Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging people to "buy Canadian" food to keep fishery workers and farmers in business during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"To everyone who wants to show their support, buy Canadian. Pick up some Canadian cheese to help a local dairy farmer, have a 'fish fry, or buy Canadian lobster," he said today during his daily press conference.
"Not only will it taste great, it will help the people who keep food on our plates."
Trudeau today pledged close to $470 million to support fish harvesters. The package includes a new $267.6 million benefit to cover 75 per cent of losses for fish harvesters who expect an income drop of 25 per cent this season, up to about $10,000.
Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urges consumers to 'buy Canadian'
"Over the last two months, a lot of Canadians have faced very challenging situations and very difficult choices. Just take workers in the fisheries industry. You can't harvest lobster from inside your house," said Trudeau.
"So that leaves you trying to figure out how to either space people out on a fishing boat, or cancel your operations. It's not an easy call to make."
Seafood processors and harvesters have said they worry about not being able to hire the labour they need — including temporary foreign workers — while others have called for delays to the spring season as they work to establish proper safety protocols.
Trudeau said the federal government is also introducing a $201.8-million non-repayable grant program to pay up to $10,000 to fish harvesters who own their own businesses. The size of the grants will depend on the fish harvesters' historic revenue, said the Prime Minister's Office.
Trudeau also said the government is looking to help some harvesters who say they won't generate enough income to file for employment insurance next year. The Liberals are proposing measures to allow self-employed harvesters to access EI benefits based on insurable earnings from previous seasons.
Last month, the federal government announced $62.5 million for Canada's fish processing sector to help processing plants implement recommended health guidelines.
Conservative MP Mel Arnold, the critic for Fisheries and Oceans, said Thursday's announcement doesn't address all of the uncertainty facing workers in Canada's fishing industry, including the risk of labour shortages.
"Today's announcement once again fails to provide the clarity that fish and seafood harvesters need. When will fish harvesters be able to apply for these benefits? Will family-run businesses qualify? Does the offshore sector qualify? Minister Jordan owes fish harvesters answers to these important questions," he said in a media statement.
"Labour shortages are also a significant challenge, which is why Conservatives have proposed the creation of a new program to match students and youth employees with jobs in the agriculture and agri-food sector, including fish and seafood. This is just one innovative solution that would help young people, businesses and communities."
NDP MP Gord Johns, that party's critic, said the government also needs to say whether seafood will be included in the newly announced $50 million surplus food purchase program.
"Getting their seafood into Canadian markets is especially important now that President Trump is tightening restrictions on seafood entering the U.S. Canadians want to support their communities by buying locally produced foods," he said.
"A government focus on selling domestic seafood to Canadians would not only support, but also validate, the hard work of Canadian fishers and harvesters."
Aid a welcome backstop, fishermen say
In Atlantic Canada, fisheries groups gave the aid package a positive initial review.
Demand for seafood crashed when the pandemic closed restaurants, cruise ships and other food service markets.
"We're really pleased that the thing has been announced. It seems to touch some of the main things that people were talking about. It provides a backstop," said Cape Breton lobster fisherman Kevin Squires, a local president of the Maritime Fishermen's Union.
On Friday, Squires and 3,000 other lobster harvesters will drop their traps for the opening of the spring lobster season in northern Cape Breton and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Squires considers the aid package insurance, but he hopes he won't need it.
"The markets are very poor but they appear to be improving a little bit," he said. "So I think people are a little more optimistic today than they were a couple of days ago. So maybe we won't need nearly as much."