House of Commons Hansard #109 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was tobacco.

Topics

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

12:35 p.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am not really sure what the question was, but he has a point. However, we often deal with items in committee and then a report is done. By the time that happens, had we not had this debate, we would not have had a chance to bring this issue forward before Parliament finished. After having heard the—

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

Resuming debate, the hon. member for Mississauga South.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, today the ordinary proceedings of the House were interrupted during motions in which members have an opportunity to move what is called a concurrence motion in a committee report, and indeed, the member for Brant did move concurrence in the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.

I am on duty today. I had come here prepared to debate Bill C-51 on the naturopathic health products, which is a bill that I have a lot of problems with and I hope to get an opportunity debate it later today.

However, as the member on duty, one of my responsibilities is to participate in debate if I have something to offer. I want to suggest to members and just offer to them that the first issue I ever dealt with as a parliamentarian was when I became a member of the health committee back in 1994 and tobacco labelling was the study we were dealing with. Following that, there was a significant project on aboriginal issues, not only aboriginal health but other aboriginal activities, and of course this whole issue of contraband came up. So, these issues about tobacco cessation, about the implications to the community, et cetera, have been with us for 15 years, as far as I can see.

The motion, in fact, is that the committee considered an exit strategy for tobacco producers and agreed to report the following, and what it reported was that the committee calls on the federal government to immediately implement an exit strategy for tobacco producers consistent with the most recent proposal they have submitted. This came from its 29th meeting, which was held in May.

The testimony actually came back from, I understand, as far back as November 2006. It does not surprise me because this continues to be a challenge not only for the federal government but the provincial government, municipalities, the policing authorities, and the health authorities. It permeates virtually every jurisdiction and probably every aspect of Canadian society. So, it is a pretty important issue.

I was a little distracted by the argument that the motion the committee had passed and had reported to the House was being criticized because it was not comprehensive.

As I said earlier in a question, that for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is wrong. If we have a complex problem, we do have to have a comprehensive strategy. Quite frankly, it may involve social as well as economic solutions. Sometimes we have factors which influence the things that are going on within our communities, within our agriculture community, our business, no matter what it is, urban, rural or whatever. There are a blend of social and economic factors involved here. It depends on what one's value system is.

The motion here happens to be a representation on behalf of the tobacco producers. The motion on behalf of the tobacco producers is one that we hope the government understands that without a proper exit strategy for tobacco producers, there could be very significant implications, not only to them but to their communities, municipalities, the province, et cetera, and I will get into that a little bit.

The concurrence motion in itself is very clear, and that is what we are debating, and I think it is important. It is also relevant that the members would raise that notwithstanding what the producers want, we have to balance that with the other needs, and that is what government is all about. It is about making decisions, and often they are tough decisions. The members know we have had a number of difficulties.

On Friday, a private member's bill was debated in this place which had to do with providing tax credits to recent graduates who could go into certain designated regions of the country.

From a value standpoint, where there is a stress in terms of regional economic development, for example, a financial condition or economic health, we have on many occasions looked to some sort of assistance, whether it be subsidies, grants, or other inducements to facilitate good things to happen. For example, a tax credit would be given to a graduate to allow him or her to go to a community where there was a good job and where they could develop their skills because the employer perhaps could not compete with the salaries of a large urban centre.

If the proper skill sets are not attracted to some of the communities that are facing a financial crisis or economic duress, those businesses will go down and that will have a ripple effect throughout the community.

Chances are communities are going to experience things like population decline or higher unemployment. People will start losing their investments because the community will no longer be vibrant and it will not be able to meet all the needs of today's families.

There is a ripple effect to everything we do. It is almost like a Newton's law in government. For every action there could very well be an equal or opposite reaction. It could be much like the children's game of pick up sticks. Not often, but periodically, if we touch something we move everything and everything in between. We have to take this into account.

In listening to the debate on this issue, there seems to be one position suggesting that all we need is an exit strategy for tobacco producers and the problem will be solved. That is not the case.

The motion before us was passed by the agriculture and agri-food committee. The consensus of the committee was that it was important to bring the motion to the House to remind the government of this particular crisis. It is a regional crisis and it has to do with the kinds of things that we would talk about when we talk about regional economic development.

