The abrasive clang of salmon cans interrupted the committee members’ introductions as a couple dozen shoreworkers entered the conference room.
The tins of salmon were meant to make a statement to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services who were in Prince Rupert on Monday for the province-wide public consultation for the upcoming provincial budget.
Last November, the Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco) announced it would be shutting down its salmon canning operations at the Oceanside plant in Prince Rupert. Christina Nelson, northern organizer for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU), stated the union’s case to the standing committee.
“The provincial government needs to create policies that would ensure we process our fish into a consumer ready product, in our plants, in our communities,” Nelson said in a prepared speech.
She explained how salmon caught in Prince Rupert is being shipped to Vancouver or China to be processed into consumer ready products, which has cost thousands of hours of work.
For example, in 2015, three million pounds of salmon were canned at the Oceanside plant providing 78,000 hours of work to the shoreworkers. In 2016, Nelson said they gutted and shipped five million pounds of salmon — providing only 34,000 hours of work that should have been 130,000 hours if they had also canned the salmon.
Nelson and UFAWU requested the provincial government implement adjacency regulations to prevent the loss of hours, jobs and income for workers on the North Coast. The adjacency principle is an international practice in the Canada Oceans Act and other international documents that mandates fish should be processed in the area where they’re caught.
“We have workers, we have the fish, and meanwhile the Oceanside plant sits, underutilized, and the workers are starving,” Nelson said.
The federal government implemented changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) program in July allowing claimants to be eligible if they have between 420 and 700 hours of insurable employment, rather than 910 hours which was regulation before the changes. However, Prince Rupert shoreworkers aren’t able to collect the minimum number of hours after salmon canning operations ended last year.
The provincial standing committee heard the story of one shoreworker who has 44 years seniority and this year only had 247.5 hours and will not qualify for EI benefits. Nelson said that “2008 was the only other year since 1972 that she did not work enough hours to qualify for EI.”
Six Liberal and four NDP members make up the committee, including North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice who has also been vocal over the Canfisco issue. When the announcement that the salmon canning operations would end in November she brought the matter up in legislature.
“We know that North Coast salmon is still going to be canned. It’s just not going to be canned in British Columbia. Jobs are being shipped overseas. What is this government going to do today for families that need jobs now, and will this government take action to ensure B.C. salmon creates B.C. jobs?”
After UFAWU raised its case at 2 p.m., the committee heard from members of the Prince Rupert community until 6 p.m. The witness list included Elizabeth Wilson from North Coast Literacy Now, Ulf Kristiansen from the Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre Society, Ken Veldman from the Port of Prince Rupert and Thom O’Dell via teleconference of BC Hazelnut Growers Association.
The standing committee is travelling across the province this fall and will receive comments and information until Oct. 14.
The report will be released by Nov. 15 and will inform the government’s 2017 budget process.