Madam Speaker, I am certainly grateful for another opportunity to rise and speak to the wrong-headed, ideological attack the Conservative government has perpetrated on western grain farmers and the family farm across Canada.
I am grateful for this opportunity because, sadly, it was not one the government was willing to afford the producers most meaningfully impacted by its reckless decision to kill the single desk marketing and sales arm of the Canadian Wheat Board.
More than the disenfranchisement of western wheat and barley growers, this is about the disenfranchisement of Canadians. The government demonstrated in the last Parliament that it was not about to listen to any voice that opposed its singular branded message. It fired Paul Kennedy, head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. It fired Linda Keen, chair of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
Now every time a Conservative MP talks about his or her mandate, the subtext is subtly “resistance is futile”. Western Canadian grain growers will not be silenced. Neither will we on this side of the House.
Predictably, as it has done with the bill meant to address human smuggling, its omnibus crime bill and its budget bill, the Conservative government gave notice of motion for time allocation after only an hour and a half of debate.
While I understand that listening to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food can be tiring even for a Conservative partisan, standing up for western farmers who may disagree with the minister--even Conservative farmers whom the government refuses to listen to--is no reason to cut off debate.
Clearly the Conservative government acknowledged my assertion that we should not be having this debate, since the bill is very obviously in contravention of section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Its response, however, instead of holding a plebiscite, was to bury its head in the sand to a wave of criticism levelled at its illegal actions.
I will remind hon. members that section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act states:
The minister shall not cause to be introduced in Parliament a bill that would exclude any kind, type, class or grade of wheat or barley, or wheat or barley produced in any area in Canada...unless (a) the Minister has consulted with the board about the exclusion or extension; and (b) the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension, the voting process having been determined by the Minister.
The government is missing a key element in its ideological pursuit of the death of the single desk sales and marketing system: the will of the majority of western Canadian grain farmers. Consequently, the legislation before us over the past week exceeds the authority of the government, based on its neglect in fulfilling all of its obligations.
The institution of the Canadian Wheat Board is considered so sacrosanct that codified in the statute is a mechanism designed to protect farmers from a government arbitrarily removing the strength and clout of an agency that sells wheat and barley at the best possible prices on behalf of all western Canadian grain farmers. Section 47.1 was enshrined in the Canadian Wheat Board Act to prevent the very abuse that is being perpetrated by the minister and the government.
Repeatedly throughout the past few days of debate, Conservative members have lamented the plebiscite and argued its imperfections. On this side, we have never insisted that the government take the word of 62% of wheat farmers and 51% of barley farmers for granted. Instead, like true democrats we have argued that the government, if not satisfied with the plebiscite held by farmers themselves, should hold its own plebiscite, as mandated by the act, and determine the will of farmers.
The Liberal Party is not one to stand in the way should a majority of farmers in the Prairies decide to cut out their marketing and sales arm. They know best. They must decide for themselves, as they have a right to decide for themselves.
We have been clear from the start: let farmers decide. The government will not even allow that to happen. Despite its lamentations on Ontario's ability to market its own grain, the government conveniently forgets that Ontario wheat farmers made their own decision to stop marketing grain through a single desk.
Canadians must know that the marketing of wheat in Ontario and the marketing of wheat in the Prairies are two very different situations. Ontario produces soft wheat used for pastry, cookies and doughnuts, while the red spring wheat from the west goes to making durum and pasta. Ontario flour mills rely on prairie wheat for bread flour.
Moreover, the Prairies produce 80% of Canada's wheat, ten times more wheat than eastern Canada. Ninety percent of Ontario wheat is consumed in Ontario or the northeast United States; meanwhile, 68% of Prairie wheat is exported. It is destined to other countries at greater transportation costs, costs that are kept low by the clout of the Wheat Board. Transportation is certainly less a factor in Ontario, given its close location to its markets.
Why is it, then, that Conservative MPs from the Prairies trust western grain farmers when relying on their votes, but less so to make their own decisions on marketing and selling their grain? Despite their Reform Party ideology, this Conservative Party seems to have forgotten, once having come to power, that western Canadian grain producers deserve the same right to self-determination as that exercised by Ontario farmers decades ago.
Neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has ever made much of a secret of their single-minded desire for the death of the single desk system, but their reluctance to hear from the Canadian public on the issue is disturbing. Indeed, I have received messages from western producers that their own Conservative MPs are refusing to take their calls or answer their emails in their plight to be heard. So blinded are these western Conservative MPs, so zealous are they in their pursuit, that they have abandoned their responsibilities to their constituents.
