Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to take part in the debate on Bill C-29 to amend the Farm Improvement and Marketing Cooperatives Loans Act.
The Bloc Québécois supports this bill. However, even though the government members might not be happy about this, we will raise some concerns and issues that could have been resolved through this legislation or other programs. Some questions must be asked. Nevertheless, this bill does include some positive elements, and we do not intend to stand in the government's way, because we would like this bill to move forward quickly.
That being said, I want to point out that the government does not seem to learn from experience. As I have said before, this government is all about marketing. It makes wonderful promises and big announcements in perfectly planned settings, but afterward it becomes clear that the government is trying to force something on us and that the promises look different on paper.
For example, just before the most recent budget was tabled, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made a big to-do about finally bringing in a truly flexible program. As we all know, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture had proposed a program called AgriFlex.
The minister said that he would invest $500 million in the program, just as the producers wanted. The program that turned up in the budget had nothing to do with what producers wanted, and risk management was left out. Also, instead of $500 million over four years, the government promised $500 million over five years.
The worst part is that the provinces do not have the flexibility they need to implement their own programs. In other words, the provinces do not have the flexibility they need to funnel that money into the programs that they have already set up. As it turns out, the announcement was not so wonderful after all.
There is also the issue of the “Product of Canada” label. Earlier, I talked about the consultations that were announced with great fanfare by the government on every issue. The principle is the same. The Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food discussed changing the totally obsolete rule for “Product of Canada” labels. I am going to explain this rule, even though it is very well known. Under that rule a food product could be labelled a “Product of Canada”, provided that at least 51% of its total cost was Canadian.
That aberration was obvious when we would see the “Product of Canada” label on a jar of olives, because the jar, the lid and the liquid were Canadian, but the olives obviously could not have come from Canada or Quebec. We have yet to see olives grow in any part of Canada, whether it is Prince Edward Island, Vancouver, Quebec or Ontario. Therefore, the legislation had to be amended, so that consumers would know that they were buying a food product that was really produced here, that really came from here.
So, the committee's consultations were going well, until the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food announced, on a farm located in the pastoral setting that I described earlier, that they were changing the regulations on “Product of Canada” labelling, and that this issue would be settled.
As for us, we had not even finished our work, we were still consulting people. Thus, they proposed a standard that Conservative members on the committee had never told us about, namely the 98% rule for obtaining the “Product of Canada” label. This has the reverse effect of the infamous 51% of the total cost rule. Before, anything could be called a “Product of Canada”, but now it is nearly impossible for a product to get that label. It seems that the government has not learned from its mistakes.
The member for Malpeque also referred to the options program, which had also been announced with great fanfare. The idea was to help the neediest agricultural producers but now, two years later, we realize that the program is not working very well and is not really adequate.
As we said before, it is hard to be against this. Helping the poorest farmers is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not at all what farmers wanted. The government decided to drop the program simply because it was not working. Insofar as consultations are concerned, I wonder where the government went in order to realize that these changes were not wanted. It sure laid an egg with this program, which no longer exists.
The purpose of Bill C-29 is to increase the availability of loans to help farmers get established or to develop and improve their farms, including through the processing, distribution and marketing of farm products. We will therefore vote for this bill. The government will make loans more available by providing loan guarantees at designated financial institutions.
The Bloc Québécois wants to remind the House that farmers often find themselves in a precarious situation as a result of the decline in farm income, the economic crisis and all the various problems that have affected agriculture. The government should not use this bill, however, as an excuse for not taking other measures that should be implemented to help various agricultural sectors deal with the crisis facing them.
We are also concerned about the latitude the government has given itself by retaining the right to change the process and criteria by regulation. If the minister is given broad discretionary powers, we may be left with terms and conditions that make particular programs available in theory but the minister has the power to block it all. I will provide examples later if time permits.
The amendments to the current act will ensure that beginning farmers—the next generation therefore—are included in the definition of a farmer, and that is a good thing. The amendments will also extend eligibility to farm product cooperatives whose members are at least 50% + 1 farmers, instead of requiring all members to be farmers, as was previously the case. In addition, the bill increases the availability of loans by including in the definition of a lender other designated organizations.
The bill also amends the current legislation regarding the percentage of a lender’s loss that can be reimbursed for loans to farmers that are guaranteed by the government. This provision provides compensation of as much as 95% of the losses suffered, unless a lesser percentage has been fixed by the regulations. This is an example of the minister’s discretionary power. It is the same in clause 4(2)(c), where the government reserves the right to add various kinds of livestock to the program or eliminate them from it.
The bill also makes it possible to use the loan to buy land and not just new land, as was previously the case. This small but important adjustment makes it possible to use the loan to buy shares in a corporation or membership in a cooperative and allows for intergenerational farm transfers, instead of limiting it to the purchase of new farm land.
As for the famous consultations with stakeholders, I saw the document the government released. It is available on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website. The government did hold consultations across Canada. In Quebec, they took place in Longueuil. To my great surprise, the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec, the Coop fédérée and the Fédération de la relève agricole du Québec were not present at this consultation.
This makes me wonder whether the government was truly committed to consulting the people directly affected by such measures. Many people from the banks were present. Earlier, the member for Malpeque explained that rather than being designed to really help young farmers and producers, the bill was designed to help the banks and guarantee the credit they would then give to producers and young farmers.
I also spoke to Frédéric Marcoux, the president of the Fédération de la relève agricole du Québec who said he was nonetheless “enthusiastic about the political will to support beginning farmers, which the federal government eventually affirms”.
It is important to quote the federation's press release, which says:
However the Federation regrets that the young farmers were not previously consulted and would like to know more into details the ins and outs of the program, before giving a more precise opinion...the loan insurance problem is not the main difficulty for the youth who wish to start in agriculture.
