Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this debate proposed by the Conservative Party, regarding an issue of great importance to our economy and vital to Quebec's economy. We are talking about mad cow disease.
Just yesterday in the House, the Liberal government, through the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, refused to add a second phase to the financial assistance program for businesses affected by the mad cow crisis, which has continued since May 20.
The Quebec government is demanding—and the Bloc Quebecois has tirelessly echoed that demand—that the federal government provide additional funds to the Financière agricole du Québec for the creation of programs to enable its farmers to survive this crisis. They need the basic necessities.
The federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food could not have been clearer. The answer is no.
In response to my question yesterday, the minister simply said that the government had money—over $1 billion—to help farmers under its agricultural policy framework, but that it would not do anything until the provinces signed the agreement. In other words, it is knowingly using a catastrophe to blackmail the provinces. It prefers to let farmers suffer, although their revenues have dropped dramatically since the lone case of mad cow was detected in Alberta.
The Conservative Party motion demands:
That, in the opinion of the House, the Prime Minister should convene and lead a multi-party delegation including representatives of the industry to Washington at the earliest possible date to discuss with officials of the Congress and the Government of the United States all possible means to fully reopen the U.S. border to shipments of Canadian livestock.
Going to the United States is one thing but, until then, the goal is to ensure that our farmers do not go bankrupt. We must ensure that they have the necessary funds to survive.
The situation is so bad that the Canadian Cattlemen's Association is calling upon the government to inject no less than $195 million in additional compensation to farmers affected by the ban on our beef exports. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food to note that I am not the one saying this, but I am reporting that the Canadian Cattlemen's Association is calling upon the government to inject no less than $195 in additional compensation. That is something he ought to have in his notes.
Just to provide some idea of the magnitude of the problem, the price of cull cattle, which was around 55 to 60 cents a pound prior to May 20, is now around 18 cents. If that is not a problem, I do not know what is. The beef cattle producers are not the only ones in trouble now, so are the dairy producers. The whole food chain is involved, from farmer to processor.
People can no longer manage to feed their animals, and now are being threatened with bankruptcy as well. We do not want anyone trying to tell us there is no problem and we do not know the true situation. Fifteen percent of Quebec's entire dairy production is in my riding. I have talked to many farmers, and everyone is hard hit by the situation. There is a great deal of anxiety. Some people are losing sleep over it, because of their uncertainty about what is going to happen if a solution is not found quickly.
The drop in cull cattle prices, coupled with the fact that some producers got no compensation because phase one of the federal program did not apply to them, has had a huge effect on this important sector of our economy.
They can boast about injecting money into the program, but it was just the first phase. Not everyone was compensated or had the chance to turn to the Financière agricole for a loan to sustain their operation until the crisis passes. How long will it take to resolve this crisis—a month, two months, three months? No one knows. Will farmers be able to hold on any longer? Can they hold on for another three months?
The Quebec Minister of Agriculture, Françoise Gauthier, was here yesterday to hear the official no response from her federal counterpart. Yesterday and today the national news reported that Quebec's minister had returned to the National Assembly with a flat no. She believes she will be able to sign a policy framework agreement with the federal government by Christmas. That is only three months away.
Let us come back to the content of the motion by the Progressive Conservative Party. The Bloc Quebecois supports this motion, which proposes sending a parliamentary delegation to our neighbours to the south. The problem is, who will lead the delegation?
The complex and unique situation, to say the least, that is brewing within the governing Liberal Party is such that we are ending up—I feel I must say this—with a type of two-headed monster: a prime minister who is no longer the leader and a leader who is not yet the prime minister. That is how ambiguous the machinery of government has become.
We feel that representatives from Quebec and the provinces should be added to this delegation. The presence of MPs from various parties would be all the more useful because the Liberal government has not done a good job of defending the interests of farmers, especially those from Quebec, since the beginning of this crisis.
