Mr. Speaker, certainly the House has had a substantial amount of discussion in relation to the Canadian Wheat Board.
The member who just spoke suggested that the member from Thunder Bay somehow was not qualified to speak because Ontario farmers who produce grain are somehow not involved in the Wheat Board. As a parliamentarian, I cannot live in every province, and I certainly cannot say that I have a direct vested interest in my riding on every issue that comes before this place, but as a legislator I have a responsibility to inform myself. When I see information being provided to all hon. members that maybe does not tell the straight story, I have a responsibility to participate as well.
I was the corporate treasurer of the United Co-operatives of Ontario, which had 100 retail outlets in Ontario in an agricultural co-op. We had the grain in the southwest of Ontario and the dairy in the northeast. When the economic situation turned down, the farmers were always the first ones to get hit. When the economy turned around, they were the last ones to recover. That happens in Ontario. It happens in the agricultural community. It happens in the western grain producer community as well.
I also was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, who at the time also had responsibility for the Canadian Wheat Board and spent over a three year period, a fair bit of time, being briefed on a regular basis on developments with regard to the Canadian Wheat Board.
The member will recall that there was an interesting case when a farmer decided to take his grain down to the United States. Then there was a charge laid and a fine levied. Rather than pay the fine, farmers decided to go to jail instead, as a protest.
So I am not totally ignorant about the agricultural industry or the Wheat Board. I would say, in looking at the bill, that one of the things we should acknowledge is that the Canadian Wheat Board operates like a co-op. It requires the support of its membership. It requires the patronage of its membership to be viable.
In the case of grain producers in the west who have transportation distances much greater than those of producers who are closer to the U.S. border, without the Wheat Board they have no option, because they cannot compete. The Wheat Board is the great equalizer. The member will know this.
What does this bill do? This bill says that the producers are going to be given some options. If they want to sell their grain to someone engaged in the processing of grain, that is fine, and by the way, they will not have to pay any fees to the Canadian Wheat Board. This means that by providing these greater options, the Canadian Wheat Board, this co-op that operates in a fairly lean way, is asked to forgo some significant amount of revenue, I would suspect, based on the estimates, that otherwise would have been there if it was handled through the Wheat Board.
If we have a situation where we are going to start to undermine the fine underpinnings of the Canadian Wheat Board, the Canadian Wheat Board dies. That is the reality. That is the concern.
The member also said that the board is a federal monopoly. That is not exactly so. The board of directors of the Canadian Wheat Board actually does have some federal appointees to the board, but the majority of the directors of the Canadian Wheat Board are in fact elected by the member farmers themselves.
Therefore, the decisions of the Canadian Wheat Board are not the decisions of the Government of Canada. They are the decisions of the farmers who utilize the services of the Wheat Board.
This whole discussion in this debate is one aspect of it, but it is very clear now that the Minister of Agriculture has taken a special interest in the Wheat Board and in fact has made certain statements and certain instructions for his officials which I believe ultimately will lead to the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board. Mark my words, this in fact is the beginning of the end of the Canadian Wheat Board if the minority government continues to operate in this fashion, as if it were a majority.
The Canadian Wheat Board must survive. I do not believe that members of the Conservative Party will support the continued operation of the Canadian Wheat Board. I do not believe that they support its principles. In fact, I believe they support the large producers in the southern areas of production who want to make a lot more money by exporting to the United States, but they are prepared to sacrifice some farmers for the benefit of others. This is pitting farmer against farmer. That is the problem. That is what is wrong with this wrong-headed thinking, this ill-advised thinking of the government.
The Canadian Wheat Board has long served the producers in Canada. There have been some good years and there have been some bad years, but the Canadian Wheat Board has provided the safety net and the stability within the grain industry to support those farmers when they needed it. That was the purpose of the Canadian Wheat Board when it was established. It was to ensure that there was a stable marketplace.
Sometimes we have had a situation where there is a massive surplus of grain production. In fact, that has not been the case in recent years. Grain production and the demand have been quite the contrary. So when a member of the government starts saying that Ontario has nothing to do with it, that it is all about the west so let us forget about talking about it, I believe that is nonsense.
We are an integrated system. The agricultural interests transcend all of Canadian farmers. If we have a healthy agricultural community in the west, it translates into a healthy agricultural community in other parts of Canada, whether it be in the transportation side or not. Members will also know that 70% of the people who work in the agricultural industry are off farm gate. They do not work on farms. If we start to put in jeopardy the Canadian Wheat Board, which will put in jeopardy Canadian farmers, that is going to cost jobs as well. The members also have not addressed that.
I will say to members that this bill is not inconsequential. It is symptomatic of an ill-advised position that is taken by the Conservative minority government.To somehow suggest that we do not as parliamentarians have the right to speak because we are not farmers ourselves and we do not live in the west is a bad starting point.
Our critic on agriculture has been a champion on behalf of the farmers of Canada regardless of whether it is grain or dairy or otherwise. Farmers need a voice. What they do not need is the divisive voice of the Conservative Party. The unifying voice, the representative voice of the fundamental needs of the farming and agricultural community in Canada, has been represented by the opposition critic for agriculture.
This bill is short, but it does represent in microcosm something that is happening on a larger scale. As I say, I am concerned. I am concerned on behalf of farmers that this is the beginning of dismantling some of the stabilizing influences within the agricultural industry, which will be very bad for farmers in Canada. This is a bad bill. This bill should be defeated at second reading. In principle, I cannot support it.