The federation president stated:
“It would be good to involve us much more in the thinking process engaged by the federal government, a preliminary diagnosis of the situation of the establishment in agriculture in Canada would be a good basis to then propose suitable and efficient measures.”
We can see that young people are very aware of what they need and want and that they did not feel at all involved in the government's decision to introduce such a measure. They did not feel that they had been listened to. The Minister of State for Agriculture is a member from Quebec, and every time questions are put to him, he answers that he is listening carefully and that he is very open. I have rarely seen a minister with such large ears. But I think that he is not listening to the same people we are. What we are wondering is: whom is he listening to? Whom is he consulting?
Earlier I referred to the example of the “Product of Canada” label. That is a perfect example. One might wonder where the minister was, or where the Prime Minister was. Where were those individuals when everyone agreed that 98% was completely unacceptable? Yet the minister says he is listening. It appears he did not listen to the Fédération de la relève agricole du Québec, since it was not even invited to the famous consultation that took place in Longueuil.
In Canada, I found only one location, Newfoundland, where young farmers were in fact represented. I must admit, somewhere in Canada, one person spoke on behalf of young farmers. That was in Newfoundland. Everywhere else, there was not one representative of young farmers in attendance at those consultations. That is simply not enough.
As for the positive aspects, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, whose new president is Laurent Pellerin, commended these measures, which will give farmers a boost. Mr. Pellerin said that young farmers and cooperatives are a vital part of the agriculture sector, and that the proposed changes could be helpful in that regard.
The Fédération de la relève agricole du Québec also pointed out that Quebec is losing more than one farm per day and that the problem must be addressed through fiscal measures, in order to preserve existing farms and keep them from going under. It said that the government must take these factors into consideration if it wants to help young farmers and that, more than ever, the problems facing the next generation of farmers must be at the heart of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s concerns.
Unfortunately, young farmers gave their opinion after the fact. It would have been better if the government had heard from young farmers before Bill C-29 was drafted.
We are talking about consultations and listening to stakeholders. It is no surprise that the Bloc Québécois is always ahead in Quebec. The reason is simple: we really go out and meet people, and hear what they have to say. That is what we did with young farmers.
In January 2005, the Bloc Québécois organized a conference called “Vers un transfert de fermes gagnant”. The Union des producteurs agricoles took part, as well as the Bloc québécois and the Syndicat de la relève agricole de la Côte-du-Sud. The conclusion we reached was that several tax measures could be taken to help the next generation of farmers. If the government is really serious about helping the next generation and establishing winning conditions, if I may use that term, to ensure that the farm sector survives, it should listen to the proposals that came out of our 2005 conference.
That is not all the Bloc did. On several occasions, it put forward motions proposing these ideas. I managed in committee to have them included in the recommendations made in various files in order to ensure that the government knew that some very effective measures could be taken.
In order to make it more attractive to transfer farms rather than dismantle them, the Bloc Québécois suggested in particular that the capital gains deduction on agricultural property should be increased from $500,000 to $1 million. A change was made and the amount is now $750,000, although this could be increased to $1 million solely in the case of transactions which result in the farm being maintained.
We also suggested the government should extend the rollover provision to other transfers beyond parent–child. We said it should be extended to other immediate family members less than 40 years of age. It could be brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren, and so forth. It is good for farms to stay in the immediate family, but we should not prevent them from being transferred outside the parent–child relationship. It would be very easy to expand this and make it easier to hand down farm assets.
We also proposed a farm transfer savings plan that would enable farmers to accumulate a non-taxable retirement fund. Governments could also contribute, as they do in the case of the education savings plan. This contribution would be conditional on the farm being preserved after the transfer.
We also suggested that the government make the home buyers' plan more flexible to allow young farmers to obtain, in whole or in part, a larger portion of a residence owned by a corporation and to use their RRSP to acquire an agricultural business. Currently, the home buyers' plan, also known as the HBP, allows individuals to use their RRSP to purchase a residence. The next generation of farmers has asked us to propose two measures to make the home buyers' plan more flexible so that they can acquire a farm, not just a residence, for the purpose of becoming a co-owner of the family farm, not just a homeowner.
This proposal comes directly from those representing the next generation, those who know what they need. After plenty of proper consultation, we think that the government could easily implement these measures. It would have been nice if some parties other than the Bloc Québécois had made similar proposals during the election campaign.
We also proposed that the federal government transfer a recurring envelope of funds to the Government of Quebec to encourage young people to take up farming. For example, the Government of Quebec could extend access to the start-up subsidy, improve interest rate protection and raise eligibility limits, introduce a start-up subsidy for young people starting up in agriculture part time and gradually moving into full time, and create a single-window approach to match farms with no succession and young aspiring farmers without farms.
These were the ideas that came out of a tour by the Bloc Québécois concerning land use. My colleague for Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, who is present, participated in this tour of Quebec. It is obvious that if we do not foster and support agricultural succession, farms in many regions will disappear. We have already provided some statistics. The member for Malpeque and I spoke about this. A number of farms cease operations every day in Quebec and Canada. We have to be proactive if we do not want farmers to disappear. These measures, which are loan guarantees, will be welcomed by some sectors.
Just last week we heard pork producers say that they are being affected by H1N1 even though we know very well that this flu is transmitted from human to human. They have not yet put their problems behind them and this type of program will not help.
This program also will not help potato farmers in Saint-Amable who are still fighting the golden nematode, which struck in 2006. They still do not have a long-term plan for alternative crops.
Therefore, there remains work to be done. I invite the government to reread what I just said about measures to help the next generation of farmers. It might really give a little bit of help to those who need it.