Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to debate Bill C-86, an act to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act, especially as I was invited to do so by the member for Frontenac.
As the member of Parliament for Matapédia-Matane, a rural riding, I have several reasons to be greatly interested in everything that concerns farmers. My interest in agriculture is not motivated by political or partisan reasons.
My region owes its existence primarily to this industry. Nearly all the villages and towns in my riding were founded by settlers, who were farmers, of course.
I like to remind people that, at the turn of the century, over 80 per cent of inhabitants of Matapédia-Matane eked out a miserable existence in the country. They worked from dawn to dusk, but they were happy. I do not want to wax nostalgic, but I am one of those who do not deny their past, being very proud of their origins. Without agriculture, the riding of Matapédia-Matane would probably have never been developed. These farmers are responsible for building what we have here and the best of what we have.
The result of their efforts is that the Lower St. Lawrence now boasts over 400,000 hectares of farmland and 2,600 agricultural businesses with sales in the order of $190 million a year. As I was saying, my contribution to the debate on Bill C-86 is motivated by several reasons.
The first reason is probably that the farmers in my region, like those elsewhere in Quebec and Canada, have become real entrepreneurs and built real businesses over the years. They have built small, medium-sized and even large businesses, with all the risks involved. While subsistence farmers at the beginning of the century did not lead very risky lives, the same cannot be said of today's farmers who face fiercely competitive international markets. It is difficult to live beside a giant neighbour such as the United States of America with its formidable economic power and its climate, which is much more suitable than ours, especially in the Gaspé region. Last week, I went snowmobiling, because there are still two feet of snow in the sugar bush, so there were not many farmers out in the fields.
Some farmers now administer thousands of dollars, and many jobs depend on their economic health and the continued development of their businesses. Bill C-86 should secure the future of milk producers for a while. This means that many farmers in my
riding will enjoy a better future and may even ensure their succession, something which is particularly difficult in my region.
Without the farmers, our small communities will not survive. They were built thanks to the solidarity and the strong will of ordinary people who, over the years, have become great men and women, the builders of our country. Bill C-86 is proof that Quebecers always show solidarity, including with their neighbours, when necessary and when they do not feel pressured by the big federal machine, which often blindly imposes its will.
If each region could plan its own development without having to meet countless standards, we would obviously have a more prosperous country which would surely work a lot better. If the federal government did not impose its standards and, instead, let the provinces decide freely and independently among themselves, the country that you call Canada would undoubtedly work a lot better.
In any case, when Quebec becomes sovereign, it will show solidarity with its neighbours. As I said earlier, virtually all the small villages in my region and my riding were built around agriculture, and they continue to depend on that industry for their livelihood. Should agriculture disappear, a very large number of them would be abandoned overnight. It would be unfortunate to see a country, which our ancestors worked so hard to build, slowly disintegrate because people, who have given so much, have had to leave their regions.
I am also pleased to discuss Bill C-86 because my region is one of Quebec's major dairy production centres. It took almost 50 years of efforts to get to the enviable position that we, Quebecers, now hold in that market. Moreover, we invested large sums of money over the years to diversify, to produce more finished goods, and to fight effectively against outside competition. We are used to defending ourselves, and Bill C-68 once again confirms our leadership, our vision and our courage.
Moreover, Bill C-86 contradicts the federalist big names who wrongly assert that the rest of Canada will reject any agreement with Quebec, if it were to become sovereign tomorrow. On the contrary, an economic union is crucial for both parties, and everybody knows it.
Bill C-86 embodies this principle. Six provinces have signed an agreement, and others will undoubtedly join in when they realize that it is in their own interest.
In my area, dairy production alone generates 75 per cent of farm income and the dairy sector accounts for over 50 per cent of the farm businesses. The other main sectors are cattle, sheep and pork. That tells us a lot about the importance of the dairy sector.
Looking at employment, that sector provides over 7,500 permanent jobs, and thousands more seasonal jobs. Forty-eight per cent of the workers are under 40, which is truly remarkable.
In spite of this, figures for the Matapedia Valley show a 22 per cent drop in farm acreage between 1981 and 1991. Over the same period, the number of farms fell from 420 to 285, a 32 per cent drop.
While many factors can explain these drops, the main one also applies to other sectors. Raw materials from the regions go to major cities for processing, and the finished goods are then sold back to regions. Bill C-86 sets up a national pooling system of market returns that will help the sale of milk products abroad. That goal is praiseworthy, because it will enable us to counter the constant threat of foreign competition.
GATT and NAFTA do not give us much choice. I think we should also consider the same approach in other areas, particularly research and development in agriculture, without any federal involvement. We could research and develop new farm products that could be processed in the regions. Specialized small regional businesses could revitalize rural areas.
I congratulate the proponents of the agreement that is incorporated in Bill C-86 and more particularly Claude Rivard, the president of the federation of dairy producers, and a resident of my region of Matapedia Valley. I urge them to go even further and consider the future of agriculture in regions, including mine, because strong regions make for a strong country and a strong Quebec. Our survival and prosperity depend on a strong and diversified agricultural industry at the regional level. Thanks to specialized producers evenly and fairly distributed throughout the country, we will be able to successfully compete on world markets.
There is no point trying to grow oranges in northern Quebec, but we sure can try to produce something else. There is no point trying to produce milk on a large scale on farms that are not suited to this type of production, but we sure can try our hand at something else. What I am trying to show through these examples is that the agreement underlying Bill C-86 is excellent, and that we should continue in this way. In Quebec, pooling of our resources is where our great strength lies.
If farming is doing so well in Quebec, it is because we gave ourselves the means to succeed. Our farmers are independent, but have set up huge co-ops, pools and marketing boards which serve them well. Canada should follow suit and have independent provinces which still feel solidarity with each other. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs of centralist federalism have no options to put forward.
We, in Quebec, will make the right choice, just like Quebec farmers have done recently. A sovereign Quebec will stand behind its Canadian neighbours. I want to tell you that, in my
rural riding, the people are very proud of this agreement, and I am particularly proud that one of my constituents, a resident of Matapédia, is behind this initiative.