Nellie Baker Stevens says the 250 Atlantic fishermen she represents fear the Harper government is poised to destroy the fishery as they now know it, even allowing Chinese corporations to own the resource.
"Is this something that we as Canadians want," she asked. "Is this how we envisage our future?"
On Wednesday, Ms. Baker Stevens and several members of her organization, the Eastern Shore Fisherman's Protective Association, met at a Dartmouth hotel with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who offered no alternatives but lent a sympathetic ear.
Their fear is the Harper government's initiative, launched in January, to "modernize" the fishery will lead to the abandonment of two key policies that ensure the independence of Atlantic fishermen – the owner-operator and fleet-separation policies.
Fleet separation means that only those who fish can own a licence; processing companies, for example, cannot. Owner-operator means that the owner of the licence must operate the boat. The measures have kept large corporations from dominating the industry, as they do in British Columbia where these policies were not instituted.
"We're not stupid people," Ms. Baker Stevens said. "We look at the actions that are coming out of Ottawa and we're very afraid of what is coming down our way."
Coming their way, she believes, is the corporatization of the multimillion-dollar industry that would destroy small coastal fishing villages throughout the Atlantic provinces.
"This could be China owning our fishing resource," she said.
And that was her message to Mr. Mulcair, despite the fact that she's suspicious of politicians. "I'll be truthful," she said. "I'm not very happy with the politicians we have in Ottawa now. I am really concerned with whether or not anything that's said to us is actually going to mean anything …"
However, she noted that being able to talk about the issue with the Opposition Leader gives her "just a little bit of hope."
Mr. Mulcair, who was in Halifax for the day to be briefed on the issue, accused the government of mounting a two-pronged assault on the fishery.
He said the government's changes to employment insurance, which have been viewed as an attack on seasonal workers, combined with suspicions it will change the licensing of the Atlantic fishery, "are a backdoor attempt to make it a fait accompli that this is not an economically viable proposition."
"You know when you've decided you're going to kill your dog you say it's got rabies," he said. "That's exactly what the Conservatives are doing with the fishery."
Mr. Mulcair argued that revamping the fishery is part of the government's broader laiss ez faire attitude that lets "large corporations run roughshod" without any enforcement of "stewardship or environmental regulation." He noted that the Harper government dismantled the Wheat Board last year and may be poised to change the supply management system.
Recently, the Harper government was invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks. This, Mr. Mulcair said, "is an attempt to put supply management on the table for things like eggs, poultry and dairy farming."
He said the government shouldn't be reforming a system that works and allows money to stay in the community.
"If ain't broke don't fix it," he said, charging the government is "leaving devastation for future generations and that could include economic devastation here in Atlantic Canada."
A spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield called Mr. Mulcair's remarks "spin."
"Minister Ashfield has been quite clear he is not advocating any one position, plan or policy change," said Erin Filliter, noting he is simply consulting about how to improve the management of the fishery.
She said the industry indicated to him when he became minister last year that "DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) needs to change how it does business."
"This has been a preliminary discussion about challenges the industry is facing, including globally competitive markets, rising fuel costs, access to capital and young people wanting to get into the fishery," she wrote in an e-mail. "He is looking for ways DFO might adjust its practice to help the industry meet some of these challenges."