Mi’kmaw coalition, Premium Brands buy seafood giant Clearwater

Mi'kmaw partnership will own all of Clearwater's Canadian fishing licences

A coalition of seven Mi’kmaw First Nations now owns half of Clearwater Seafoods, one of the biggest seafood companies in Canada.

Clearwater announced the deal on Monday, agreeing to sell the company to the coalition and Premium Brands Holdings Corporation for an estimated $1 billion.

Clearwater Seafoods is the largest shellfish harvester and seller in Canada and holds the majority of shellfish licences and quotas in Atlantic Canada. The Mi’kmaw Coalition, led by Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton and Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland and Labrador, owns 50 per cent of the company, with Premium Brands owning the other 50 per cent.

Chief Terry Paul of Membertou said he’s heard good things from Mi’kmaq all around Atlantic Canada and people are feeling proud.

“I think, like myself, the initial response is amazement. I’m still amazed, it’s still sinking in,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

This deal is “the single biggest investment in the seafood industry by any Indigenous group in Canada,” Paul said in a statement.

Paul said they started first looking into purchasing Clearwater in March, after Clearwater announced it had received a few inquiries from people looking to buy the company. They knew they would need a partner.

Premium Brands, based in Richmond, B.C., owns various food manufacturing and distribution businesses, including Hub City Fisheries in Nanaimo, B.C., and Maximum Seafood in Vaughan, Ont.

President and CEO George Paleologou said he was pleased with the partnership. Clearwater “will become an even stronger business by leveraging the complementary strengths of our three organizations,” he said in a statement.

Paul said all First Nations in Nova Scotia were offered the chance to take part in the deal. In addition to Membertou and Miawpukek, the coalition includes the Paqtnkek, Pictou Landing, Potlotek, Sipekne’katik and We’koqma’q First Nations.

This deal also means that the Mi’kmaw Coalition will own all of Clearwater’s Canadian fishing licences.

Paul said this is a “historic investment” and its positive impacts will last a long time. “To us, this is a generational acquisition that will be felt across our communities for the next seven generations.

“This deal allows Membertou to diversify its financial portfolio by investing in a secure industry that aligns with our traditions — that’s fishing.”

Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation said this acquisition will bring their community more money and jobs. “Ownership of Clearwater by Miawpukek First Nation is a monumental step in regaining our self-sustaining economy,” he said in a statement.

Asserting treaty rights

The acquisition comes at a time when the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia have been asserting their right to fish with the launch of moderate livelihood fisheries.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the Mi’kmaq’s rights under the Treaty of 1760-61 to hunt, fish and gather for what it called a “moderate livelihood,” though the term has never been defined. The decision was in response to Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaw man from Membertou, challenging the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’s charges against him for fishing eels out of season.

On Sept. 17, 21 years after the Marshall decision, Sipekne’katik launched the first self-regulated, treaty-rights based lobster fishery in Nova Scotia. The launch of the fishery was met with violence from non-Indigenous lobster fishers, who oppose the self-regulated fishery. They sabotaged traps, burned a Mi’kmaw boat, and burned a lobster pound where Mi’kmaw fishers were storing their catch.

Since then, Potlotek and Pictou Landing have also launched moderate livelihood lobster fisheries. In a video posted to Facebook on Oct. 19, Paul said Membertou plans to launch its own moderate livelihood fishery too.

Paul said the acquisition of Clearwater will have no impact on any of the Mi’kmaq’s moderate livelihood fisheries or commercial inshore fisheries. It’s a completely separate thing, he said. “We’re still very committed to our other fisheries and to our communities on the moderate livelihood.”

Paul said the wealth they gain from their Clearwater investment will help them invest in their other fisheries, as well as their communities as a whole.

And Paul said as far as he’s concerned, the Clearwater deal will have no impact on the commercial fishermen. They fish in an inshore fishery, where Clearwater’s licences are for the offshore.

Buying lobster

Anthony Charles, director of the Community Conservation Research Network and a professor at Saint Mary’s University’s Sobey School of Business and School of the Environment, said we can only speculate how the new ownership will affect Clearwater’s role in the fisheries. But he emphasized how different Clearwater’s operations are from moderate livelihood fisheries.

Clearwater’s offshore fishery works at an industrial scale and the benefit of owning the company will look different from the moderate livelihood fishery, which “will provide a smallish income level to many people in the First Nations,” said Charles.

In addition to its fishing operations, Clearwater is also a large buyer of lobster caught by the inshore fisheries. Charles will be looking to see how the new owners buy their lobster.

“There are ways that that can be done in potentially a very community focused way, supporting First Nation fishers, but also supporting non-Indigenous fishers as well,” Charles said.

Clearwater shareholders will get to vote on the sale in January, though the company’s CEO, CFO and board of directors have already agreed to it and control 63.91 per cent of company shares. Clearwater expects to complete the sale in the first half of 2021.

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