Frontier Centre: Why is there a Federal Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC)? Didn’t the market work before?
Kim Sigurdson: The market didn’t work before for a lot of reasons. The fishermen that were out there were very limited in education. They had no communications whatsoever. They were subjected to a lot of people that would take advantage of them, given the opportunity. Education, transportation and communications have changed this scenario.
FC: So why is there a federal fish marketing board?
KS: The FFMC was brought in to protect the fishermen from what they thought were unscrupulous fish mongers and dealers throughout North America. They would come in and take advantage of fishermen, who were mostly aboriginal.
FC: You say the FFMC damages the interests of northern fishermen, why so?
KS: It doesn’t allow any of the northern fishermen and their communities to do nothing more then send unprocessed fish to the Fish Board’s processing plant in Winnipeg….that can be thousands of kilometers away! They’re not allowed to fillet the fish. They’re not allowed to value add the fish. They’re not allowed to export the fish. They’re not allowed to do anything but send what species of fish the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board wants and then that’s all they can do.
FC: But the arguments for government marketing control are so familiar, for example more efficient centralized processing or why else would they exist?
KS: They say centralized location but Winnipeg is not central in the geographic location of Fish Board. It would be somewhere in the middle of Saskatchewan if it were centralized. The location of the FFMC is based in Winnipeg. Most of its fish comes off of Lake Winnipeg. To that end, these fishermen up north have to pay transportation costs and other costs to get the fish to the “central” location of the marketing board here in Winnipeg. So what’s central to some is less central to others.
FC: So why did they pick Winnipeg?
KS: I think it was a political decision. Back when the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation came about, it was brought in by the Liberal government. They were Liberal MPs in Manitoba, one of the strongest proponents of this was an old friend of mine Joseph Guay, who later became a senator. It was a political decision to bring it to Winnipeg, it could have been elsewhere but he wanted it here and that’s where it is now.
FC: It’s a bit of a stretch to think that bureaucrats can outguess the market and discover new opportunities. Do you have examples where the board has squashed new business?
KS: Yes there is squashed business in the caviar sector. They could have worked that a lot better. Private enterprise has gone out there and found better markets. They’ve done little in the value adding of the fish product. They could have gone into a modified atmosphere of packaging program where the fish could have been vacuum-packed like you see in the supermarkets, stuff like that appeals to people. It would be accepted a lot more by the consumer in a vacuum-packed with a nice label verses something sitting in a plastic bag with a Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation label on it that was processed in China!
FC: If the FFMC never existed how would the industry look today? Would there be fewer jobs, for example?
KS: If the FFMC were not around today there would be literally hundreds of small plants throughout Northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Small communities where people fish would bring in the fish to these small plants, process them there, creating thousands of jobs. That money would be stay in their communities instead of going to Ottawa. More jobs and a lot more self-esteem. It would be a great thing for First Nations people who are suffering form 80 and 90% unemployment.
FC: You draw a parallel with the Canadian Wheat Board saying these organizations become entrenched and self-serving. Why do you feel the FFMC is self-serving?
KS: Quite simply there are bureaucrats working for them. They know they’ve got their jobs a year from now and five years from now no matter what they do and how they do it. There are no entrepreneurs in either the Fish Board or the Wheat Board just a bunch of people doing the 9 to 5 routine and quite frankly do not give a damn about anyone but themselves.
FC: In your speech you mentioned some financial indicators that showed the FFMC is not really doing a good job. Can you repeat those?
KS: Well off the top of my head, their line of credit is higher than it’s ever been. Recently they put another $20 million on that. Their overall fish sales are down. The overall fish being brought in is down. The amount that are fishing today versus in 1968 is almost half of what it was. If this was a private company, the bankers would be coming in and taking the machinery out of the building immediately. They are not doing very well financially yet the government keeps propping them up.
FC: Is the recent vote by farmers to free up the barley market is a good thing and might it send a message to our politicians?
KS: Oh boy. That barley market, that’s one of the best things that has ever happened. I’ve been watching it recently and I’ve noticed the barley prices are soaring and maybe that’s got nothing to do with privatization but it’s certainly great to see it at a time when people are privatizing and when people are going to get the chance to sell to whoever they want to or to process this barley. It’s great. The Wheat Board is the Freshwater Fish Board’s sister. It has the same type of political thoughts. We will do all the selling, we will do all the buying, we will do everything for you, just don’t ask us any questions about how we do it!
