August 9, 2020

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Manitoba MPs call for help for commercial fishers

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>James Bezan, Conservative MP for Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman (left) and Niki Ashton, NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, speak to the media about the lack of support from the federal government for Manitoba’s commercial fishers at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Friday.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

James Bezan, Conservative MP for Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman (left) and Niki Ashton, NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, speak to the media about the lack of support from the federal government for Manitoba’s commercial fishers at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Friday.

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Two Manitoba MPs have put aside political differences to draw the federal government's attention — and money — to local fishers facing financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman) and NDP MP Niki Ashton (Churchill—Keewatinook Aski) are calling on Ottawa to fulfil its previously announced spending of up to $469.4 million on supports for Canadian fish harvesters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement May 14; during a news conference Friday in Winnipeg, Bezan and Ashton reprimanded the government for not following through.

"This is not a partisan issue," Ashton said. "The federal government itself recognized the need for help... The problem here is that money has not flowed."

Both MPs have portions of Lake Winnipeg shoreline, and families of fishers, in their ridings. The financial and health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have forced many in the industry to stop working.

"We have to get to a point of helping these families survive," Bezan said. "This is why we can put aside our partisan differences and work towards what is in the best interests of our communities."

Bezan and Ashton said Friday they sent a letter to the federal Liberal government weeks ago, regarding money for fish harvesters, but got no response.

In his May 14 announcement, Trudeau said Ottawa would launch the Fish Harvester Benefit, a program worth up to $276.6 million. It would give income support to fishers who couldn't access the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

Trudeau said the Fish Harvester Grant, worth up to $201.8 million, would provide grants to fishers ineligible for the Canada Emergency Business Account. There was also to be employment insurance changes for self-employed fish harvesters.

Eight weeks later, "We've been communicating the same thing to the federal Liberals, that this is a five-alarm fire," said Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.

"I'm not going to make any excuses for the federal government in terms of... the pace of this. They say they're working on it around the clock."

Gerald Valiquette, a fisher from the east side of Lake Winnipeg, took a plane to be at Bezan and Ashton's news conference Friday.

Valiquette catches freshwater pickerel and whitefish. His season normally lasts from June 1 to mid-July, but he didn't go fishing at all this year — usual buyers (restaurants in the United States and Europe) have closed during the pandemic. He has no income right now.

"Even to go into the local markets, that takes time, research, finding buyers, fighting the competition price wise," he said. "It's not as easy as it sounds."

Valiquette said he was relieved to hear Trudeau's announcement May 14; he began phoning MPs and government lines after a month of not hearing more information but didn't get any answers.

"I feel like we were forgotten. Sure it was announced, but where's the funding?"

He said he'd rather get paid for his work than receive government funding.

"It takes your pride away. I grew up in a fishing family and it's always been in my blood. For you to actually go and ask for help, it's kind of like, do I have to? But I have no choice."

gabrielle.piche@freepress.mb.ca

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché
Community Correspondent — Headingley

Gabrielle Piché is a community correspondent for Headingley. Email her at gabriellepiche15@gmail.com

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