After weeks of extensive lobbying by industry advocates, on May 14, the federal government finally announced a COVID-19 pandemic financial aid package for Canada’s fish harvesters.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and negative impact on the fishing and seafood industries in Atlantic Canada and around the globe.
In an attempt to stabilize the Canadian economy, the federal government had already announced billions of dollars in subsidy and aid programs to various sectors, including a $62.5-million Canadian Seafood Stabilization Fund aimed at helping the fish and seafood processing sector.
Groups including the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters’ Federation (CIFHF), the Maritime Fishermen’s Union (MFU) and the FFAW-Unifor, have been demanding financial assistance from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, like that set aside for the processing sector.
But how much will the $469.4 million in announced funding initiatives actually help those in the fishery that have been negatively impacted by the global coronavirus?
The cornerstone of the long-awaited funding is the Fish Harvester Benefit, a program worth up to $267.6 million, to help provide income support for this year’s fishing seasons to eligible self-employed fish harvesters and sharespersons’ crew who cannot access the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.
Support will also be provided to those that experience fishing income declines of greater than 25 per cent in the 2020 tax year, compared with a reference period to be identified. This measure covers 75 per cent of fishing income losses beyond a 25 per cent income decline threshold, up to a maximum individual entitlement equivalent to what is provided under the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy ($847 per week for up to 12 weeks).
Another aspect of the aid package is the Fish Harvester Grant, a program worth up to $201.8 million, to provide grants to help fish harvesters impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and who are ineligible for the Canada Emergency Business Account or equivalent measures. The program would provide non-repayable support of up to $10,000 to self-employed fish harvesters with a valid fishing licence. Size of the non-repayable support will vary depending on the level of fish harvesters’ historic revenue.
However, the government announcement, for now, skirted around one of the key demands by inshore fish harvester advocates. The groups all lobbied for extended employment insurance (EI) benefits for a 12-month period for all fisheries workers, independent harvesters, crews and plant workers and include all salmon workers who qualified for E.I. based on the 2018 fishing season.
On this always controversial topic, the federal government was slightly vague for now. It is planning to “propose measures or changes to employment insurance (EI) that would allow self-employed fish harvesters and sharespersons to access EI benefits on the basis of insurable earnings from previous seasons (winter and summer claims). Additional details on these measures will be made available soon.”
So, while those representing fishermen in Atlantic Canada seem somewhat satisfied in the recent assistance from Ottawa, the proof will be in the pudding when the EI changes are announced.
FFAW-Unifor President Keith Sullivan summed up this sentiment best when he said “Previous federal programs have fallen short when it comes to supporting fish harvesters and plant workers. While these measures do not address every recommendation made by FFAW-Unifor, we are hopeful that further programs, particularly those that address concerns about employment insurance benefits, will be announced soon.”