A dispute over the federal government's decision to award a multimillion-dollar Arctic surf clam fishing licence to a Nova Scotia company continued to fester Wednesday, as Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc responded to complaints from irate Indigenous groups and politicians.
LeBlanc rejected calls to reverse his decision, saying he wasn't surprised there was discontent among those whose proposals failed to win approval.
"This particular decision was made because we selected a proposal that we think provides the most significant economic benefits to Indigenous people," he said after making an unrelated announcement at a community centre in the Halifax area.
Last week, the Newfoundland and Labrador government and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs said the company that was awarded the licence, Five Nation Clam Company, did not have any Indigenous partners from Newfoundland and Labrador or Nova Scotia, as the minister claimed when he made the announcement Feb. 21.
Both the provincial government and the Mi'kmaq group called on LeBlanc to reverse his decision.
When asked Wednesday if there were agreements in place at that time, LeBlanc said the proposal from Five Nation had "reserved spots" for Indigenous groups.
"Like a number of proponents, they had reserved spots in their proposal, in some cases, for proponents that may have been in one other proposal, or in more than one other proposal," he said.
"I'm satisfied that the conditions that this particular proponent put forward can and will be met. And if they can't meet that condition, then I will not issue the formal legal documents that would give them the licence and the quota."
The Five Nation Clam Company is a new entity that includes the Elsipogtog First Nation in eastern New Brunswick and the Premium Seafoods Group in Arichat, N.S.
The Elsipogtog First Nation, which is in LeBlanc's riding, issued a statement Tuesday saying it had signed memoranda of understanding with Indigenous communities from Quebec and the four Atlantic provinces. The band said the names of those groups would be released in the coming days.
The statement did not say when the agreements were signed.
Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne said the use of "reserved spots" wouldn't meet the criteria for the federal government's original request for proposals, and he renewed his call for LeBlanc to rescind his decision.
"Placeholder positions for the remainder of the four First Nations is clearly not an acceptable approach and should have been viewed negatively, not positively, in terms of proposal evaluation," Byrne said in an e-mail.
"Further, it puts the one successful First Nation in a dominant position over anyone else they are courting to join after the fact. The decision exposes that the process was deeply flawed and, again, does nothing for reconciliation. It pits province against province, community against community and continues to pit First Nation against First nation."
Byrne has said Innu leaders in Labrador told him they were approached about forming a partnership with the company after LeBlanc awarded the licence.
LeBlanc said nine groups filed bids for the licence, but only seven met the basic criteria in a request for proposals issued in September.
The Arctic surf clam fishery generated $90-million in sales in 2016 and mainly supplies the Asian sushi and sashimi market.
The fishing grounds are located off Nova Scotia and eastern Newfoundland, and 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.
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., 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.