Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Canada Grain Act, chapter 22 of the Statutes of Canada, 1998 and chapter 25 of the Statutes of Canada, 2004.
This bill is exactly the same as former Bill C-39. The number C-13 may be unlucky, because the government does not seem to have learned from its mistakes. The previous bill had serious shortcomings. My speech today will focus on many aspects of the bill that should be improved so that it better serves grain producers and the industry.
Canada is in the midst of an economic crisis. Since the government introduced Bill C-39, we have learned that there will be job losses related to the proposed changes to the Canadian Grain Commission. It is expected that jobs will be lost because of the elimination of the Grain Appeal Tribunal, the end of registration and the cancellation of receipts, and the end of inspections and mandatory weigh-overs. In all these areas where the government wants to make changes, jobs will clearly be lost. This does not come as good news at a time when thousands of jobs are being lost. Passing this bill will unfortunately cause collateral damage, to use more military language, and people will find themselves on employment insurance.
The job losses will be concentrated in the ports of Vancouver and Thunder Bay. Jobs will also be lost in Winnipeg, mainly in inspection. In the longer term, other jobs could be cut in other regions, including Quebec. Grain is weighed and assessed in the ports of Montreal and Quebec City.
The most telling proof that this bill is a product of the Conservative ideology is that the government has not followed a single one of the recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, a committee on which you, Mr. Speaker, have had the pleasure of sitting for some time and where we have had the opportunity to work together. That committee examined Bill C-39 and made recommendations. It also studied a report from Group Compass Canada. The government has changed not one word in Bill C-39, now Bill C-13.
There are, therefore, a number of elements of uncertainty in this bill. We must remain vigilant. The reform of the Canadian Grain Commission is taking place in a specific context. We know the Conservatives are trying their best to dismantle the collective marketing mechanisms that protect the interests of producers. I am thinking of course of such things as the Canadian Wheat Board, but also of everything surrounding the current Doha round of negotiations in Geneva. Moreover, once again last July there was a text on the table that placed the supply management system in jeopardy. That text was studied by seven countries, but Canada was not one of them. We did, however, have two ministers there, the present Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the former Minister of International Trade, Michael Fortier, who was not re-elected.
The two of them were in Geneva to follow the discussions. The text that was on the table placed the supply management system in jeopardy. At the end of the negotiations, which fortunately did not result in an agreement between the countries, the two ministers expressed disappointment that it had not. Understandably, the sword of Damocles is still hanging over the heads of supply-managed farmers, and I need hardly tell hon. members there are very many such farmers in Quebec. The supply management system accounts for over 40% of Quebec's agricultural economy.
That being the case, great vigilance is required when we are examining any government bills relating to agriculture. What is more, the Conservative government has appointed a friend of the minister to head the Canadian Grain Commission. One might well wonder whether the new commissioner will defend the producers' interests or the minister's, particularly since the mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission has been modified. It is no longer required to act in favour of producers.
It was clearly written into the commission's mandate, yet it has disappeared from the bill. Any time bills deal with issues that directly affect producers, our focus should continue to be the economic health of agricultural producers.
I was talking about the chief commissioner, Elwin Hermanson, a former Reform Party member from 1993 to 1997. The Minister of Agriculture was Mr. Hermanson's campaign manager in 1993 when he first ran for election, and from 1993 to 1997, the minister was the constituency office coordinator for Mr. Hermanson, who appeared before the committee. In any case, while I do not mean to impute any motives, we can nevertheless ask ourselves if the head of the commission will have our producers' interests, first and foremost, in mind.
The government is implementing some recommendations of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, such as modernizing the mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission. One might now wonder if it did so correctly. I want to make it clear that, based on the speeches I have heard from my various colleagues and what we have also talked about in committee, everyone agrees that the Canadian Grain Commission's mandate must be modernized. The question we must now ask, and what we need to gauge here today is this: does Bill C-13 address the worries and concerns that have been raised, any more than Bill C-39 did in the past?
The Bloc Québécois is skeptical about some of these measures. That is important to note. We are skeptical about the elimination of the Grain Appeal Tribunal and the payment security program, because we do not know what will replace it. The Bloc Québécois also condemns the fact that the government has not introduced an office of grain farmer advocacy, as the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food recommended. I will have more time later to talk about some of the committee recommendations that have not been included in this bill.
