Seal flippers, moose meat and political sheep
Ryan Cleary reflects on the hardest things he had to do as Member of Parliament
Leading up to the federal election of 2011, I made it a point to assure voters I wouldn’t be a sheep in Ottawa, and I generally wasn’t, although I did, on occasion, give my best impression of a trained seal.
Like when MPs were wallpapered behind the Leader of the day (there were three over my term) before he/she delivered a speech of national significance. After every other sentence you were dutifully expected to jump up and flap your flippers at the sea of cameras, whistle if you could, definitely hoot and holler, smile and bob your head to the other seals around you — even if the words on the teleprompter were in French, and you had no idea what was being barked about.
That’s political theatre, uncomfortable but understood. All of Ottawa’s a stage, and backbench MPs, too often, merely props.
But there’s nothing I hated more than being treated/herded like a sheep, and a prime example involved the strike at St. John’s International Airport that began in September, 2012.
The hardest thing I had to do as an MP was respect that picket line; the angriest I got was at the union leaders who didn’t; and the closest to death I came was broadsiding a moose on the drive to the Gander airport.
When the strike began, a decision was made that the two NDP MPs for Newfoundland and Labrador – Jack Harris and I – would fly out of Gander instead of St. John’s every week for the duration of the labour dispute, so as to not cross the line. I immediately went off my head.
I knew the strike would be a long one (it lasted 10 months), impacting my ability to do my job in the Commons (which included defending unions from constant Conservative attack). I knew the drive to Gander was at least three hours each way in good weather, and brutal in winter (and dark). I knew flying out of Gander would mean more taxpayer expense, and even more time away from my family.
I was also well aware of the number of moose on the highway and the risk of collision.
But the main reason I lost my mind was because the decision to fly out of Gander was made without my input. No one bothered to ask my opinion.
The then-Leader of the federal New Democrats, Nycole Turmel (who took over after Jack Layton), was a former president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the same union that represented the strikers at St. John’s airport.
The PSAC came to an agreement with the Leader’s Office that the picket line would be respected and that was that. Jack Harris most definitely had a say; he was the party’s point man for the province. The resulting decision was a foolish one that nearly cost me my life.
On a misty, foggy evening in late October while driving from St. John’s to Gander, I hit a moose – broadside – in Terra Nova National Park.
I had only a single thought before striking the animal – if it comes through the windshield, I’m dead. The moose tumbled over the hood and, luckily for me, somersaulted over the windshield.
A Toyota Echo was travelling behind me and the occupants – a mother, father and 17-year-old daughter heading home from a volleyball tournament in St. John’s – said the moose (a cow weighing between 800 and 1,000 pounds) flew end over end.
The Jeep was almost totalled ($8,000 in damage) and covered in fur, but no one was hurt.
A few months later I met with the heads of several trade unions from the province who had travelled to Ottawa for their lobby days.
Near the end of the meeting, I learned they had flown out of St. John’s airport, crossing the picket line – and I unleashed a torrent of curses that were heard back in Newfoundland. They apologized, and acknowledged that they should have respected the St. John’s picket line, but said it was too expensive and time consuming to fly out of Gander.
MPs and Senators from the Liberal and Conservative parties never stopped flying in and out of St. John’s. Their shepherds were sensible.
Upside of respect
The upside of the sacrifices I made in respecting the airport picket line for 10 months was the fact that it placed me in better stead with the province’s labour unions.
My relationship with them was generally always a good one (I had served as shop steward of The Telegram’s editorial department for the better part of a decade), but that didn’t hold true for the Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ union.
My connection with the FFAW had been strained over the years by a series of critical articles and columns I had written about such subjects as the so-called “union boat.” A company with close ties to the FFAW – the Offshore Fish Resource Harvesters Inc. – had built a fishing vessel in the early 2000s at the Glovertown Shipyard, and some fishermen charged the union was in a conflict of interest, competing against its own membership for quota. They also questioned where the profits went.
There were calls for the federal Auditor General of Canada to investigate, calls that I reported on, treading where other journalists feared or refused to tread. (The FFAW has strong ties to local media to this day.)
As MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, I was regularly criticized for commenting on fisheries issues when my riding was an urban one (Mount Pearl is landlocked). But the riding also took in the province’s largest fishing fleet at the Prosser’s Rock small-boat basin on the southside of St. John’s harbour, and I was the only Newfoundland and Labrador MP to serve on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans over the term.
Fishermen from around the province complained to me that the FFAW was no longer a union so much as a corporation. While the fishery had contracted since the early 1990s when the northern cod moratorium was introduced, the union itself seemed to be thriving – growing in staff and spending more than $3 million on a new headquarters.
There were charges that the FFAW was in a conflict of interest by accepting money from Ottawa to oversee various fisheries programs on one hand, while expected to hold the federal government to account on the other hand.
The question was, how much federal money was the FFAW being paid?
I set out to learn the answer through a parliamentary tool known as Order Paper Questions. Between the jigs and reels, I confirmed that the FFAW receives millions of dollars a year from the federal government. For example, the union was paid almost $7.5 million alone between 2011 and 2014 to administer the Atlantic lobster sustainability measures program.
In the spring of 2014, I confronted Earle McCurdy, long-time president of the FFAW, with the information, asking him directly whether the union was in a conflict.
He denied it, and that was that.
McCurdy resigned from the FFAW that fall, announcing in January 2015 he would run for leadership of the provincial NDP. My immediate reaction was to run against him — not because I wanted the job so much as I thought he would be a mistake.
The broken fishery did not heal under his leadership, and as the fishery goes, so goes the future of Newfoundland and Labrador. From my perspective, the FFAW is in a conflict and an independent review of its relationship with the federal government should be carried out. Jack Harris wasn’t pleased that I was considering a shot at the provincial leadership, telling me I wouldn’t win. The FFAW, he said, was too well organized, and, on top of that, we’d lose the federal riding of St. John’s South-Mount Pearl without me as candidate.
I pulled out and reluctantly endorsed McCurdy, making sure to point out “we had our differences.” Which was putting it mildly.