Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour for me, as I start my maiden speech here in the House of Commons, to speak on the subject of agriculture. Since I have the privilege of being the official agriculture and agri-food critic, and I am delighted because I know that agriculture is a very important sector. As the hon. member for Simcoe North said earlier, and I must say I agree, agriculture is the backbone of a number of regions in this country. Agriculture is a wonderful industry and an important one. Unfortunately, Canadians do not realize how important agriculture is.
There are approximately 200,000 producers in Canada with a gross income of about $23 billion, which is quite substantial. There are almost 2 million jobs, both directly and indirectly, in the agricultural sector in Canada. If I had more time, I could say a lot about the job creation potential of this sector. I will not have a chance to do so this evening, but there is considerable potential for job creation in the agricultural industry.
Agriculture is so important in Canada that if we include farm production and the entire agri-food chain in this country, agriculture is our most important industry. It is more important than the automobile industry, being worth another $8 billion. When I say the whole agri-food chain, I am referring to everyone involved, the distributors and manufacturers and everything in the agri-food sector in this country. This represents $838 billion per year as part of our GDP. In Quebec, agriculture is worth $4 billion more than the pulp and paper industry.
Agriculture is therefore a very important and a very significant industry. That is probably why we have a full House this evening, to listen to my speech on agriculture. It is also one of Canada's leading edge industries. We must not forget that. Going back in history, one could say that agriculture is probably one of the industries that form the basis of Confederation. It also contributed to Canada's image as the bread basket of the world. However, today, in 1994, it has also become a very modern and very progressive industry. In some sectors, such as Western grain and red meat, we rank number one in the world. Dairy production especially is very important. We have a highly developed industry in which advances in technology have been considerable. On the international scene, exports of genetic material are worth about $85 million, and this may include Holstein cows, for instance, for reproduction purposes.
Without getting into too much detail, I want to say that agriculture is a very important industry in terms of the economy and also in terms of the advanced technology that is being used. We rank among the first in the world.
The problem is that unfortunately, people underestimate agriculture. It is not fashionable. Agriculture may be misunderstood. To many people, agriculture is folklore. Farmers are still seen as potato producers. People do not realize how complicated a farmer's life is today. It takes a lot of technology and a lot of knowledge. He has to know about machinery; he has to know about herbicides and pesticides and fertilizer; he has know his animals, construction and whole lot of other things. He has to be an expert and a jack-of-all-trades.
The problem also is that farmers, although they account for a great deal of our country's total production and expertise, make up only about 3 per cent of the Canadian population, a very small proportion indeed. This only creates another problem, the fact that governments neglect agriculture.
I have the impression that consumers generally take food for granted in Canada. They do not take the time to appreciate how important this industry is to the country. My hon. colleague from Essex-Windsor said a few days ago that a country that cannot feed itself soon will not be a country. Self-sufficiency is an important, even fundamental, consideration.
The other problem is once again that the media in Canada are not very interested in agriculture, again because it is not fashionable. The media are more concerned about urban problems than they are about rural problems. Agriculture is therefore much neglected. And consequently, governments neglect this industry as well. That is obvious. My God, is it obvious!
The throne speech makes no mention whatsoever of agriculture. It is an obvious oversight. Fifteen years ago, I worked for Eugene Whelan when he was the Minister of Agriculture in the Trudeau Cabinet. I never learned so much about agriculture as I did then. Mr. Whelan was a great minister, maybe even the most important Minister of Agriculture in the history of Canada, and even he had a very hard time convincing his colleagues of the importance of this industry. Moreover, the Trudeau government was doing nothing, zilch, to help agriculture. Well, maybe it was doing something, but only the bare minimum.
I feel that nothing much has changed in the intervening years, even if we have changed governments. We had a Conservative government in power and now we have a Liberal government, with a Prime Minister who was a member of that very same Cabinet years ago.
Mr. Trudeau himself displayed open contempt for farmers. I remember very clearly one time when we were in Winnipeg where farmers had gathered to confront him about the grain export crisis in the West. The grain was not moving and they wanted to know what the Prime Minister was going to do to help them. I remember what Mr. Trudeau said to them: "Sell your own goddam grain"!
Which only goes to show that Prime Minister Trudeau had no patience when it came to agricultural issues. I think that the current Prime Minister also has a tendency to neglect, and dare I say it, to misunderstand, this industry. The recent GATT talks will have a major impact on the entire agricultural sector in Quebec and Ontario, including the supply management system. The dairy and farming sectors work with quotas and the GATT talks jeopardized the value of these quotas.
Quotas, by the way, account for approximately two thirds of the value of a farm. The Prime Minister of Canada was asked if the farmers who stood to lose as a result of the fallout from the GATT negotiations would be compensated. The Prime Minister's answer was no, because they had not paid for their quotas. His exact answer was: "There will be no compensation for farmers because they did not buy their quotas."
