Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in this debate because this is a very important subject. I thank the hon. member for Montcalm who brought this issue before the House, even though his timing was very bad.
Why do I have the nerve to say his timing was bad? I think it is obvious. First, to the great surprise and perhaps disappointment of the hon. members opposite, we find ourselves today in the presence of a minister who listens attentively to everything that is going on in this House, and in his field of responsibility. He speaks up in the debate. He is participating fully. He listens to what all the hon. members have to say.
When I was government House leader, I would have loved to see two dozen ministers acting that way every day, listening to the debates about what was going on in their departments. This minister not only is doing so today, but he does this every time his issues are before the House. Therefore, we ought to congratulate the hon. Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, because he takes part in all the debates and because he listens carefully to the MPs' complaints. He has been almost all over Canada to listen to the farmers.
Just a few moments ago I talked to the minister, who said he would come to meet the farmers in the riding of Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, which I have the honour to represent. He also travelled recently to the riding of Nipissing and to Peterborough and pretty much everywhere. The minister does his homework.
Some members opposite, acting out of unacceptable partisanship, have dared to say that the minister was hiding from national television, from the House of Commons in Ottawa, while Parliament is sitting. Mr. Speaker, have you ever heard such nonsense? It is the sacred duty of the minister to do his job. He does not have to apologize for anything.
Those who chose to ask for this debate today have known for a long time—it was public knowledge—that the minister was supposed to speak to the UPA today. So they said, “We will have the debate on the same day. Then we can say that the minister was not present for the debate because he was in Quebec City.” And when the minister came back to Ottawa, they said, “He is not in Quebec City because he is in Ottawa.”
Today, some people were caught in their own trap. They wanted to trap the minister but it did not work. The minister did his duty. Of course, he will go to the various regions of the country, as he always does. He is known for constantly doing that and that is what he will do again.
I now want to talk about aid to the beef and cull cattle producers. My colleagues from Quebec are well aware of how this supply management system works. Relative to fluid milk, approximately 48% of the production is from Quebec, that is close to twice its population, therefore, most probably twice its consumption. This means that if a region is in dire straights with cull stock, the problem will be especially acute in regions where milk production is greater. That goes without saying.
In my riding, cattle production is much lower than milk production, and therefore, at the end of the cycle come the cull cows.
I am a member of the rural caucus of our party and also a member of what is called the “milk caucus”. There is a meeting with the Dairy Farmers of Canada almost every second week. They come to share with us on all sorts of issues. They told us that they would like to see an amendment to the cost-of-production formula. I am convinced that the Department of Agriculture and the federal-provincial committee and other stakeholders are working on those issues.
It goes without saying. All those things are happening.
Now people are saying that the government is not helping enough. This is what they claim. There is hardly any slaughter capacity left in Canada for cull cows. There is just over two dozens slaughterhouses left. The marketing strategy of the industry, which is totally integrated in North America, was to have cull cows slaughtered in the U.S. It is no secret. Everybody knows that. With the border being closed and having lost our slaughter capacity over the decades because the market was better on the other side of the border, we do not have any left now. It is not like a tap you can turn on and start slaughtering again. And once the animals are slaughtered, where is the market for them?
Recently the minister announced a program to increase our slaughter capacity, and I congratulate him for that. In the past few days, I heard that to date there are two applications from the industry to increase our slaughter capacity, and they are going ahead.
Not too long ago, a new slaughterhouse started operating in my riding or nearby. With the boundary changes, it is now located in Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry. Recently the minister organized a briefing for members of all parties by officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. They came to talk about the applications they had received and any other issue. I did not see too many members from across the way at that briefing. Anyhow, I asked a question regarding a slaughterhouse in my riding which has been closed for several years. A buyer has come forward but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not received an application yet.
It goes without saying that the minister and his staff cannot approve an application that has not been made. We all know that. The applications are coming in. They will be dealt with of course in compliance with every safety standard and others. It is essential. This is how our slaughter capacity will increase.
In the meantime, people claim that Canada produces over double our beef consumption and that it closed overnight. As we all know, the Canadian public could not absorb this quantity of product overnight. In the beginning, several programs were adopted and this continues. There is only one solution to this problem and we all know it. The solution is for the border to be opened up again as it should be.
I remember that sad day in 2003. I think it was May 20, if I am not mistaken. I was at a conference in London, England when it happened. I was at a meeting when I was notified about what had just happened in Alberta. An animal had apparently been diagnosed with so-called mad cow disease.
We knew what had happened in Europe a few years earlier. In Europe, government authorities may not have taken the necessary precautions. Consumer confidence had disappeared. To date, European countries that have experienced the same problem have been unable to reopen their borders to any export whatsoever.
What happened in Canada?
As soon as the incident happened, herds were segregated and the necessary slaughter occurred. All precautionary measures were taken.
What happened to consumer confidence in Canada? It went up at the time. Canadian consumers did not abandon our producers in this country. Perhaps some people forget this because it suits them to. The governments took the necessary measures right from the start and consumer confidence was maintained. For a while there were indications that beef consumption had gone up. Eventually, of course, this levelled off. We cannot completely change our eating habits and maintain that change for a long time. Nonetheless, consumer confidence did not drop.
What happened next? International inspectors gave us a very favourable rating indicating that we had done everything possible and that there was no contamination in Canada. The minister will tell us the name of the agency, but essentially it was the world health agency for animals. It gave us this assurance. Once again, this reassured Canadian consumers.
Once more, we were able to start discussions. Little by little, for certain cuts, the borders were opened. Of course, it was not enough because the only satisfying solution is to reopen the Canada-U.S. border some 90 or 100 kilometres south of this Parliament. In the meantime, measures were put in place. We must recognize that the real solution is to reopen the border.
Now, we must not forget the initiatives taken by the government. When the minister announced the $995 million program for Canadian farmers, I remember that everybody was happy and that they were all saying that the minister had done the right thing. Then, after people forgot about it, they claim that such an announcement was never made. It is not true. The minister took steps.
Some people say they did not get all the money. With respect to the money for the slaughterhouses, it is certainly not the farmers who will get it. The money for increasing the food inspection capacity, for example, will not be used for something else either. The same thing applies to the other plans that were implemented. Naturally, the program has not wound up. By definition, this is the case.
For the rest of the day, I would like members to tell us exactly what part of the program did not work out well. Was it because of red tape, unreasonable delays, demands producers should not have made under this program or anything else?
We could work with the minister to improve things if need be. We could have a less partisan debate. Instead of saying that the minister is hiding in the House of Commons--as was heard previously--we could take this opportunity here, with the minister in the Chamber, to try to enhance the program.
I also have constituents who are hurting. Many of them. I saw how frustrated they are. I saw it during the last election campaign. I saw it in their eyes.