First Nations fishermen in northern Manitoba welcome federal COVID-19 relief response

By | May 14, 2020

A couple of First Nations commercial fishermen in northern Manitoba are glad federal relief is on its way for the struggling industry.

“I was looking forward to fishing but it is great news. We just have to figure out what it means,” said Chris Clarke, president of the Norway House Fisherman’s Co-op.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced up to $469.4 million in new support measures to help Canadian fish harvesters affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal government said the pandemic has resulted in reduced demand and declining prices for Canadian fish and seafood products, and has had significant impacts on the livelihoods of fish harvesters.

The relief covers 75 per cent of fishing income losses beyond a 25 per cent income decline threshold, according to the news release.

Clarke is a third generation commercial fisherman and said the Norway House co-op has 49 members, and employs around 200 people in the northern Manitoba First Nation.

“A lot of our local economies are dependent on the local fisheries,” said Clarke. 

“There’s several million dollars that flows through our community whenever fishing is done and the majority of that revenue stays in the community.”

Clarke’s plan is to take the new federal announcement news back to his co-op board to discuss how it will work, and to figure out what their next steps will be.

Changes to Employment Insurance

For harvesters who won’t generate enough income to file for employment insurance (EI) next year, the new support measures for fish harvesters would allow them to access EI benefits on the basis of previous insurable earnings.

Clarke is one of many self-employed commercial fishermen who are currently on EI and are set to have it expire soon. 

“We will allow previous years to be used as eligibility so that [fishermen] won’t be penalized. They will still have the ability to access that,” said Jennifer Kuss, director of communications for the minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Bernadette Jordan.

The president of Grand Rapids Fishermen’s Co-op, Albert Ross, said there are close to 100 co-op members in the First Nation. He has been fishing in the Lake Winnipeg region for 40 years and has been the co-op president for 15.

Some communities in northern Manitoba rely heavily on the money that is produced from inland commercial fishing. (Submitted by Chris Clarke)

Ross said he is hoping that the new support measures will help to pay for some of the operating costs that come with being a commercial fishermen, things like boating leases and equipment.

“We have faced lots of obstacles but nothing like COVID,” said Ross.

“We got all of our equipment and we can’t fish anymore. Hopefully in the fall we can fish.”

Kuss, the DFO’s director of communications, said the money will begin to flow immediately for fish harvesters across the country. The department plans on giving more details on Friday on how the support measures will affect First Nations and Métis fishermen.

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