The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union is hoping residents of Prince Rupert can dust off their pens, stamps and notebooks and put them to good use in the coming days.
The union (UFAWU-Unifor) was hard at work last fall, rallying North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice, Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen, the City of Prince Rupert and the District of Port Edward to support them after Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco), a division of the Jim Pattison Group announced the closure of salmon canning operations at its Oceanside Plant.
While they received sympathetic voices in all those representatives, mayors and council members, UFAWU is taking the fight federally.
The union has begun a letter writing campaign to federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Hunter Tootoo, urging both union members and non-union members alike to draft letters to send to the minister stating what kinds of jobs they perform as fishermen, how many years they’ve worked in the cannery and to consider recommending three policies on the West Coast that would protect area fishermen.
“We’re also asking the community to either write their own letters to the minister or to download it online. We have it on Facebook and we have copies here in the community,” said UFAWU-Unifor northern representative Joy Thorkelson.
With the salmon canning closure, the union has estimated that only 150-200 workers now work in the fishing industry out of the Prince Rupert area at one time, a significant drop of 2,000 in the industry’s heyday. Unconfirmed numbers that have floated around indicate that approximately 500 full-time, part-time and seasonal direct jobs could be affected by the cut and close to double that in indirect jobs in the region.
“[The letter] is to simply say that you support [the City of Prince Rupert] council’s resolution, which is right on the letter, and that resolution says you support the principles of adjacency, owner-operator and fleet separation,” said UFAWU-Unifor northern organizer Riley Caputo.
The policy of adjacency is the main sticking point the union would like to see enacted, and it states that fish caught on the North Coast should be processed on the North Coast and not sent to places with cheaper labour, such as Vancouver or China, or they would have the first right of refusal if there is too much fish.
In a letter sent out to union members, UFAWU-Unifor states that processing, including canning, filleting and vacuum-sealing salmon, filleting groundfish and vacuum-sealing urchins, shellfish and all seafood would be forced to take place on the North Coast for fish caught in the same area.
The owner-operator provision indicates that the same people doing the fishing are the ones operating the licence, meaning the Jim Pattison Group can’t control 40 per cent of the same fleet and also control 40 per cent of the production, explained Thorkelson.
“The corporation can’t actually operate the same boats. They have to hire people to control the same boats. The benefit of the catch goes to the fisherman. The value of the catch doesn’t go back to the company,” she added.
Lastly, the fleet separation provision explains that companies aren’t allowed to own fishing licences. They are just the buyers and processors of fish and do not handle them ‘cradle to grave’.
All three policies have been enacted either in Atlantic Canada or in the Arctic, said Caputo.
“It’s just the West Coast that doesn’t have it … It turns out [Minister Tootoo], his former job was pushing for exactly the same thing – pushing for adjacency in the North Coast or in the Arctic. So he’ll have more compassion for the cause, I’d imagine,” Caputo said.
UFAWU-Unifor is planning on engaging in talks with Minister Tootoo for the first time in person on Jan. 28 in southern B.C. They’re hoping for an inquiry or commission to be created, but even then, Thorkelson sees a long road ahead.
“Obviously it can’t be done overnight. When they changed things on the East Coast, it was over 10 years and maybe it will be 10 years for this coast, but we need to talk about things like fishermen’s loan boards … We believe the minister should not come talk about whether we need these kinds of policies on the coast – we clearly need these policies if we’re going to have working fishermen in this industry,” Thorkelson said.
“We’re going to lose all our fishermen. How many young fishermen do you know? Not many. We’re going to lose the ability to harvest fish as a skill-set. It doesn’t pass down the generations to have young fishermen out on boats, and the reason is they can’t afford to buy into the fishing industry, so they’re aging out and the control is moving into corporate hands.”
For more information, call the union hall at 250-624-6048.