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Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc responds to a question in the House of Commons in February.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stepped in to defend embattled Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc Wednesday over the awarding of a lucrative clam harvest quota to a Nova Scotia-based group with Liberal party connections and ties to the minister’s family.

For the second day in a row, opposition MPs pressed the Liberals to tear up the licence agreement worth millions of dollars that was awarded earlier this spring. They are calling for a new start to the bidding process, which has generated increasing controversy since its details were disclosed as part of a court challenge launched by one of the losing parties.

The group that was awarded a licence to harvest 25 per cent of total allowable Arctic surf clam catch includes the brother of a sitting Liberal MP and a former Liberal MP, and initially involved the first cousin of Mr. LeBlanc’s wife.

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Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is now investigating Mr. LeBlanc’s decision to award the multimillion dollar licence.

Mr. Trudeau accused the opposition of “flinging mud” and maintained that Mr. LeBlanc was only trying to implement the government’s policy of reconciliation with Indigenous people by opening up areas of the economy to native bands.

“Our decision to include the participation of Indigenous people was part of our work to renew relations with Indigenous people,” he said.

The group that won the surf clam licence had the lowest percentage of Indigenous ownership among the bids submitted. At the time it was chosen, the group was still searching for Indigenous partners to join the bid and did not have a fishing vessel.

The Arctic surf clam industry is a highly lucrative industry that generated almost $92-million in revenue in 2016. Bids for access to the fishery, rights to which had long been exclusively owned by Clearwater Seafoods of Nova Scotia, were opened by Mr. LeBlanc last fall as part of Ottawa’s agenda to increase Indigenous access to natural resources. Although Clearwater previously purchased its three licences to fish the clams at market value – and had the approval of government to do so – Mr. LeBlanc made it clear last year that he was uncomfortable with the concentrated ownership of licences.

In an effort to come up with a solution, Clearwater privately negotiated an agreement to sell one of the company’s three licences to a coalition of Mi’kmaq bands from Nova Scotia, including the entrepreneurial Membertou First Nation led by Chief Terrance Paul, Under the deal, the coalition would have won sole ownership of an entire licence.

The group was on the verge of disclosing their deal to Mr. LeBlanc, a source close to the negotiations told The Globe and Mail, when he abruptly announced his plan to shrink Clearwater’s rights without compensation and award a new fishing licence to a group of his choosing. Among the criteria bidders would have to meet for consideration was demonstrating “direct and significant benefits to Indigenous communities.”

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A source familiar with that process told The Globe that Mr. Paul was informed by Mr. LeBlanc he would not win the bid unless he dropped Clearwater and made a deal with Premium Seafoods, an N.S.-based company whose president is Edgar Samson, brother of Liberal MP Darrell Samson – who was part of the winning bid.

Through his spokesperson Kelsea MacNeil, Mr. Paul said on Wednesday that he wanted to “move forward” on the surf clam issue and was not interested in commenting. Mr. LeBlanc’s office denied that minister made such a demand.

“He never said this to them, nor to anyone else,” press secretary Vincent Hughes said.

Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, said he believes the expropriation of Clearwater’s quota sets a dangerous precedent because the company had made significant investments to build the international market for Arctic surf clams over the years, including acquiring quota from other companies.

“I hope Clearwater goes to court and wins a resounding victory,” Prof. Lee said.

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