Mr. Speaker, I have just come back from southwestern Saskatchewan where the new crop year is beginning. Ranchers are out in their fields and calves are just being born. They are watching their new crops come to life. Farmers are beginning to go into their fields now to start their farming year, and within the next month will start to see their crops come to life, in the same way that western Canada is trying to come to life economically.
We are having a tough time in agriculture and producers are trying to respond and be successful. As we move into a new season and see it come to life, it is fair to ask: Should producers know about their product?
When growing a product there are some questions that are fair to ask and we should be able to get answers to those questions. It is reasonable to ask where the product is being sold and where the market is for it. It is reasonable to ask how much a product sold for, how is it blended and mixed out and if a maximum price was received. It is fair for the producers to ask if they got a fair price for their product. It is also fair to ask how much other people are benefiting from production.
These are a few of the areas that producers need to know about. They know very little today because of the lack of information coming from the system. Producers should know this, and the bill today begins to address that problem and process.
Bill C-249, an act to amend the Access to Information Act particularly with respect to the Canadian Wheat Board is important for several reasons.
First, we continue to live in a democracy. As we saw this weekend, people have the right to participate in and be a part of a democratic process. Farmers can be trusted. They do not need to be shielded from information about their own industry.
Second, producers need and can use this information. Farming is changing very rapidly these days. The old days when we trusted those above no longer exist. The days when everything was done in secrecy are not acceptable to producers.
The wheat board was developed during the war years to provide Europe with its source of cheap grain. It did that job. The wheat board did a good PR job from the beginning but there has been a culture of secrecy around since it was put in place. Basically farmers were told to trust it and not ask questions.
I remember as a young person on a farm being in a situation where farmers did not know what freight rates were and what they were paying to get their product to the market. They did not know what deductions were being taken off their crops. They did not know where their production went or how it was priced. Those days are over. It is not good enough any more.
It is only in the last 10 or 15 years that producers have realized that the wheat board and other organizations have not necessarily been looking after their best interests. One of the best examples I saw was in the early nineties with some frozen feed wheat. We were told by the board that it did not want it. It was not prepared to market much of it that winter. Farmers went out and found markets. They took their wheat across the border and arranged for pricing. They found out it was not quite as bad as it was thought to be in Canada.
They were prepared to go through the buyback system from the board. It was not the board that contacted them. It was the grain company in the United States that phoned and said it did not want to buy their wheat at the price which had been negotiated. It said it could get as much as it wanted at 85 cents less than what the farmers had negotiated.
It became obvious to the people who knew what was going on that our interests were not always being looked after but we could not get the information in any way, shape or form to prove it. I think we could agree that government organizations that withhold information have seen their day. We saw a good example of that this weekend.
Once it was stay at home and let someone else make decisions about the farm, but not anymore. The era of “we will look after you” is over. The farmers who are succeeding in agriculture today are some of the sharpest and most successful business people. They are usually the people who insist on managing their own resources in order to be successful.
Farming is a tough business today. Success means being on top of the industry. It means having all the information available to make decisions. Virtually every other commodity allows that. Wheat is one of the few that does not because we cannot get the information from the wheat board.
An example of an industry that has grown phenomenally and where people can get information is the pulse industry. Over the last few years pulse acres have grown by 2,000%. That industry continues to grow in western Canada. It is interesting that it has been one of the industries which has had the least government involvement of any industry in western Canada.
Producers need information which deals with the products they are growing. We need this bill for a number of reasons.
First, there is a desperate need for accountability at the Canadian Wheat Board. It has a long history of denying access to information. Without information there can be no accountability. Anyone who thinks about that statement will realize it is accurate. Without information no one can be held accountable.
There has been an information wall, almost a code of silence. We heard the member for Brandon—Souris speak about trying to get generic information and was absolutely stonewalled. It is a process familiar to those of us who have tried it.
The second area in which we need information is the buyback system. Over the years if farmers wanted to market their own grain they had to sell it to the wheat board and buy it back at an inflated price. This restricted and did not help producers. In particular it restricted diversification.
The western Canadian economy is struggling right now. One of the things we absolutely need is value added processing and diversification. The buyback which the board has in place hinders that in every way. There is a restriction on getting information on how the buyback is calculated and why we should have to pay the price it is asking. Producers are not allowed to question the figures.
I believe that the beginning of accountability would be to open up the Canadian Wheat Board to the Access to Information Act. There is a principle which applies here. People should be able to make their own choices and be educated enough to make them. The only way to ensure accountability is to let people participate voluntarily. I would suggest that while this bill is a good start, we need to go further. We need to take a look at voluntary marketing of our wheat.
I will give three examples of producers who are hurt by the current system of forced participation and the inability to get information from the Canadian Wheat Board system.
The first example is western Canadian farmers who have been able to contract their grain. Farmers who have found markets for it have been restricted by the Canadian Wheat Board from marketing the grain themselves. Ontario farmers have a choice when it comes to marketing grain but not western Canadians. Not only can we not get information but we have no freedom to market.
The Liberals are sending out a task force to talk to western Canadians about agriculture. Maybe they can start with this. One reason why there is alienation there is that people are treated differently in different areas of this land when it comes to marketing their products.
The second example of producers who are hurt by the current system is the organic farmers. They do a very good job of selling to niche markets. In the last few years the wheat board has tried to step in and take that away from them. Organic farmer organizations have a tough time marketing their grain because the wheat board does not sell well to niche markets.
The third example is producers who want to add value to their communities. Right now, because of the buyback system and the entire wheat board system, there is an inability to diversify in rural communities. We absolutely have to do that.
We have no opportunity, no information and no choice. I believe we should have a voluntary marketing system that would remove the problem of not being able to get information. However I do not see anything that progressive coming from the government.
I conclude by saying that I do not think there is a need to oppose this bill. The Access to Information Act gives adequate protection to the Canadian Wheat Board. If it does not want to release information it feels is commercially sensitive, it does not have to. If people have ever seen an ATI, they will know that there are more black felt pens probably used than there is clear ink on the page.
I encourage the government to have the guts to use this bill as a good beginning. It leads to greater freedom and autonomy for producers. I call on the government to go further in establishing a voluntary Canadian Wheat Board.
My challenge to the government is that it quit being afraid to lead. It is time to treat western Canadians as grown-ups. We are all familiar with the Berlin Wall that surrounded its people. The results behind that wall were inefficiency, a huge bureaucracy, an air of intimidation when it was challenged and no accountability. I encourage the government to get over that mentality concerning the Canadian Wheat Board.
I fear the wheat board, with its lack of openness to its policies, will drive the prairie wheat producers into the ground. I ask that this bill be supported. Although I know it is not votable, I ask that its provisions be brought to reality in the House.