It is important that we respond and that we be sensitive to the ebbs and flows when we consider what is happening nationally. Resource rich provinces are doing extremely well in the Canadian economy, whereas those provinces with a large manufacturing sector are hurting terribly. This means that Newfoundland has become a have province and Ontario is getting close to being a have not province. This is a very significant change.

This means that a lot of people are moving to the oil producing provinces like Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland, which are doing extremely well. Their economies are vibrant. If we take that on a smaller scale and look at the communities with tobacco industries, we will find that there is a crisis there. Tobacco producers are feeling the impact. There is not enough work and they are going to have to get out of the business.

I understand the average age of a tobacco producer right now is something like 58 years, which is fairly deep into one's vibrant working career. It may be difficult for these individuals to find other gainful employment in their community simply because of the nature of the work.

I also understand that the average debt load of tobacco producers is somewhere around $400,000. When we consider this and the unlikelihood of producers getting another job, it means they may lose their farm. Even worse, they may lose their home. That is the reality of the situation. A lot of investment was made not only in the basic farm equipment but within the industry specific requirements of manufacturers in terms of the burner equipment.

This is a real crisis situation. I do not believe the committee would have reported it to the House nor would it have been brought forward for debate today for up to three hours if it did not affect people in a number of regions across Canada. To Quebec, this is certainly an important issue as it is in Ontario.

As things move on, I have a feeling that there should be a comprehensive strategy. Concurrence motions are not binding on the government. They are to indicate the mood of the House and a sense of the importance of the issue. Members will have a chance to vote on this motion.

It will tell the stakeholders that the standing committee reported on it. It will tell stakeholders that their intervention was heard, discussed in Parliament, and there was a position taken by one party that was different from another. It tells them where we are on this thing. It gives the government an opportunity to respond. The government may very well respond and maybe we will look to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food to make some commentary on the crisis we face.

An example that has been debated a bit here and an area that I spend a fair bit of time on not only on the health committee but on the finance committee is the issue of contraband, tobacco smuggling and its implications. It is a serious problem and has been going on for a very long period of time. I remember debating the price elasticity and whether, by increasing the price of cigarettes, we could move the problem away. All that would do is cause tobacco to be sold more cheaply through the contraband distribution channels. It would get out there.

I remember visiting the Micmac reserve. It has a beautiful recreation and social building. Committee members had a tour of that when we were travelling on aboriginal health issues. I was really surprised to go downstairs and see a big lineup of persons in front of someone with a cash box in an enormous room in the basement that was filled with cartons of tobacco in large cardboard boxes.

The people were there to buy big boxes of cigarettes for distribution. It was pretty clear that this was contraband material. This is probably a way of life, but it is causing difficulty in getting a resolution on some of the issues that the agriculture and agri-food committee have raised.

I hear members say, “We don't totally disagree. In fact, what we will say is that the motion is kind of silly because it only deals with part of the problem”. That motion was passed by a standing committee and brought to the House. At least the consensus of the committee thought it was important enough to report to the House. As a consequence, that is why we are here.

This is an important aspect, notwithstanding as I had indicated earlier, that the scheduled business of the day was to continue debate on Bill C-51, the naturopathic health products bill. The surprising revelation yesterday, as a matter of fact, was that the health minister has written to the chair of the health committee to outline seven substantive amendments to that bill even though we are in the middle of second reading. I do not know how that will go. I have a feeling that is a problem to be dealt with.

In the health committee meetings, when we dealt with the plain packaging of tobacco and putting warning labels on the tobacco products, one of the witnesses was a provincial minister who came before the committee on behalf of his community, I believe it was the area of Smiths Falls. This shows an example of a ripple effect of doing something to change or deal with a health objective and there being a consequence that we were not aware of.

This consequence was that in his community there was a major print shop that provided a significant number of jobs in the community. If the recommendations of Health Canada and the Standing Committee on Health were adopted, the printing on tobacco packages would have to be done by a very specialized type of printing called rotogravure, which is a very high end printing process. It requires much different machinery than one would typically be aware of because it has to produce in certain colours and all the range for all of these cigarette packages, et cetera.

That former provincial minister in Ontario came to fight on behalf of his community. He said he did not really have a problem with the tobacco requirements, but he did not want the requirement for specialized printing because it would have negative consequences for his community.

We can see, then, that we have to look at the producers. I am not so sure that I am very concerned about what the manufacturers are concerned about. Most of the manufacturers are multinational conglomerates that are in broad-based businesses. I think it would be very difficult to see the implications for them if a region of farmers had to convert their products or get out of the business. They are going to find it somewhere. There is always someone. For that matter, it could be China.

