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Newfoundland fisherman continues hunger strike protest after call from minister

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Richard Gillett is weak now and growing weaker by the hour. The once burly fisherman from Twillingate, N.L.
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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Richard Gillett is weak now and growing weaker by the hour.

The once burly fisherman from Twillingate, N.L., known for his three seasons on the reality TV show "Cold Water Cowboys," has lived in a tent on a water-only diet since April 13 on the grounds of the federal Fisheries and Oceans building in St. John's.

He spoke to reporters early Friday from his cot, his eyes glazed. His wife and daughter, one of his three teenaged children, were by his side as he apologized for mental lapses on Day 9 of a hunger strike to protest what he says is dire mismanagement of fish stocks.

"It takes every bit of energy now just to talk."

Gillett, 45, said he has no plans to quit despite a phone call Thursday night from Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

"He didn't offer me anything that was solid other than a meeting in two to three weeks' time. And that's certainly not enough to warrant me, after my hunger strike, to get off this hill. That's not what I'm asking."

A spokeswoman for LeBlanc also confirmed the call took place and said Thursday the two have agreed to speak again.

Laura Gareau said LeBlanc expressed concern for Gillett, and urged him to make his health and family a priority. She said the minister also raised the fact that almost 400 fisheries staff were kept from work Thursday after Gillett's supporters lined the road into their offices.

Gareau did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

Gillett's supporters, many of them fishermen, said early Friday they're not blocking traffic at the site. 

It's the latest in escalating protests over the state of declining fish stocks and reduced quotas for shrimp and crab.

About 50 demonstrators streamed into the same building earlier this month after kicking in the Plexiglas window of a locked door. In another incident Tuesday, harvesters set fire to their own fishing gear in Port au Choix as a show of frustration.

"I did warn the minister that Newfoundland and Labrador right now as it comes to the fishery, the turmoil and everything that's going on, she's a powder keg," Gillett said Friday.

"And he better do something because this is going somewhere fast that we don't want to be. It's only one spark and we can have something that everyone can avoid."

Gillett's wife, Joyce, said she supports her husband of almost 20 years "100 per cent." But she's increasingly frightened. Gillett is diabetic and has had past heart issues.

"I'm afraid it's going to end with him being taken off this hill in an ambulance or worse," she said.

"I don't know if they're willing to even consider what he's asking for and that scares me," she said of LeBlanc and fisheries officials.

"It's been so long, and they've seen for themselves how weak he is."

Gillett's mother Linda said Friday he wants a written commitment for a meeting with LeBlanc. Even if her son gets that, it would have to wait until he's strong enough, she added.

"He wouldn't do a meeting justice so he needs one like in a week or so, when he's back to himself and he can concentrate."

Gillett, who is vice-president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), has accused Ottawa of mismanaging stocks ranging from crab to capelin.

He has demanded an independent review of science and management for all provincial fish stocks. He also wants a review of the relationship between FISH-NL's rival — the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union — and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Newfoundland Liberal MP Ken McDonald tweeted Friday it's important LeBlanc "doesn't get involved in a power struggle between the FFAW and FISH-NL."

"We recognize that all individuals have a right to protest, in a reasonable manner," McDonald said. "I join all NLers in the concern for Mr. Gillett's health.

"We all understand this is a difficult time for harvesters and coastal communities. We are always willing to listen and work with them."

Gillett has said he decided on such drastic action last week after LeBlanc refused to meet with him and FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary during their visit to Ottawa.

"One thing I did tell the minister last night was: 'Do not question my resolve,'" Gillett said Friday. "Do not question my resolve.'"

— With files from Keith Doucette.

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press



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