The reaction in Newfoundland was swift and angry—and it was aimed directly at the federal government. “I knew we should never have joined Canada,” grumbled one caller to a St. John’s radio talk show: “Confederation stinks.” Others demanded a referendum to take Newfoundland out of Canada. The anger swept the province last week in the wake of a Canadian government agreement with France that, within a year, could allow French trawlers into choice Canadian fishing grounds.
In return, France agreed to discuss sending a long-standing boundary dispute with Canada to international arbitration. Fishermen and opposition critics charged that Ottawa had sold out the fishing industry in order to smooth relations with France. Premier Brian Peckford led the attack, furious that the province and industry representatives had been excluded from the final deal signed in Paris on Jan. 24. The furore led to an emergency debate in the Commons and a rare apology to Peckford from Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski.
The controversial accord resulted from a boundary squabble over fishing rights in the waters surrounding StPierre-Miquelon. The tiny archipelago of eight windswept islands lies 16 miles south of Newfoundland, but is sovereign French territory. The dispute began in 1978 when France declared a 200-mile economic zone around the islands. Canada had issued a similar claim for its own coastal waters one year earlier. The
result: overlapping French and Canadian claims in an area of sea south of StPierre-Miquelon roughly the size of Nova Scotia.
At the time, Canada imposed a quota of 6,400 tons of fish in the disputed zone—and for several years French fishermen stayed close to that limit. But in 1984 French trawlers began overfishing the area at an alarming rate, scooping up an estimated 26,000 tons last year. Unable to do more than monitor French catches, Ottawa proposed taking the issue to international
arbitration. France agreed to discuss that proposal provided that in return Canada would promise French fishermen additional catches between 1988 and 1991 in prime fishing grounds outside the disputed area. The pact outraged Newfoundlanders, but Fisheries Minister Thomas Siddon said that it was a “small price to pay to
have the boundary issue resolved.”
During the emergency debate on Jan. 28, Transport Minister John Crosbie, a Newfoundlander, disputed opposition claims that the agreement threatens the future of the Atlantic fishing industry. But Crosbie said it was “unacceptable” that the province and the fishing industry were not consulted by Ottawa. In defence, federal officials said that Peckford and industry representatives were aware from previous negotiations how the agreement was likely to be shaped. One earlier draft included a clause that would give France “substantial increases” in allowable catches from northern cod stocks, which Newfoundland particularly values. But Peckford did not learn until a day before the agreement was signed that Canadian envoys had flown to Paris to conclude a deal with France. The premier was infuriated— and accused the federal government of selling out Newfoundland. In an attempt to patch up the quarrel, Mazankowski telephoned Peckford on Wednesday to apologize for the breakdown in communications.
Residents of St-Pierre-Miquelon were equally outraged. St-Pierre Mayor Albert Pen charged that “the regional interests of St-Pierre-Miquelon and Newfoundland have been blatantly ignored by princes that govern us from Ottawa and Paris.” St-Pierre-Miquelon fishermen share Newfoundland’s concerns that large trawlers from continental France will seriously deplete fish stocks.
In Halifax, Gordon Cummings, president of National Sea Products Ltd., Canada’s largest fish processor, warned that overfishing would cripple cod stocks south of Newfoundland.
Rather than agree to arbitration, which could take four years, Cummings said that Ottawa should have told Paris, “There is a three-mile limit around St-PierreMiquelon, and the next unlicensed trawler into these waters gets to meet a naval vessel.” Federal officials quickly ruled out such action. But Siddon, under fierce attack in the Commons, declared that the results of the next negotiating
round with France would be subject to the approval of Atlantic Canada. Last week’s display of strong emotions was a sure sign that Siddon will be held to that promise.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.