Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-30, An Act to amend the Canada Grain Act and the Canada Transportation Act and to provide for other measures.
The new measures set out in this bill include the extension of inter-switching limits from 30 km to 160 km in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan; shipping contract provisions, particularly with regard to the sanctions imposed when a contract is broken and dispute resolution; and the regulatory powers set out in the Canada Transportation Act with regard to foods that will be monitored to determine whether shippers are abiding by the agreements concerning the quantity of grain that must be shipped.
I am going to talk more about the content of this bill, but first I would like to provide some background information.
For a number of months now, grain farmers have been extremely frustrated with the problems they are having moving the grain they harvested last summer. These transportation difficulties are resulting in a drop in the quality of their grain and thus a drop in its price. They are worried that they will not be able to transport future harvests. Between $14.5 billion and $20 billion worth of grain is sitting in bins and cannot be moved. That is huge and unbelievable. It is estimated that the backlog is between 17 and 27 million metric tons.
This situation is all the more untenable since business partners are losing confidence. Not everyone is aware of this, but those who are dealing with consequences of the grain transportation backlog on a daily basis can tell you that this is a serious situation.
For a long time, Lynn Jacobson, President of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, has been asking shippers to increase their capacity to respond to the need. We have been asking the same thing for months. Like everyone, Canada's grain farmers have bills to pay and loans to repay, and the banks will not wait.
For months, we have been urging the government to take action in order to achieve tangible results for farmers. It is completely unacceptable for hard-working farmers to be unable to ship their grain. In my opinion, this bill does not go far enough.
Two weeks ago, I was in Saskatchewan and met with farmers who told me what effect this transportation crisis had on their bottom line. I had a chance to better understand the situation and how complex it is. One farmer I met with made a map for me. This map now hangs in my office and has come in quite handy. A few things have become clear to me thanks to his explanation, such as prices, for one. Producers are seeing a large gap between the farm gate price and what they are seeing at the port. The most recent numbers I have seen are from March 19. The price in Davidson was $5.75 per bushel, and the price at the port of Vancouver for the same period was $10.60 per bushel. That is half.
I am disappointed to see that given the crisis, which is costing $8.3 billion in lost sales, there is still no direct compensation for farmers. I would have liked to have seen measures in this bill that would have compensated farmers for their losses.
When I met with farmers in Saskatchewan, one of them told me that he felt lucky, because his crop had been destroyed by a hail storm recently. He was lucky, because he had crop insurance, and he came out ahead of most farmers, despite that hail storm. This is not how farming should work. If our farmers produce a record bumper crop, they should be able to reap those rewards, not be penalized for years to come.
Another farmer told me that he sold high-grade grain for feed, because he could get a higher price than he could shipping it. That might be good news for the hog industry. We might be seeing some very healthy hogs this year, but for the grain producers, this is completely unacceptable.
The other thing I understand from the map is that transportation logistics is extremely complex in this country. Some of the farmers I met mentioned that there is no plan to replace the important work of the former iteration of the CWB. The NDP opposed the undemocratic and reckless gutting of the Canadian Wheat Board. We can see how important it is to have strong institutions representing our farmers and helping solve logistical issues in their interest.
I want to talk briefly about grain capacity. When the minister presented the order in council on March 7, farmers knew right away that it would not be enough. The minister is requiring that the rail companies move one million metric tonnes a week. That amount is what the railways always said they could do. Therefore, in the end, the government is forcing the railways to do something they were already going to do.
I will quote Lyle Stewart, the Minister of Agriculture for Saskatchewan, who stated:
...at first blush...the legislation itself is deficient.
We made some substantial asks and they weren't numbers that we pulled out of the air. They were numbers that we got from industry and we knew that they were achievable. We believe that 13,000 cars a week of grain could be unloaded, for instance, without handicapping other commodities that need to flow from Western Canada and we thought that $250,000 a day penalties were not out of line for non-compliance.
It is clear that the government could have required more from the railways.
It is time the government took action, but this bill does not go far enough. The minister is trying to clean up a mess that he should have predicted and prevented. The measures being imposed will expire in two years. This is not a long-term solution that will keep this from happening again.
The government lacks vision. Many agronomists and public servants at the agriculture department have said that harvests are only going to get bigger. The bill does not attempt to find long-term solutions for farmers. In addition, the majority of the measures proposed in the bill will be implemented at a later date, but the issue is all too real right now.
The fact that the measures will expire in two years demonstrates, yet again, that the Conservatives see this as a short-term issue. In reality, this is a structural issue that farmers are faced with. The problem could well resurface in just a few harvests.
The minister did not respond to requests from the hardest hit provinces. They wanted stiffer fines, compensation for grain farmers and higher minimum targets for grain cars. As I said earlier, we condemn the fact that farmers have not received any compensation. This crisis has cost farmers $8.3 billion since it began, yet there is still no direct compensation for them. The NDP would never do that to farmers.
We have long been calling for better arbitration and tougher penalties for breaking service agreements. The Conservatives refused to pass those amendments six months ago. Now that they are facing a crisis, they have started listening to us. They should also listen to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
I would like to end my remarks on the bill by reflecting on the policy direction of the government. I would like to see the government have a comprehensive vision for agriculture in this country. Agriculture is so important. It represents one in eight jobs in this country. It is vital to our economy.
The minister is bringing in pieces of legislation that seem to be reacting to issues, rather than leading the way on ag issues. It seems that we only have a chance to debate agriculture-related bills in the House when something goes wrong. The latest grain transportation crisis is a good example of this. The government has waited months and months before acting. Then it has scrambled together a bill that could help farmers get their grain moving. This government only acts when it needs to, and it delays action as much as possible.
I wish we could work together. I am looking forward to having witnesses at committee. I am really hoping the government can agree to accept amendments and work together.
I am looking forward to seeing this bill go to committee, where we can hear witnesses and make this a better bill that will actually support farmers, get grain moving, and prevent this problem from happening in the future.