salmon but for reconciliation.
Minister, what are you going to do to fix the gaps in your programs so that we don't let projects like this fall apart? The province is going to end up getting its million dollars back. It has vetted it. It knows it's a good project.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Minister.
In the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one group has slipped through the cracks. That's the sport fishery, especially our recreational fishing industry on the west coast. Other than general support programs, there's no specifically targeted support like the ones you created for commercial harvesters and processors.
The salmon fishing closures that DFO imposed last year had a devastating impact on the 9,000 jobs the industry supports in B.C., and of course the $1.1 billion of economic activity it sustains. That was before the COVID pandemic hit. The impact will be even worse this year due to the restrictions the guiding and outfitting industry must comply with due to the virus. Quite frankly, the industry just wants to go back to work.
Minister, it's my understanding that some time ago, the sport fishing industry placed before you a proposal to allow a minimum catch and retention chinook fishery. At most, such a proposal will intercept less than 1% of any endangered chinook run. Yet to date, the Sport Fishing Advisory Board has received no response to their proposal. Meanwhile, the guides and outfitters can't book trips since they can't, with certainty, promise their clients the opportunity to actually fish.
Minister, this industry doesn't want handouts. They want to deliver a world-class sport fishing experience to their clients. Why the delay in responding? Can the industry expect a response to their proposal this year?
Thank you, Mr. Morrissey, and you are correct. I come from a small rural coastal community. It's something that has driven my passion for this industry from day one. I grew up in it.
With regard to small craft harbours specifically, we know that these are the economic drivers of our rural coastal communities. They are a necessary part of who we are and what we do. The fishery relies on them. They're our highways. As a government, we have invested significantly in small craft harbours. We will continue to look at the best ways going forward to address the long-term needs.
There had not been an increase in small craft harbour funding for over 20 years until we formed the government, and in that time, of course, small craft harbours continued to deteriorate.
With regard to fisheries officers, because of the work that we as a government have done on the Fisheries Act, we are going to be able to increase the important role that fisheries officers play. We've increased the staff at DFO by 300 for the science. This is all funding that has come because of our government.
We will not leave our fishing communities behind. We know how important they are to our way of life. Previous governments have done that, but we will not do that.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Welcome to the basement chez d'Entremont. It's great to see all of you.
Minister, it's always good to see you, as well.
I'm not going to go without saying a few quick words about Mr. Morrissey's little comment earlier.
What I saw in the House earlier today was that the was unable to deliver a consensus. I guess it's either the Liberal way or the highway, but it's unfortunate to see that happen in our House when bills are important to us. I'll move on.
When it comes to the Canadian SSF, seafood stabilization fund, I know a number of companies that have tons of surplus space. Has DFO done a survey of existing capacity, especially in southwest, south shore, Nova Scotia?
I think there are a number of things there, Mr. Hardie.
First of all, we have seen the collapse of the export market since early in January. The fish and seafood sector was one of the first sectors impacted by COVID-19. We have been working to try to develop new ways of asking people to support their local industry and to make sure that people eat Canadian seafood. We Canadians don't eat enough seafood. I think everyone should be promoting that as much as possible to support our local industry. We continue to explore where markets could be developed, but of course, as you know, that's a different department.
We are looking to make sure that we have the capacity in the processing facilities to store and hold product longer. We are looking at value added. That's another big thing that's necessary. One of the industries in B.C., for example, is the oyster industry. We've spoken to one oyster producer who wants to go from a fresh product to a smoked product, because he knows that will have a longer shelf life and he'll have more of an ability to sell domestically if he does.
Those are the kinds of innovative ideas that we're supporting and looking for to make sure we can get through this very difficult time.
Actually, Mr. Bragdon, it was not broken.
We took a number of things into consideration when it came to the delays. With regard to the gulf specifically, the four areas in the gulf, we had various requests for opening dates. The one request that was consistent though was that they all open on the same day.
Recognizing that processors were not ready because of health protocols that had to be put in place, the delay had to remain until May 15, because that was when the processors would be ready and when the majority of the harvesters wanted to go. The harvesters in those areas all said that no matter what the date was, they had to go on the same date.
It was a decision made in consultation with harvesters, the industry, stakeholders, processors and buyers. These are all things that are taken into consideration when we make these decisions.
I would like to follow on Mr. Bradgon's comments. That is exactly what happened.
As the minister said, the plants were not ready. Plants had to put in place safety protocols for employees, and even fishers realized that the plants were not ready. There have been cases of COVID-19, for example, in Quebec. So safety protocols had to be implemented for plant employees so that they could work in a safe environment. Several associations asked that the fishing season be delayed.