The Bloc plans to be part of this parliamentary delegation going to the United States. Count on me to explain what is unique about the system in Quebec and to work on having the U.S. ban fully lifted, at least for Quebec. If Ottawa does not defend Quebec, the Bloc will.
The minister says there is no example of a territorial approach for an embargo—what we call regionalization—but he must have a really short memory. Canada took this approach last year by imposing a ban on chicken from three U.S. states. It can very well promote the partial lifting of the ban, but the situation is far from being resolved.
The effects of the crisis are still being felt and agricultural operations are having to deal with substantial quantities of livestock that have accumulated since the crisis began on May 20. Let us remember that, despite the partial lifting of the ban imposed by the United States, the amount of beef crossing the border represents only a portion of what was exported before the ban was put in place.
This partial lifting, which excludes live cattle, has not translated into a return to normal market prices for certain products. The price of beef is 65% lower than it was before May 20, 2003.
Producers, who continue to suffer despite the partial lifting of the ban, still need help. Products which can now enter the United States constitute only about 35% of shipments.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Bloc has avoided being alarmist about public health measures. We wanted to give the government a chance. Four months after the ban was put in place, it is clear that there has been more talk than action from the government. Measures ought to be taken, in the direction of regionalization rather than centralization, which is so dear to this government.
Curiously, while we have been debating these important issues, he who is now the boss but not yet prime minister has stayed out of the debate. It would be interesting to hear the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard on this topic. What does he think of the current government's attitude with respect to producers' demands? What does he think of the blackmail being used by the Minister of Agriculture who wants to shove the agricultural policy framework down the throats of the provinces?
I recently took the opportunity of an open house day organized by the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec to visit a dairy farm in my riding, owned by the Lupien family in Saint-Joachim-de-Courval.
As I had already done with a beef producer, Jocelyn Autote, I spoke with the Lupien family about the impact of the crisis on their sector. Beef producers are not the only ones affected; the dairy industry has been as well, as I have already pointed out.
According to the Dairy Farmers of Canada, on August 7, “We are losing close to a million and a half dollars daily as a result of the American embargo on our meat”. Dairy producers also sell cattle. They need to replace about 25% of their herd annually. The cull cows, those no longer producing enough milk, are sold for meat. Some 70% of cull cows were exported to the U.S. or Mexico before the ban.
Many calves and heifers brought good prices from American producers. These sales represented about 10% of the income of a dairy farm, but close to 75% of the amount of farm income producers set aside for maintaining their families.
It is estimated that, in Quebec, approximately 12,000 steers could not be slaughtered before August 31, the last day of the federal-provincial assistance program. Some farmers took them to auction but, despite their insistence, ended up taking animals that ought to have been headed for the slaughterhouse back to the farm. As a result, they were deprived of financial assistance from the federal government, because this was only for slaughter cattle.
This explains why, at the September 22 federal-provincial meeting of ministers of agriculture, Quebec was calling for Ottawa to add phase two, retroactive to September 1, to the compensation package for businesses affected by the mad cow crisis. The Liberal government refused to do so.
Both beef and dairy producers want to see all border restrictions lifted promptly, but they are sensible enough to realize that the financial impact of the crisis will continue long after the ban has been lifted.
To quote Jacques Desrosiers, President of the Association des engraisseurs de bovins du Québec,“The money we lost cannot be reinvested in our businesses. We generally buy a lot of cattle in the spring, but this year we put a stop to it, so that has slowed down our production for the entire year”.
Those most in danger of bankruptcy are small producers and next generation farmers. Every time an agricultural sector is hit by a crisis, the number of farms decreases. The reason is simple: the smallest producers often do not have the means to get through hard times and are swallowed up by the larger producers.
The President of the Syndicat des producteurs de bovins du Centre du Québec, Alain Laroche, said on August 28:
The cattle industry, which generates 20% of the jobs in central Quebec, is on the verge of a catastrophe. The situation is a cause for concern for the next generation. It will be impossible for young people to buy a farm, even a family farm. Young people will go down with their farm...People must be told that we can no longer make ends meet.