FC: You described how Kenora area fishermen have left the FFMC monopoly. Why did they do that?
KS: They were very fortunate. They were in a small area versus the rest of the Freshwater Fish monopoly’s area. It was an area, along the Number 1 Highway in northwest Ontario. A lot of the fishermen, aboriginal and non-aboriginal knew each by their first name. When they saw how much they were getting paid, when they saw how much fish was going to waste, they realized they could not survive under these conditions.
The fact of the matter was that FFMC was supposed to buy all their fish, that’s the Fish Board’s mandate. It’s a joke!
They make the fishermen pay the transportation to their plant in Winnipeg and they quite simply lowered the price of fish to a point that transporting this fish was not viable. The only fish that they did buy was the white fish and the pickerel – only a few species of what they were really harvesting in. So the reason why the Northwest Ontario fishermen got out is they had communications between each other. They knew each other and shared information.
FC: So what was the result of them leaving the FFMC? Are they better off?
KS: There are some people that might say they’re not, because some have tried and failed. Other people like Ralph Hale of Hale Fisheries in Eagle Lake, Ontario have turned it all around for themselves. They’re value-adding their fish. They’re smoking fish in the old traditional way. Their filleting white fish and northern pike and selling it to fish camps nearby for the weekly “fish fry” and when the tourist leave he sells them fish to bring back with them.
He’s now not just a fisherman, he markets fish, he processes fish, he catches fish. He’s an entrepreneur.
FC: So that wouldn’t be allowed under the FFMC?
KS: No if someone tried to do that, they’d be in jail.
FC: You’ve mentioned the practice of bushing. Can you explain what that is? It seems like a waste of resources.
KS: Bushing is a byproduct of the Fish Board. These are fish that are supposed to bought from the fisherman, but are not because the prices are so low they don’t cover the costs of transporting them. They are dumped and left to rot on an island or a forest nearby. They do it because they don’t want the fishermen taking the fish and dumping it back in the lake. This is not good for the eco-system of the lake. It’s really against the law and more so against the aboriginal culture to waste this precious resource. The government understands that these fishermen are bushing fish but does not want to get involved.
FC: Do you have any figures on bushing?
KS: Well back about 15 – 20 years ago it was between 25 – 30 million pounds a year. I don’t know what it is now, there’s a lot less fishermen. I’d say probably 15 – 20 million pounds thrown away every year, trashed.
FC: Many people are amazed that Prairie fish is being shipped to China for processing. Is it because labour is a fraction of our local costs? How could that possibly be cheaper?
KS: It can’t possibly be that way. It’s like the Fish Board and their numbers, how they’re doing such great things yet they’re losing the profitability, they’re losing their market share. It’s just not true. We need these jobs, they were our jobs before the Fish Board came along and besides that who wants to eat fish that has been frozen twice!
FC: It seems kind of perverse, we have 90% unemployment on northern reserves yet we have policies to prevent enterprise like these due to regulated marketing monopolies. Do we need governments to give aboriginals more money or just get out of the way?
KS: I believe, like other aboriginal people in Canada, that we should be given an opportunity to go it alone. We have way too much government in our lives. We need to start rebuilding our economies and it would be better if they let us do it on our own terms.
FC: If you had to sum up the downside of government-regulated marketing systems, what are the biggest problems?
KS: They’re not transparent. The Auditor General gets a report every year and you can cook those numbers any way you want and believe me these corporations do that. So they’re not transparent. People don’t really realize how much money they’re making or more importantly how much money they’re losing. I think they’re very secretive, almost clandestine in the way they operate and it affects us all.
FC: Are you optimistic that the federal Conservatives will free up these markets as rumour has it?
KS: If they take out the Canadian Wheat Board I’ll be a big believer in them. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, I hope that Mr. Strahl keeps his word and takes them out. If he does I will be knocking on his door asking him to take the fish board out or to at least provide a dual marketing system for us aboriginal people. So I hope the Conservatives do it. We had a Conservative government before that was really good, maybe this one can be the same.