As B.C.’s commercial fishing season gets under way, the union representing workers at B.C.’s last fish cannery has made a public plea to the federal government to save their jobs.
In a seven-minute video released on Wednesday, members of UFAWU-Unifor, which represents workers in fishing, processing and transport in B.C., describe the Prince Rupert plant’s history, its connection to First Nations culture and communities and the ripple effects of growing concentration in the fish-processing business.
“Our government has failed us. They have allowed north coast herring to be exported to China for processing,” Conrad Lewis, vice-president of the Prince Rupert Shoreworkers local of UFAWU-Unifor, says in the video, which was posted on YouTube.
“Northern groundfish is landed in [Prince] Rupert and processed in Portland, Ore. Our salmon is being sent to the Lower Mainland, Washington or China for processing,” he adds. “We only gut it to ensure the salmon roe maintains its export quality.”
The plant’s owner, Canadian Fishing Co. – known as Canfisco and a division of the multibillion-dollar Jim Pattison Group – told the union of its plans to cease canning operations at the plant last November. The plant will remain open to gut and pack fish for transport for processing elsewhere. That change could mean the loss of more than 300 jobs, the union maintains. At its peak, in the 1980s, the cannery was producing up to 500,000 cases of canned salmon a year.
A Canfisco spokesperson was not immediately available.
Canfisco is part of the Jim Pattison Group’s food and beverage division, one of eight industry groups that comprise the privately held empire.
The Jim Pattison Group acquired Canfisco in 1984 and since then, Canfisco has grown by acquisition and now dominates the fish processing industry.
Along the way, many smaller canneries have been closed, leaving the Prince Rupert plant the last one in the province. This summer, there will be none.
In the 1970s, the union represented about 3,000 northern shoreworkers in 13 plants in B.C. That is down to four plants and about 400 workers, UFAWU-Unifor president Arnold Nagy says on the video, adding that “no amount of port work or LNG will replace our jobs.”
The union has proposed that the federal government require fish to be processed near the waters in which they are caught.
“We are not saying [to Canfisco], ‘You have to keep canning fish’,” UFAWU-Unifor spokeswoman Joy Thorkelson said Wednesday.
“What we are trying to say is you need to process that fish here … if you are going to process that fish, into steaks or chunks and vacuum-seal it – we want to do that work,” she added.
Policy-makers have struggled to strike the right balance between commercial, sport and First Nations fishing interests and conservation concerns. The cannery had a dismal season last year because of low salmon returns, but aside from that, which Ms. Thorkelson characterizes as an anomaly, the cannery regularly turned a profit, she said.
The union says it sent the video to fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo on March 29. Ms. Thorkelson says she hopes it will help secure some meetings between union and government officials to discuss policy concerns.
Mr. Tootoo resigned from his position on Tuesday to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. An Inuk who was born in Rankin Inlet, he was one of 10 indigenous MPs elected last year.