There are other things that I have not heard yet. We were discussing the tobacco producing side and the alternative crops that could come in. That was also a very important part.

I know that at the time canola was one of the big ones that was coming forward, because in fact it takes less acreage to produce canola than it does a comparable product. That is one of which I am aware. I am not sure on the science and how things have moved since then, but I know that canola is a very important agricultural crop for Canada. It has a wide variety of uses.

As the previous speaker said, I think the members have at least a consensus that this is a complex problem. I think they believe that we have to keep our eye on the implications, but not only for the producers, who may have significant debt and who may be of an age where they may not be able to find alternative employment if they lose their farms. We also have to look at the implications for the rest of the community and the municipality.

What is the municipal impact? What is the economic impact if we lose farms and workers? What are the conditions there? What are the criteria? How do we determine whether there is a significant economic impact? How do we determine whether the principles of regional economic development should kick in? How do we determine what the filter is through which we can determine who can get assistance? What are the criteria for application?

How do we make sure that all of the stakeholders have a part to play, not just the federal government and not just the provincial government, but the municipalities as well? They have a vested interest in seeing a good outcome.

I think that is what this debate is about. I think that is the message the government should get, notwithstanding that the motion in itself only deals with the producers. That is why this concurrence motion and debate for a little under three hours are so important. We have these often. We have these debates on very important issues. They are not important to every riding across the country, and we know that, but there are parallels.

I do not have tobacco producers in my riding. I live in the suburban area of Mississauga, but when I come here, I learn from my committee work, from debate on bills and from my exposure to the debate in the House when the motion comes up. I then see the parallels. I see that these are problems that we need to approach in a consistent fashion, so that all of the stakeholders, no matter what their positions are, will fully understand and accept the wisdom of parliamentarians and how to approach a matter for which it is probably in the best interests of all Canadians to find an appropriate resolution.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Joe Preston Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Mr. Speaker, the previous speaker stated that it is a complex problem chasing a simple solution or a simple problem chasing a complex solution.

It is all of the above. I attended committee on the day that this was debated. Normally I am not on that committee, but because of my friends and constituents who grow tobacco, I chose to be there. I thought I made a very passionate plea to amend the motion to include some of the complexities that I am talking about now.

I asked for some of them to be included in the motion. The opposition majority on that committee voted them down and then voted to make the motion read exactly as it is. It is a very simple motion that pits farmers against farmers and solution against solution.

The member stated some fairly simple solutions for the problem. I agree that there are sometimes very simple solutions to problems. However, he mentioned canola as an alternative crop. We do need some alternative crops, but in the tobacco belt of southern Ontario it is mostly blow sand. It is very sandy soil, so any crop grown there needs to be irrigated.

Thus, there is the cost of irrigation for those producers. As for growing a crop that someone else down the street can grow from rainfall, the cost of production is way too high.

While I am on that, I should mention from an agriculture point of view how even the thought of a carbon tax for agriculture producers has them shaking. For agriculture and rural Canada, the extra costs of production from a carbon tax are going to be just horrendous.

However, let us go back to tobacco instead of talking about what could be wrong with a solution that includes a carbon tax.

It is a complex problem. That was the history of the motion. The motion does need to be addressed, but there is more to it than that. We have tried to add more to it than this. The opposition has simplified it to how the government will solve all problems of all people. We are saying that this is not case. We are saying that the manufacturers need to be a piece of this, the province needs to be piece of this and the tobacco board needs to be a piece of this. I ask for the member's support on that.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, if we consider that if there were a carbon tax over four years of some 4¢, that would have an impact, I am sure, but when the Conservative government took office the price of gasoline was 65¢ a litre. It is now $1.35 under the government's watch, so there we go. A government has to be responsible for what happens under its watch.

On the member's question, the concurrence motion is with regard to a resolution that was passed by the committee and came here. I do not think members are opposed to an exit strategy for tobacco producers, but they also are in favour of building the comprehensive solution by other matters. We can raise that. I do not think we have to amend this because this is not binding on the government.

However, right now this is an opportunity for all members of Parliament to assess whether or not they believe that the tobacco producers, given the facts related to their economic and demographic situation, should be considered for an exit strategy that would be supported by the federal government in conjunction with other jurisdictions as appropriate. If we cannot agree on that, I would be very disappointed.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1 p.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I listened to my colleague's words and as usual he had some interesting and very wise comments about the issue. I would tend to agree with him that it is not just an issue of an exit strategy for tobacco farmers.