The mad cow crisis has lasted over four months. What can be said about how Liberal government is handling this problem? The Bloc Quebecois has done its own analysis of the situation, and it can be accused of having some bias. But let us look at what observers outside the Canadian political scene think.
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is pleased with the way the Liberal government has handled the mad cow crisis. Here are the comments of a neutral foreign observer. Jean-Philippe Deslys, a French specialist in bovine spongiform encephalopathy, who was in Montreal on August 22, could not believe that Ottawa had not learned from the mad cow crisis in Europe. He said:
Because, faced with this crisis, Canada has behaved like all other countries affected, before it, by this strange disease, with France and Great Britain leading the pack. It is making the same decisions and the same errors with, ultimately, very predictable repercussions on consumer confidence and the economy.
How does he describe the way the federal government has handled the crisis? He thought it showed more concern for the media than for public health. He said:
One might have expected, in the context, that decisions would be made to protect the beef industry economically. But no: the authorities went into an administrative mindset, especially in terms of management of the crisis in the media, instead of taking a scientific or public health approach. And in the end, the repercussions on the economy are not what one would have wished.
There are other people who do not share the Liberal government's views. The President of the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec, speaking about the agricultural policy framework, said, “We are not satisfied with this. Quebec has 25% of Canada's population, 20% of its agricultural production, and receives only 10 or 11% of the envelope”. He said this in a telephone interview.
He is worried about uniformity in implementation. “Not to recognize that there are differences in agriculture [in Canada] takes a lot of imagination”. Mr. Pellerin condemneded the “hypercentralizing approach” of the agricultural policy framework. The President of the UPA intends to demonstrate over the coming months that the framework “does not improve the situation at all...Time will tell that it does not work”.
In this context, Quebec finds itself facing yet another demonstration of the effects of the fiscal imbalance. The consequence is that Quebec might be forced into signing the agricultural policy framework.
“You know the state of our public finances”, said the Quebec minister. “We do not have $130 million to spare, and everyone in the industry knows it. What we have to do is reach a consensus that will allow Quebec to sign this agreement while maintaining as much flexibility as possible to establish our programs”.
Finally, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, the member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie, on a recent visit to my riding, told journalists:
The mad cow problem should have been regionalized. There was no reason for it to involve all of Canada. When the problem arose in France, for instance, Italy did not panic. Yet, Italians are much closer geographically to the French than Albertans are to Quebeckers.
While only one case of mad cow was diagnosed in Canada, all the provinces were affected by bans imposed by our foreign partners. The U.S ban on all ruminants hit us especially hard, because the U.S. is our main buyer. It is very hard for farmers, slaughterhouses and labs that specialize in bovine embryos, such as IND Embryotech in my riding.
While the Bloc Quebecois acknowledged that the American decision was reasonable during the diagnostic stage, we feel that it is unfair to continue the ban for provinces that were not affected.
The Bloc Quebecois would like to point out that, if Quebec were sovereign and in control of its own borders and health policies at this time, it would not have been hit by the U.S. ban. Laurent Pellerin, President of the UPA, said the same thing at a press conference on May 21, 2003:
If we were separate provinces with distinct inspection systems and regionalized commodity marketing mechanisms, there would be just one province having to deal with this problem now.
The current situation is particularly frustrating for Quebec producers who have long had to submit to a series of constraints aimed at ensuring healthy herds and irreproachable product quality.
As far as tracking is concerned, Quebec is well ahead of others, and more and more innovative methods are being developed. I know a slaughterhouse in the riding next to mine, Richmond—Arthabaska, is working on a system that would make it possible to track an animal from birth right to the supermarket meat department.
In conclusion, over and above all the facts and figures about compensation, the columns of gains and losses, there is a human side to this. Agriculture is the men, women and families who devote themselves to providing us with food. This is something that the bureaucrats, and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food himself, seem to have lost sight of.
We support the motion of the Progressive Conservative Party, because we have the best interests of the devoted people of our rural areas at heart.