Interestingly, heading into an election, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food was more than willing to listen to farmers. He assured western Canadian grain producers in Minnedosa, as recited in the Manitoba Co-operator in March, that farmers would have their say on the fate of the single desk system, that he would not act arbitrarily and that a Conservative government would not undertake any action without hearing first from farmers, yet once elected, neither the minister nor the Prime Minister was willing to hear the voice of the majority of farmers.
I hearken to a comment made many years ago by the Prime Minister that he would change the face of Canadian politics. He has done more than change the face: he has disfigured it. Instead, the minister, the Prime Minister and other members of the Conservatives' string puppet orchestra harp on about a mandate.
In August 68,000 ballots were mailed out to farmers. Over the course of that month, meetings were held across the Prairies. Hundreds of farmers came in off the fields for meetings as harvest began, simply to ensure their voices were heard. I and other members of my party were there. We saw the many hundreds for ourselves and we heard their voices, their dismay and anger at the government. Farmers from both sides attended these meetings, listened respectfully and made their points as to why they believed the single desk should go or stay.
There is no mandate to proceed illegally with a bill to jeopardize the livelihood of western Canadian grain farmers. Not even receiving 24% support from eligible voters would give a mandate to tear the marketing sales arm away from Canadian farmers.
In Colonsay, Saskatchewan, in the riding of the minister of western economic diversification, farmers do not believe there is a mandate to kill the single desk system. They gathered there together on Friday in protest and said so. Nor do they believe that in Brandon–Souris, where again farmers gathered to say so, yet apparently their members of Parliament are deaf to the voices of their constituents. Even after three days of debate, not one single Conservative prairie MP has had the courage to stand up and defend the rights of their constituents to hold a government-conducted plebiscite as mandated by section 47.1 of the act.
Later this week, farmers will gather in Winnipeg. While we can only hope that the government will take the time to take notice, we should not hold our breath, because the government does not notice anything or anyone who is not in total agreement with it.
The results of the plebiscite were unambiguous. There was a 56% response rate, a number similar to the turnout in many recent general elections and byelections, including in the minister's own riding. Sixty-two per cent of wheat producers and 51% of barley producers voted to retain their single desk marketing and sales arm under the Canadian Wheat Board. Regrettably, the minister dismissed the results as an expensive survey.
Unfortunately, Canadians do not have the same opportunity to dismiss their muzzled Prairie MPs' own election results similarly.
Strangely, just yesterday Conservative MPs were willing to cite other Canadian Wheat Board surveys only so long as they were in compliance with their own viewpoints. Again I ask the members opposite to remember where they hid their courage before walking into this chamber, and if they are so confident in the will of western Canadian grain farmers, to hold a plebiscite.
Instead the government, through its misguided legislation, has sought to silence farmers in every way possible. Not only does it blatantly ignore the right of western Canadian grain farmers to self-determination through a plebiscite, but it is eliminating the democratic will of farmers through their elected farm directors. Clause 12 of Bill C-18 states that:
Every person holding office as an elected director of the Canadian Wheat Board immediately before the day on which this Part comes into force ceases to hold office on that day.
These are farmers chosen by farmers to be on the board and represent their interests, and now there shall be none. Instead of 10 elected directors, the Canadian Wheat Board will consist of five Conservative-appointed directors.
Consistently, eight of the 10 elected directors have consistently supported the single desk system. By reducing the number of directors from 10 elected and five appointed to simply five government-appointed directors on the five-year interim voluntary wheat board, the Conservative government would have it that only its own people, dictated to from the Prime Minister's Office, would speak for the multitude of farmers, thus suppressing any sort of democratic expression. The government places a higher value on ideology than on the experience of farmers.
Many, including the otherwise conservative magazine The Economist, argue that in the fragile state of the world economy, dismantling this single desk system will mean that:
Smaller producers, faced with mounting marketing costs, will inevitably have to sell their farms to bigger rivals or agribusiness companies...devastating small prairie towns, whose economies depend on individual farmers with disposable income.
What is to stop the market freedom government from going further? Janis Joplin once sang that “freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose”. There is more to lose. Once the government dismantles the single desk for Canadian wheat, the only thing left to lose will be the supply management system for poultry, dairy and eggs. I suppose that farmers at that point will not be “nothin' if they ain't free”.