He raised a point that is of particular concern to me and that I think is important for all regions of Canada. That is the point about developing, with regions and provinces, comprehensive economic development strategies so that we are not always in a position of crisis and can plan ahead. This is precisely, it seems to me, what the Conservative government is not doing and what the former government perhaps has done on the cheap.

For example, in western Canada, western economic diversification is now funded on only a by project basis, rather than through working with regions and municipalities and looking at how to best develop their assets in order to look forward and really respond to the needs of the communities.

Would the member comment on that? What does he think government could do to strengthen that regional economic diversification and development component?

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, if we were talking about 1,000 jobs lost at an Oshawa auto manufacturing plant, the member can understand how a regional economic development program could have a better level of success by transitioning the skill set, because it is an area in which skills are transferable.

In the case of tobacco producers, we are dealing with a very extraordinary situation. For reasons that have been coming down the pike for a long time, and we are still fighting it, it certainly has given the signals to people that we should be transitioning out. I am sure there are going to be people who will ask why they are still growing tobacco when they know there is no future in tobacco.

However, the reality is that some people cannot get out of it because they have such a high level of debt. As well, with their average age of over 58 years, they do not have a lot of choices. Perhaps it really gets down to whether the criteria are fine tuned enough. There probably is going to be a large number of tobacco producers who do not have a lot of options. They may lose their farms. They may lose their homes. I am not sure that this is the way we want to govern our country.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1 p.m.

Liberal

Massimo Pacetti Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, QC

Mr. Speaker, the presenter from Mississauga is always eloquent and articulate. I have a quick question for him. He mentioned that he was a former member of the health committee and the finance committee.

It is not as if tobacco farmers have developed a problem overnight and now we see the agriculture committee addressing it. I understand that I do not have much time, but in terms of the exit strategy, why does it happen at the last minute with the government? Suddenly the government realizes that there is a problem with tobacco farmers, just like we have a problem with the environment and a problem with aboriginals. It takes months and months before there is communication between one department and another.

Should there not have been a solution presented prior to this situation arising in such a fashion that tobacco farmers actually have to lose their farms or lose their production?

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the point is well taken. This has not come up at the last minute. As a matter of fact, in the last Parliament, there was a national exit strategy with proposed funding of some $275 million.

Members will know that governments come and go, but the bureaucracy, particularly the departments, stays the same. The departments are still committed to it, but we would have to study this and find out. It is still there that there should be an exit strategy, but what is clear, since the government voted against this motion at committee and is speaking against it here in debate, is that the government has no interest whatsoever in introducing a tobacco exit strategy for these producers. It has no interest whatsoever.

It means that the producers should be concerned, because the money is not going to be there, the priority is not there, and the government has not started on it. Even when we raise it for a brief period of some three hours, the government has made it very clear that tobacco producers are on their own. Municipalities with tobacco producers are on their own. Provinces need not worry because the federal government is not going to come to them for any sharing of money. They are on their own.

I am not sure that Canadians will feel comfortable with a government which feels that people should just keep their money and take care of themselves, a government that does not care if they have a problem.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Mr. Speaker, if I were a producer sitting out there I can tell members that I would be pretty confused about the message coming from the other side.

The member just said the whole solution has to be comprehensive with regard to the municipalities, the manufacturers and the tobacco board, yet at committee, the committee members voted against that. That is why the motion is irrelevant. It focuses on only one point.

It does not bring in the part about what we are sitting with right now, with my colleague from Elgin—Middlesex—London, who is setting the task force that will bring in what the board asked for, which was that the municipalities, the communities and the manufacturers deal with contraband and deal with the federal and provincial governments.

I am wondering why the member has changed his tune and has not read what actually has happened through the committee.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, we know that the manufacturers are a big part of the problem. We know that municipalities will be affected. We know that communities will be affected. We know that some of these tobacco producers have serious hardships.

It is not a matter of what this motion says. It is a matter of whether or not the government needs to be reminded, but even on this small point about being part of a comprehensive solution, the government has said no.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

It is my duty to interrupt the proceedings and put the question necessary to dispose of the motion before the House.

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Agriculture and Agri-Food
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

1:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.