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Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc fields questions as the Liberal cabinet meets in St. John's, N.L. on September 12, 2017. A brewing controversy alleging cronyism and conflict of interest involving a clam fishing license awarded by LeBlanc may not be grabbing national attention - but it should be, says a conservative MP. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew VaughanAndrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is facing an ethics investigation over the awarding of a lucrative clam-harvesting licence to a group with Liberal and family ties.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has informed Mr. LeBlanc that he is being investigated after he ordered the allocation of Arctic surf-clam quota worth millions of dollars to a partnership between Indigenous groups and a company led by brother of a Liberal member of Parliament. A former Liberal MP is also the current leader of one of the participating Indigenous groups.

Premium Seafoods, based in Arichat, N.S., is headed by president and co-founder Edgar Samson, brother of Nova Scotia Liberal MP Darrell Samson.

The Arctic surf-clam industry is a highly lucrative industry which generated almost $92-million in revenue in 2016, according to the Miawpukek First Nation’s application for judicial review of Mr. LeBlanc’s decision filed earlier this year.

These court documents also revealed that the Indigenous corporation that is part of the winning bid, Five Nations Clam Company, was originally headed by Gilles Thériault, who is the first cousin of Mr. LeBlanc’s wife Jolène Richard. After Mr. Thériault’s involvement became public earlier this month, Five Nations issued a statement saying he had no financial stake in the venture and was simply helping as a member of a company owned by one of the participating Indigenous groups.

One of the four bands in Five Nations Clam Company also has a Liberal connection – the current president of NunatuKavut of Labrador is Todd Russell, a former Liberal MP.

Arctic surf clams are in high demand in Asia as well as North America because of their sweet flavour and their bright red tongues that make them a valued addition to sushi and sashimi.

A Department of Fisheries and Oceans memo obtained by the Indigenous group leading the court challenge shows that Mr. LeBlanc personally picked the Five Nations Clam Company from among seven bidders for the surf-clam quota.

The memo also shows, however, that Five Nations had not actually signed up all its Indigenous partners at the time of the decision. The summation of its bid by Fisheries and Oceans bureaucrats says the group expected to attract more Indigenous groups from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador but these actual bands were “TBD” (to be determined).

“Please take next steps with Proponent #6 and ensure that additional Indigenous communities are quickly confirmed,” Mr. LeBlanc said in a hand-written note on the document recording his decision.

The Five Nations bid proposal also said it would require federal permission to lease a foreign fishing vessel because it didn’t possess a suitable one itself.

The Fisheries Minister’s office released a statement on Friday, promising to co-operate with the Ethics Commissioner and maintained that he did nothing wrong.

‘’The Minister began this process to allow for increased Indigenous participation in the fishery, which will enable the benefits of this lucrative fishery to flow to a broad group of First Nations. This will have long-lasting positive economic effects for those communities,‘’ the statement said.

Conservative fisheries critic Todd Doherty has been urging the Ethics Commissioner to investigate.

“From the very beginning we felt there was a conflict of interest,” Mr. Doherty said. “If that is not enough to raise eyebrows and then you find out one of the Indigenous groups is led by a former MP and later we find out a family member of the Minister’s helped write the proposal.”

The Conservatives originally urged Mr. Dion to investigate and the Ethics Commissioner initially said there were insufficient grounds to conduct an examination.

The Conservatives then sent more information, based on the court documents that subsequently were made public, asking Mr. Dion once again to investigate.

NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen said the commissioner will have to look at three potential conflicts of interest and the connections to Mr. LeBlanc, who signed off on the multimillion-dollar license.

“There is the connection to a former MP. There is the brother of a current MP and there is the cousin of Mr. LeBlanc’s wife,” he said. “If there are this many potential points of conflict of interest, what did Mr. LeBlanc do to make sure this decision was made freely and fairly and not to benefit anyone connected?”