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The appointment of Jonathan Wilkinson as the new federal Fisheries minister could signal changes ahead. —
The appointment of Jonathan Wilkinson as the new federal Fisheries minister could signal changes ahead. — 123RF Stock Photo

Jonathan Wilkinson has many tall tasks ahead of him as Canada’s newest Fisheries and Oceans minister, not the least of which could be overcoming where he’s from.

Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled Dominic LeBlanc out of the portfolio in favour of Wilkinson, a North Vancouver MP.

Save for a brief blip when Iqaluit’s Hunter Tootoo held the position a couple of years ago, this marks the first time a federal Fisheries minister hails from outside Atlantic Canada since Herb Dhaliwal left the post in 2002.

This will be Wilkinson’s first cabinet portfolio, and it comes with plenty of trappings that’ve kept LeBlanc in the spotlight, for better or worse, here on the East Coast.

The deaths of a record number of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 — many due to ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear — led to protection measures that threatened to create short-term and potentially costly halts to the lobster fishery in areas where the large mammals have been spotted.

Hyperbole aside, shifting ministers from east to west at such a tumultuous time for Atlantic Canada’s waters could signal Trudeau’s lack of confidence — in LeBlanc or the fishery, only time may tell.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, unions have expressed frustration with delayed management plans with “almost every fishery” in the past year. There is also controversy over LeBlanc’s handling of the province’s Arctic surf clam quota, one quarter of which was awarded to a company run by the brother of a Liberal MP. LeBlanc is reportedly under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner over that matter.

And most recently, fishermen and environmentalists have vigorously protested the proposed pumping of effluent into the Northumberland Strait by the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County, N.S. The outcome of this issue could negatively impact fisheries in New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia.

Just this week, the prime minister said he would not order a federal assessment of the effluent plan, instead leaving the decision in the provincial government’s hands. While it’s not on the Fisheries and Oceans radar now, any mess that’s created will be Wilkinson’s to clean up.

Reaction to LeBlanc’s shuffle out of the portfolio was divided across the region, ranging from cautious optimism about Wilkinson’s fresh perspective to former MP Ryan Cleary’s assertion (as head of FISH-NL) that LeBlanc was “the worst minister of Fisheries and Oceans in living memory.”

Hyperbole aside, shifting ministers from east to west at such a tumultuous time for Atlantic Canada’s waters could signal Trudeau’s lack of confidence — in LeBlanc or the fishery, only time may tell.

All that said, Wilkinson shouldn’t be written off as merely a rookie cabinet minister from Vancouver before he even gets a chance to sink his teeth into the portfolio. Let’s hope a fresh perspective will mean a renewed focus on the Atlantic Canada’s lucrative fishery while striking a compromise with environmental protection.

If Wilkinson can accomplish even some of that and manage to get the fishing industry on his side, B.C. won’t seem so far away after all.

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