Chaotic fishers protest blocks entrance to Newfoundland legislature, halts budget

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A protest Wednesday that descended into a chaotic confrontation between mounted police officers and fishers outside the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature halted the provincial government’s plans to present its latest budget.

Premier Andrew Furey said he hopes the budget will instead be tabled Thursday, and his government secured an injunction against the protesters on Wednesday afternoon to help realize that goal — though protesters say they have no plans to let up.

"The budget was cancelled," John Efford, a harvester from Port de Grave, N.L., bellowed into a microphone Wednesday afternoon, prompting a sustained roar from the massive crowd before him. "And I got a funny feeling that it may be cancelled again tomorrow."

The protesters began gathering at the legislature before dawn on Wednesday. By the time they blocked government officials from entering the building to deliver the provincial budget, there were more than 100 people in the crowd.

Two Royal Newfoundland Constabulary members on horses pushed their way into the mass in an effort to disperse them. But the fishers piled into a line and pushed back, and the officers ultimately steered their animals away.

A protester and a police officer were taken away from the scene on stretchers.

The fish harvesters say they’re fighting for free market conditions in their industry, which they claim is monopolized by a small "cartel" of companies that have too much power.

Furey told reporters that while he realizes emotions about the fishery run high, and there’s a right to protest peacefully, "what is unacceptable is violent protests. Some of the behaviour will not be tolerated by me and my government.”

"Officials felt threatened and intimated today, and let me say, first and foremost, that that’s unacceptable," he said. "I am profoundly disappointed today that the behaviour of a few could take over, and jeopardize a budget that is for the entire province."

Wednesday’s protest caps off days of other demonstrations at the legislature, primarily led by Efford. Jason Spingle, secretary−treasurer of the province’s inshore fishers’ union, called the Fish Food and Allied Workers Union, said the group supports Efford’s efforts and stands with him.

Spingle said the fish harvester injured when the horses arrived was believed to have broken his hip. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said one of its officers was taken to hospital for treatment, and that it intends to pursue criminal charges against demonstrators who allegedly struck the police horses.

Turmoil in Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishery is perhaps as old as the fishery itself. Last year, harvesters refused to fish crab for the first several weeks of the season, saying the price they were paid for their catch was not enough to live on.

In an interview after his speech, Efford said he wants more processing companies operating in the province. Smaller, independent processors are often hit with caps affecting how much they can buy from fishers. Those caps, he added, sometimes force fishers to bring their catch to the larger processors, who don’t have these limits.

Efford said fishers also want to be allowed to sell to buyers outside the province. "The first thing we need is more competition. So, we need more plants here," he said.

Elvis Loveless, provincial minister of fisheries, said during the government news conference that the province has started seeking applications for more buyers. As well, he said the government will increase processing capacity in the snow crab industry before the start of the 2024 season.

"We’ve had very good discussions. We’ve met, I’d say, all of their (the union’s) requests," he said.

Doug Trainor, a fisherman from Fermeuse, N.L., was covered in dirt after the scuffle with officers. He said a horse stepped on his foot but didn’t seriously injure him.

“I felt afraid. I got down on the ground and I couldn’t get up,” said Trainor, who fishes for crab, capelin and cod from the small town 90 kilometres south of St. John’s.

He said he was protesting because he feels overly restricted in whom he can sell his catch to. “The cartels own us. I’m supposed to be an independent fisherman. That’s what I tried to do all my life, and now I’m not anymore.”

Fisheries are a crucial sector of Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy, with the province estimating there are 17,000 seafood workers and 400 communities that rely on the fishery for their livelihood.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.

— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

Photo: the union’s