What does the bill do? The government is changing the mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission in such a way that, in addition to the interests of grain producers, the commission would also consider the interests of the industry as a whole, including grain processors.
In order to clarify the Canadian Grain Commission's mandate, it will be split into two parts by Bill C-13. Part one will set out the CGC's core mandate to establish and maintain standards of quality for Canadian grain and regulate grain handling in Canada to ensure a dependable commodity for domestic and export markets. Part two will establish that the CGC shall specifically protect producer interests with respect to deliveries to elevators and grain dealers, access to binding CGC determination of the grade and dockage of grain deliveries, and the allocation of producer cars.
At present, the mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission is to, in the interests of producers, establish and maintain standards of quality for Canadian grain and regulate grain handling in Canada, to ensure a dependable commodity for domestic and export markets.
I would like to point out that clause 3 of Bill C-13 amends section 13 of the Canada Grain Act by removing the words “in the interests of producers” from the object to establish and maintain “standards of quality for Canadian grain and regulate grain handling in Canada to ensure a dependable commodity for domestic and export markets”.
As we stated earlier, like the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food, the Bloc Québécois supports modernization of the Canadian Grain Commission's mandate. Our party recognizes that the commission must be able to consider broader interests, such as public health, preserving the enviable reputation of Canadian grain producers, and other interests.
The Bloc Québécois is also sensitive to the concerns of grain producers who believe that Bill C-13 is drafted in such a way as to reduce the protection it affords grain producers. It should be understood that since Bill C-39 was first introduced before the election was called, therefore dying on the order paper, much water has flowed under the bridge. We have had all kinds of meetings, correspondence, telephone calls, visits from different people affected by the changes to the mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission.
That gave us a chance to weigh the pros and the cons of this bill. The cons are definitely adding up.
The National Farmers Union has told us that it is essential to preserve the language of the existing Act, which includes the expression “in the interests of producers”, to describe the purpose of the Canadian Grain Commission and the standards of quality in the regulations respecting grain handling operations in Canada. In fact, the first recommendation in the COMPAS report was as follows:
The Standing Committee supports a redefined mandate of the Canadian Grain Commission as more in line with the practical reality of the Canadian grain industry and it recommends that any eventual bill clearly protect the interests of grain producers.
We know that the Conservative government is allergic to collective marketing mechanisms and instruments that enable producers to earn a fair market return. Deregulation and reducing constraints on the free market are key elements of their ideology, elements that, unfortunately, come through in this bill, as I will demonstrate.
The Canadian Grain Commission must not become another Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That organization has lost a lot of credibility over the past few years because it has been forced to choose between the two components of its dual mandate. Agricultural producers in Quebec and Canada are quite right to distrust this government, which has set its sights on the Canadian Grain Commission. It is clear that deregulating everything under the sun has not produced the desired results with respect to protecting producers.
The Bloc Québécois is ready to look at what can be done with the Canadian Grain Commission's mission. We are ready to do that. Can a bill like this really be amended? A lot of people have their doubts.
One of the problems with this bill is that it suggests that an office of grain farmer advocacy is no longer necessary. I strongly disagree. As for the protection of the interests of agricultural producers, we deplore the fact that the government rejected the third recommendation of the parliamentary committee, proposing the establishment of an office of grain farmer advocacy that would have reported directly to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
One might wonder if this is not another sign that the government wants to divest itself of any responsibility and thus deregulate the services of the Canadian Grain Commission. The mandate of the office of grain farmer advocacy, whose role would be similar to that of an ombudsman, would be to ensure that producers understand their rights under the act, and to defend their interests in disputes with other stakeholders.
We had a short briefing, an information session, with officials on this, and I asked a question on this very subject. I can report that I was not at all satisfied with the answer.
Like the parliamentary committee, we think that such an office would have ensured that the interests of producers are defended in disputes with the other stakeholders involved, including the Canadian Grain Commission. We believe that the communication, consultation, liaison and complaint investigation responsibilities assumed by such an office would have strengthened Canada's grain quality assurance system.
Another problem is the elimination of grain appeal tribunals. What does this bill do? The grain appeal tribunal hears the complaints of grain producers and companies that are not satisfied with the grades given by the commission's inspectors. The chair of the tribunal is an authorized grain inspector, but acting at arm's length. The other members of the tribunal come from the grain industry.
