Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this Liberal opposition day motion.
I think it is important to mention a couple of key points in the motion to put it into perspective. The motion states:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government, and specifically the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President of the Treasury Board, has failed to learn the painful lessons from Walkerton which proved that cuts to essential government services protecting the health and safety of Canadians are reckless and can cause Canadians to lose their lives; and further, that the House condemn the government for introducing a budget that will repeat the mistakes of the past and put Canadians in danger by reducing food inspection, search and rescue operations, and slashing environmental protections, and call on the government to reverse these positions.
It really is not too late for the government to pull back on some of the proposals it has in the budget and the budget implementation bill. There are very serious areas that need to be reconsidered.
The budget, on page 261, states that $56.1 million will be cut from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That means cuts to operations of the federal agency responsible for monitoring food imports and food production, the agency that is the first line of defence for consumers in this country.
On page 168, the government has attempted to claim it is spending an increase of $51.2 million to CFIA. The government's response, when asked about the cuts, always comes back to this $51.2 million. I want to outline what that is really all about: it is $51.2 million to the CFIA, public health, and Health Canada all together. That will not redress the seriousness of the $56 million cut, and it will indeed undermine our secure food safety system.
We all remember—and I certainly do, because the Minister of Agriculture joked about this at one time—that it was under this government's watch that 23 Canadians lost their lives as a result of listeriosis. Now what do we have coming from the government? We have cuts to the very agency mandated to protect our food supply and cuts to some of the various policy and administrative initiatives that were started as a result of the Weatherill report following the listeriosis crisis.
However, the threat posed to Canadians through these cuts is only part of this growing crisis. On page 219 of the budget, the government has decided that in terms of labelling issues, consumers can fend for themselves. If they find something they do not like or do not trust, they can call the company involved.
Oversight of labelling should be a responsibility of the Government of Canada. It has the authority and the expertise. It has the power to tune up companies that may abuse the labelling issue, but instead, now the government is saying there is going to be a tool on the CFIA website that a consumer can look at to determine whether or not the label is correct. Then the consumer can go to Superstore or Loblaws or Sobeys, or whatever, and face the management and complain about the label. What good is that going to do? Not a thing. It is the government abdicating its responsibility for labelling in Canada. That is what is really happening here.
The announcements directly contradict assurances the minister gave Canadians only days ago about food safety and labelling for meat and other products. Appearing on the CBC radio program The House on April 14, the minister said that the CFIA “will continue to do spot checks on the shelves after the fact and make sure that the audits follow through, that the labels are factual and that they have the information consumers need”. He added, “When it comes to meat, labels are still pre-approved and they’re still checked before anything hits the shelf.”
The agriculture union, on the other hand, differs from what the minister said, and it has provided more public information than has the minister with regard to the budget.
In terms of cuts to the CFIA, a total of 308 positions will be lost, 247 indeterminate and 61 term positions. Just fewer than 200 of those are located in the national capital region. Technical positions are prominent are among the remaining cuts right across the country. The loss of some 100 inspector positions completely undoes the staffing action taken in the wake of the listeriosis crisis.
While the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food insists that front-line inspectors will be unaffected by budget cuts, CFIA executives say, “I don't know how you take 10% of your budget and not deal with the front line”, meaning that front-line inspectors are actually affected by these cuts.
Ever since the government came to power, we have had this problem with it when it talks numbers. The parliamentary secretary, in answer to a question today, talked about the numbers of people the Conservatives have put in place in terms of inspection since they have come into government, but when we ask for specific numbers—how many people are in each position and specifically what they do—they can never answer that question with actual numbers. When we ask the president of CFIA at committee, the officials can never really give us an exact number of inspectors.
As we know on the F-35 issue, we cannot believe and we cannot trust the government, and in this case we are talking about food security.
Let me turn to a question on the broader aspect of food safety. On the one hand, we are talking about food that is in stores and imported foods and the responsibility of the government to ensure, for the protection of Canadians, that the supply of food is safe; on the other, we are talking about the responsibility to ensure that no actions by pests happen in Canada moving across the country, which is a great difficulty in terms of our food supply position.
Today I asked a very serious question of the minister. We know from having talked to people in Newfoundland that six inspector positions at Port aux Basques and Argentia are being eliminated. Inspectors in those six positions inspect vehicles for soil that may be up under the tire wells or on the vehicles in some fashion, soil that could have golden nematode or potato wart in it.
Generations of federal governments have accepted the responsibility that potato wart and golden nematode do not move off the province of Newfoundland to the mainland through soil on vehicles and create problems in the potato industry in my province of Nova Scotia, in New Brunswick or in the rest of Canada. This is a very serious issue: if we had golden nematode on Prince Edward Island, our number one industry, the potato industry, would be virtually destroyed. We would be shut out of the markets around the world.
This is a serious problem, and the government, through its cuts, is putting industries on the mainland at risk by not washing and inspecting those vehicles. It claims it will do some inspections, but the parliamentary secretary in his answer today said that, “CFIA resources should not be involved in vehicle washing”; I ask, why not? It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that contaminants do not move across this country.
As a last point, food inspection agencies in other countries—whether it is imported food, food within the country or preventing contaminants from moving—are paid for out of the public treasury. The government tries to download costs onto industry, whereas other countries pay from the public treasuries and it is not seen as a subsidy under WTO rules.
On the one hand the Conservatives are putting the industry at risk and on the other they are making our food industry, our farming industry, non-competitive in this country. The government is going in a direction that is absolutely hare-brained and wrong-headed.