Mr. Speaker, I thank the House and my colleague for Brandon—Souris for taking the initiative to have this essential debate.
This is not just a debate about lives and livelihoods, although it is that. It is also a debate about the security of the country, the food security of the country. We face a situation in which our capacity not only to be a supplier to the world but to look after our own interests is increasingly being jeopardized.
I heard a moment ago a dispute from one of the Liberal members questioning the figures put forward by my colleague from Brandon—Souris about the number of farmers who are off the land in prairie Canada, my part of Canada. The figure I have is 22,000.
Whether it is 22,000, 21,000 or 20,000, far too many Canadians are going off the land now. This is not just an arid statistic. This is a reality that is changing the nature of western Canada, the nature of Ontario and the nature of the constituency I had the honour to represent so briefly last fall, Kings—Hants in Nova Scotia. It is also putting at risk Canada's capacity to be an agricultural producer and a country that can grow the food it requires and use that food for technology in the future.
I am not here to argue the numbers of people who are going off the land. I am arguing that the House of Commons and the government has to pay attention now to this crisis. There has to be a response immediately. That is not because there were trucks and tractors on the streets in Cornwall the other day. It is because there is a very real threat to the capacity of Canada to maintain its food producing ability, and it extends right across the nation.
There is a need for an immediate cash infusion, and I emphasize the word immediate.
Farmers need to know now if there will be money available to them from the government. They do not have the luxury of waiting. They are arranging right now, as we speak in debate here, visits to their bankers so they can arrange a line of credit in March and April in order to be on the fields in May.
If we continue to delay and the government does not act, more farms will shut down across Ontario, the prairies, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. That is the crisis we are facing. There is a need now for the minister of agriculture to stand in the House and indicate that not only will there be an immediate cash infusion but, as we move beyond emergency aid, that there will also be a long term program.
We proposed in the last election campaign a program based upon the old principles of GRIP. We did not win the election, but let me say to the House that the principles of that program, which were criticized at the time, have proven themselves to be a basis on which we can provide some security to agriculture in the future. If it is not a program of the kind we proposed, there at least has to be, for the long term interest of the country, immediate action now to deal with cash infusion quickly and to ensure that there is long term action on agriculture.
It is not just about one region of the country. Farmers across Canada are affected. We saw the protests on the Hill. Yesterday, a rally was held in Cornwall, Ontario. Farmers blocked highways so that they would be listened to. The concerns about the future of family farms are very real.
On February 9, the provincial ministers of agriculture met in Regina and agreed that the financial situation of farmers is precarious and that they desperately need help from Ottawa.
It is anticipated that Manitoba farmers will face a 19% drop in their realized net income for the year 2000, compared to the average for 1995-96. In Saskatchewan, the drop will be 56%, while farmers in Prince Edward Island will probably face a 60% reduction in their realized net income, again compared to the average for 1995-96.
These forecasts are particularly disturbing for Canadian farmers trying to compete with producers abroad who benefit from high levels of subsidies.
The other day in the House, before the Prime Minister went to see President Bush, he made a clear commitment to the House and to farmers across the country that he would do something about the unacceptably high level of subsidy that the American government puts into their farm producers.
I do not know what results have occurred, but I say to the Prime Minister, in his absence, that if he is unable to persuade the Americans to reduce their subsidies, and the evidence is he cannot get them to bring theirs down, then he has a clear obligation to ensure that there is financial support to Canadian farmers who are suffering in comparison, who are not getting the help from their government that American producers are getting from their government.
Can this be done? Do we have the money to do that? Let us put it into context. Do we have the money to protect one of the basic industries of Canada and stop it from the gradual slide toward extinction, which we are now seeing? Yes, we have the money for that if we have the will. Do we have the right under the World Trade Organization? Yes, we have the right.
Officials of the Government of Canada have made it very clear that there is at least $2 billion worth of what they call wiggle room, which would allow us to put money into Canadian agriculture in the same way that countries with whom our producers have to compete put money into their agriculture.
I will wind down. I am just a city boy from Calgary, but one of the things I learned in Calgary, in a city centre constituency, is that even though we do not grow the grain and produce the product right there in the city, the economy of my city depends upon the strength of agriculture. The economy and security of people right across the country depend upon the strength of agriculture.
Agriculture used to be a dominant industry in Canada. It has slipped away from the centre of public attention. That has to stop and we in the House of Commons have to make it stop. It is not a question of food, although being able to ensure that there is a safe and adequate supply of food is of fundamental importance. It is also a question of the other things that we could do with agriculture.
There is not an industry in the nation that has been more finely tuned to high technology, to innovation, than the agricultural industry. It is not an industry of the past. It is very much an industry of the Canadian future, unless we snuff it out and let it drift away. The government has been letting it drift away by its failure to bring in either the kind of emergency assistance or the kind of long range planning that is needed.
We speak often about quality of life. We speak often about the importance of community. This is a nation of values, and some of the values of our nation are values deeply rooted in rural Canada. Rural Canada, while it is becoming more and more diverse now, had its inspiration from a reliance upon resource industries and upon agriculture.
If we let the industry fail as is happening now, we run the risk of changing the very nature of the country and of undermining values that are fundamentally important. I ask the minister and I ask the government to act immediately to get money into the system for people who need to see their bankers tomorrow, and then to bring before the House long range programs that will introduce a degree of stability into Canadian agriculture to let us be as proud and productive a producing country in the future as we have been in the past.