The United States has unilaterally thickened the border in an effort to “stimulate their economy”. The number one trade asked by Americans has always been to get rid of the Wheat Board. Why? It is because it gives our farmers a competitive advantage. Now the Conservative government is kowtowing to our neighbours to the south by not only rolling over on protectionism but also offering up our competitive advantage as an appetizer. This comes from a Prime Minister who criticized our former Liberal government for not deregulating our banking system as the Americans had, and as they wished, wishing instead to walk in lockstep with our neighbours on every issue and getting nothing in return.
There have been 14 challenges to the World Trade Organization from the United States demanding we get rid of the Canadian Wheat Board. In every instance, the WTO has ruled in our favour and allowed western grain producers to maintain their valuable resource. Let us make no mistake: once it is gone, the provisions of our trade agreement say that it can never be brought back.
Just yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food was caught unable to answer why the government feels our future key grain decisions are just as well made in Minneapolis, Chicago or Kansas City, where they will be. There have been no assurances made by the government regarding Canadian food sovereignty. It is one thing that these small family farms will be bought up by massive agribusinesses; it is entirely another to see Canadian farms expropriated by foreign interests, not unlike the purchasing of our mineral-rich lands out west. These interests are concerned with their own national food security and not at all with Canadian food sovereignty.
Last week I asserted that the Prime Minister has become the head chef and bottle-washer to the U.S. trade administration, but I was wrong: to be the head chef, the U.S. would have to come to us. Instead, we will shortly become the all-too-willing caterer to the perpetual buffet of trade concessions.
Regardless of the assertions of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture made yesterday respecting supply management, the government could not even make good on its promise to western Canadian grain producers to listen to their voice. What assurances can the remaining five supply managed industries glean? We would be foolish and naive to think that our supply managed industries, poultry, dairy and eggs, are not already now being lined up in the sights of the government for their demise.
Farmers will also be free to be railroaded by CN and CP Rail. Representatives of other agricultural industries have approached me concerned that Canada is regarded as an unreliable supplier of agricultural commodities by virtue of the fact that it cannot get its supplies to port along the railway. In large part, this is a direct result of the ongoing disputes between suppliers and CN-CP Rail.
The agricultural industries anticipated that these concerns would be addressed in the rail service review tabled in March. Meanwhile, seven months later, we are talking about stripping prairie farmers of transportation infrastructure while the government shelves yet another report.
Where is the facilitator for the rail industry? I have spoken to pulse producers and they have asked where the rail service level agreements are for them and other producers across the agricultural industry. Where are the mechanisms to protect farmers and prevent abuse by unresponsive rail companies?
The Minister of State for Transport has been remarkably silent on this issue. Shortline Railway owners are rightfully worried that they will no longer be able to maintain their railways without the support of the Canadian Wheat Board once it has gone. Western grain farmers have turned to the shortlines in response to the closing of sidings and unresponsive railway companies.
Farmers understand the virtue of saving $1,400 per producer car on transportation costs through the CWB's unique bargaining position, a savings that will be lost almost immediately. Presently, it is in a position to negotiate with CN and CP Rail to ensure the adequate supply of producer cars. With the loss of the clout of the Canada Wheat Board, this, too, will be lost.
In my conversations with western Canadian grain farmers, all too often I have heard tragic stories about the treatment of producers at the hands of the railways. The railway companies have such disregard for wheat farmers that often they will send railway cars with holes in them, without any consideration for what grain will be lost along the way. Farmers individually are up against the behemoth where once their collective clout enabled them recourse in the face of such poor treatment.
The government seems intent on spending a conservatively estimated $500 million, in a time when it claims that we are still in a fragile economic state, to demobilize an organization that has yet to require any federal funding. It has been farmer funded for farmer profits and yet the so-called Conservatives are ready to forsake billions of dollars in revenue for farmers while spending hundreds of millions to dismantle it.
Clearly, the protection of the family farm in the prairie provinces is not a priority under a Conservative government. The Conservatives might have done anything else to accommodate the popular will of a majority of wheat and barley farmers and yet decided against it for their own ideological needs.
The legislation is endemic of the government's mean-spiritedness. It is ill-conceived. Just yesterday, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board was forced to take down a video on his website that was not only blatantly inaccurate, but contained repeated bigoted racist slurs.
Such is the arrogance of the government that it feels it is no longer responsible to ordinary Canadians for its actions. The legislation made it clear and the will of western Canadian farmers confirmed that the Canadian Wheat Board is an essential institution on the prairies.
Having only passed second reading, the government still has the opportunity to withdraw its legislation and hold a plebiscite to finally determine the will of Canadian farmers. I implore the government to conduct such a plebiscite in the interests of our farmers and in the interests of democracy.