In this regard, Madam Minister, for the past four years, the presence of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has had a significant impact on the industry and our communities, as you know. This year has not been easy so far, but I would like to thank you. Indeed, measures were relaxed again this year.
We have removed the static zone and set up dynamic zones. These measures were proposed to us by industry, by associations. We also brought in Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers. The hovercraft came into the area much earlier than usual. We also have a contract with an icebreaker that came in to open up the seaports in the region so that the season could start earlier. I thank you for that.
Nevertheless, it is not easy this year, as you know. Whales are in the Gulf. Several fishing areas are closed. In the past four years, we have always been able to adapt. We have also listened to the industry to ensure that the measures concerning right whales are adjusted from year to year, but also so that we do not lose the market in the United States, for example, and elsewhere in the world.
Madam Minister, as you know, fishers are a little frustrated with the situation at the moment. The community is suffering as well, and I would like to ask you this.
Are you prepared, as we have been doing for the past four years, to once again consider improvements to right whale protection measures so that fishers can bring their quotas ashore, but also so that the employees and communities depending on the fishery can make a living from this industry? The region is in great need of it.
Thank you, Mr. Cormier.
The harvesters in your area have faced a number of challenges this year with regard to not only COVID-19 but also weather delays, ice and, of course, now the whales returning to the area.
One of the things we have done as a government and as a department over the past number of years is to address the whale measures. Every season we look at what works, what doesn't and how we can make it better. We know we need to protect the whales for a number of reasons, not only because they are an endangered species but also because doing that is extremely important for us in our agreements with the United States for export markets. We'll continue to do that.
We want to work with the industry. Its members were the ones who worked so hard with us to come up with the measures we put in place this year to protect the whales. We'll continue to do that. It's extremely important that we continue to have those conversations.
I understand there are challenges this year. I also understand they have caught close to 80% of their quota, so it is good, but I know it's challenging with the closures because of the whales.
Thank you, Minister. Again, thank you for all the work you did this year with getting the coast guard here ASAP and also the third party agreement with our icebreaker ship.
Another thing I want to go back to is EI payments. I heard a Conservative member on a committee speaking about EI. All of a sudden Conservatives all want fishermen and seasonal workers to have EI, when in 2013, something I don't know if everyone remembers, the Harper government put the worst EI reform in place, and it hurt our region and our seasonal industry.
In the program we just announced, we said that we will look at EI for fishermen based on their previous year. As you know, there are deck men who also come into play, as well as other seasonal workers in the industry.
You said that EI will be based on the previous year. Also, the said that nobody will be left behind. My father was a deck man, and I hope we will think of those people also.
Can you please comment on that and where we are in the discussions regarding EI payments?
Thank you, Minister, for being here for questions.
To quote from some of your own words today, the programs are here to help “through this...difficult time”. Unfortunately, time is marching on, from March, April, May and now into June. Early on you indicated that the fisheries sector would be eligible for the CEWS program and the business account program. That turned out not to be the case.
Now you've announced the seafood stabilization fund and the fish harvesters grant. Both of those announcements have been out, but not a penny has flowed. That's not helping harvesters and processors through these difficult times. When can fish harvesters and processors expect to see those applications open online and see dollars flowing after those applications are open?
Thank you again for being here, Minister.
Parliament took a shot at it this afternoon and it didn't work so well, so we're going to need to do a little bit more consensus building, I think, among our opposition colleagues to get some of these things done.
I'll be splitting my time with Mr. Cormier. He'll want to get a question in.
We really have to focus on the east coast, where there are some major processing plants, as we don't have major processing plants so much on the west coast anymore. In the work that's been done, have you noticed, Minister, whether those plants are going to have to, in the longer run, make some significant changes to their physical plant in order to maintain social distancing, to operate safely so that workers, unlike in the beef and pork sector, don't get sick?
Madam Minister, you said we need to work together. The provinces and the territories are included too. The fisheries are not only a federal jurisdiction, because the provinces have a role to play as well.
Since the beginning of this pandemic in New Brunswick, Premier Higgs, a Conservative, has been the last premier in Canada to help his fellow citizens.
When I hear the Conservative committee members also asking for employment insurance flexibility, I wonder what country they live in. We must remember that in 2013, they went ahead with the worst reform of employment insurance ever. It hurt our economy and our fishers very badly. Premier Higgs said that people in New Brunswick were living on an employment insurance system that no longer exists, one of 10 weeks' work for 42 weeks of benefits.
My question is this, Minister. Have you had discussions with the provincial fisheries minister? Did he tell you whether New Brunswick is going to put money on the table to help New Brunswick fishers at this time?