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Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc fields a question at a news conference in Moncton, N.B., on Feb. 20, 2018.Andrew Vaughan

A backlash is growing against a multimillion-dollar federal bid to promote reconciliation and economic development among Indigenous groups in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

A group that represents 13 Mi'kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia issued a statement Friday saying it is joining politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador to demand Ottawa reverse its recent decision to award a lucrative Arctic surf clam fishing licence to a company based in Cape Breton that claims to have Indigenous partners in all five provinces.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs is calling for a review of the Feb. 21 decision, saying it can find no evidence that the company has any Indigenous partners in Nova Scotia.

"We have serious questions about the integrity and fairness of the process," assembly co-chairman Terrance Paul said in a statement.

In St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne made a similar allegation about phantom First Nations.

He said the Five Nations Clam Company, a new entity that will work with the Premium Seafoods Group in Arichat, N.S., does not appear to have any Indigenous partners from Newfoundland and Labrador, despite a winning proposal that claims otherwise.

"This was supposed to be about creating greater opportunities through a transparent process for Indigenous communities," Byrne said in an interview Friday, adding that his officials have contacted all of the Indigenous groups in the province.

"What we know to be true is that this is anything but reconciliation. This has pitted province against province, community against community, and First Nation against First Nation."

Byrne said Innu leaders in Labrador have told him they were approached about forming a partnership with Five Nations after federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc awarded the licence last week.

A spokesman for LeBlanc said he was not available for an interview. Instead, the department issued a statement that did not address any of the concerns raised by Byrne or Paul.

The CEO of Premium Seafoods, Edgar Samson, declined to comment when reached by phone Friday. He directed all calls to his business partner, Arren Sock, chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation on New Brunswick's east coast. Sock did not respond to a message left at the band office.

When the deal was announced, Sock said there was an agreement in principle among five First Nations. He declined to name them, but he said they included two Innu communities, from Quebec and Labrador, and two Mi'kmaq bands from Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.

Under the application process, which started Sept. 7, 2017, applicants were required to be majority owned by Canadians, and "be an Indigenous entity located in one of the four Atlantic provinces or Quebec."

When LeBlanc awarded the licence to Five Nations, he made it clear Indigenous groups from all five provinces would be taking part in the Arctic surf clam fishery, which generated $90-million in sales in 2016 and mainly supplies the Asian sushi and sashimi market.

"The inclusion of participants from each Atlantic province and Quebec will allow the benefits of this lucrative fishery to flow to a broad group of First Nations," he said at the time. "This is a powerful step toward reconciliation."

Eight groups competed for the licence, including the Qalipu First Nation in Newfoundland.

The fishing grounds for Arctic surf clams are located mainly off Nova Scotia and eastern Newfoundland. The current catch-limit is about 38,000 tonnes.

LeBlanc's decision ended a monopoly for Halifax-based industry giant Clearwater Seafoods Inc., which supports the initiative but is also calling for a review.

"It raises some serious questions about the integrity of the process," said company spokeswoman Christine Penney.

Clearwater, which must give up a quarter of the allowable catch, had submitted a proposal that included a partnership with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs.

The decision has spurred anger in Grand Bank, N.L., population 2,200, which has been home to Clearwater's main, year-round clam processing facility for 27 years. A separate plant in Glace Bay, N.S., also sorts and packages some product. The two operations employ 452 people.

The company developed the industry over 30 years, designing special factory-freezer ships to get the job done. The company's three vessels are the only ones of their kind in the world, Penney said.

"We spent many unprofitable years figuring out how to harvest this clam," Penney said.

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