This is the statement made in French by the Prime Minister in an interview published by Le Droit , and I might add that this statement was not mentioned by the English Canadian press. I mention this minor detail, because it is nevertheless an important one: I am telling you that the Prime Minister's statement was only reported in French. Obviously, the Prime Minister was wrong about the quotas, because we know for a fact that farmers paid for their quotas and they paid dearly. In fact, this is the very basis of the borrowings they make. It is the basis of their credit. It is the basis of many very important things for farmers.
All these factors, which I mention very briefly, illustrate that in fact this government has no constructive and positive policies for the agricultural sector. This government does not have a vision for agriculture. In fact, Canada has never had a constructive vision for that sector. The truth is that our agricultural policy is nothing but a stopgap measure which has always been influenced by the Americans and the international community.
No initiatives are taken by Canada; we only react. The recent developments with GATT, the current situation and the agreements which are being negotiated with the Americans are blatant illustrations of this lack of vision for the agricultural sector in Canada. The facts prove that we only react. Right now, the situation is complex and worrisome for farmers, not only in the East but also in the West. Wheat production in the Prairies is second to none. We have a lot of durum wheat and other grain in the West, and Americans want to restrict exports to their country. It is true that exports have increased considerably since last year and the years before that. Wheat is very important for Western farmers, and Americans want to restrict that export.
When you think of it, Americans have no reason to do that. We signed a free trade agreement with them. The very basis of that agreement is to promote trade with Americans, including wheat, and now they want to be bad sports. They want to force Canada to restrict its exports. Once again, Canada is on its knees. It seems that we cannot, through the Minister of Agriculture, defend our rights and protect what is ours. Western farmers should be allowed to export as much wheat as they want to the
United States under NAFTA, and under the Free Trade Agreement signed with that country.
Another illustration of a government which is on its knees, which is always giving in, which is not able to protect us against Americans or foreign interests and events, is how we have lost under the GATT, an opportunity to develop agriculture. We have lost control over a system which may have been one of the best in the world. During the GATT negotiations, we wanted to strengthen Article XI, because Canada's supply management system-and I know you all agree with me-was the best one in the world. There are no two ways about it, it was the best in the world. With that system, there was no overproduction, no dumping; everything was controlled and, in fact, that system was a model for the rest of the world.
To please other countries, we have had to sacrifice that great system that we had devoted so much time and energy to building. Had Canada really wanted to protect itself properly, it could have had Article XI reinforced. The fact is, and the hon. member will acknowledge it, that many countries and the Americans themselves managed to get all kinds of exemptions under the GATT. So, Canada could have had the provisions of Article XI strengthened, but did not. Canada backed off, it caved in, making people believe it had been isolated. In the end, we were left without a leg to stand on when in fact the Canadian government could have better protected supply management if it had really wanted to. Basically, it was not interested, and not having Article XI reinforced caused us another worse problem in agriculture.
This other problem generated by Canada's lack of resolve at the GATT talks is that it is more difficult now to maintain, in order to protect our supply management system with regard to areas where quotas are applied, the tariff rates that are supposed to protect supply management. Because of our failure at the GATT, the least we can do to allow the system to exist for a few more years to protect the farmers and give them time to adjust to the new global market environment, is to maintain a tariff barrier high enough to give our farmers a chance to adjust. It is only normal. Agriculture is not like a toy factory. You cannot just shut down overnight when you are dealing with livestock. You have to plan over a number of years.
So, the problem is that this tariff barrier which is supposed to protect supply management for at least a few years has already started to crumble. So soon! The ink is not even dry on the agreement that the government is backing off, reneging on the promises made to the farmers. The Minister of Agriculture has repeatedly promised Canadian farmers that he would do his utmost to protect Article XI. He did not. Then, the Minister of Agriculture said: "I will do everything in my power to make the tariff barrier high enough to maintain the supply management system in Canada." That was just five weeks ago, but discussions are already under way with the Americans to eliminate the tariff on agricultural products such as ice cream and yogurt.
I could have gone on for another 20 minutes, but let me at least conclude my remarks.
In spite of the fact that the minister of agriculture for Canada is a very kind and well spoken lawyer and not a farmer, I am beginning to think we have a rather wishy-washy minister of agriculture, because in the great tradition of ministers of agriculture for Canada he is unable to say no to Americans. He is unable to stand and defend the rights and privileges we have won in negotiations with the United States and other countries. We have a minister who unfortunately because of this weakness puts into question a lot of the strengths of Canadian agriculture. It is most regrettable.
I think that there are many good things to say about agriculture, but I will have to wait for another day.