The tribunal's position within the Canadian Grain Commission limits its legitimacy and perceived effectiveness. Moreover, clause 14 of the bill proposes to abolish grain appeal tribunals, which are currently established under sections 35 to 38 of the Canada Grain Act. From a reading of clause 31, on page 12, the proposed subsection 70(5), we understand that, in case of a disagreement over a ruling made by the chief inspector—who is the first level of appeal—grain producers will no longer be able to turn to the grain appeal tribunal. They will have to turn to the regular courts. Hon. members will understand that the message being sent to producers is quite simply that that have to fend for themselves, using their own money, as if they had any to spare, and defend themselves before the courts. That not only can be very costly, it can also take a very long time before a ruling comes down. We know all the things that can slow down the regular courts.
We note that the parliamentary committee did not address this issue. The COMPAS report commented that the Canadian Grain Commission's “grain appeal tribunal has earned some plaudits for effectiveness”.
COMPAS continued, “Our impression is that the Tribunal is respected for its role in grading disputes, although at times some stakeholders sensed excessive influence on the part of the Office of the Chief Inspector.” We heard that in committee as well. It was also stated that there is always room for modernization and improvement, but in my opinion that does not mean abolishing the tribunal. The Bloc Québécois awaits the government's explanations for this amendment.
Then there is the elimination of inspection and mandatory inward weighing, which is what the bill would do. Weighing and inspection of grain is carried out by the Canadian Grain Commission and is mandatory on bulk shipments overseas but optional for container movement or for exports to the United States.
Inward inspections are the weighing and grading that take place when railcars or trucks arrive at transfer elevators or terminal elevators. The Canadian Grain Commission then provides third-party weighing so as to forestall errors and to provide assurance to producers.
With its Bill C-13, the government is proposing that inward inspections take place only at the request of the shipper, but that outward weighing and shipping remain mandatory. Terminal and transfer elevator operators will be required to allow access to service providers who will do the weighing and inspection.
While the Canadian Grain Commission will no longer be involved in the delivery of this optional service, both shippers and elevator operators will have access to binding Canadian Grain Commission arbitration in the event of dispute over a grain grade.
Like the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, the Bloc Québécois supports optional inward inspection, as proposed by the government. We have been told that inward inspection is no longer universally required. According to COMPAS, “About half of railcars unloading at terminal elevators originate at primary elevators of the same company.”
Rather than proceeding with complete deregulation, we should find a compromise for such cases, perhaps continuing to pay the costs for those who opt for this inspection. However, we also have questions about food safety inspections. I will come back to that if there is time.
We also agree with the arguments presented in the committee report to the effect that the Canadian Grain Commission could abandon kernel visual distinguishability when this method is replaced by one that is more efficient, according to recommendations 5 to 7 of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. Contracting out of inspection services must be evaluated in a pilot project and the government, after three years, must evaluate the real impact.
We must be careful, however. Since inward inspection is optional, this could increase unit costs and prices by decreasing economies of scale. Making it optional would likely put smaller grain companies that do not have a terminal elevator at a disadvantage in terms of competitiveness. Inspection and weighing fees are collected from the farmer at the primary elevator. Optional inward inspection would benefit larger companies that have a terminal elevator by allowing them to avoid payment of the fees and offer a better price to farmers. Grain companies that have a better geographic location will be in a better position to take advantage of mixed shipments.
It is therefore important to promote competition in the grain handling system by helping the smaller companies. That is why we believe that the Canadian Grain Commission must have sufficient funding so that the commission can maintain efficient and timely services for both producers and smaller handlers who need such services for transactional purposes.
There are many other elements I could talk about, but I will just mention certain irritants in this bill. As I said, we received a huge amount of correspondence indicating that there were serious flaws in this bill. For example, the Agriculture Union said that if Bill C-13 were passed, some 200 commission employees, most of them front-line service providers, would lose their jobs.
The Agriculture Union, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, represents most of the employees of the Canadian Grain Commission. Obviously, these people met with us and shared their concerns.
I also want to mention that I have here a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that talks about the problems with this bill. The report is entitled Threatened Harvest.
It is important that the members of this House be aware of this report and the other elements that show that Bill C-13 has huge flaws.