Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this discussion. I want to get right to the substance of the debate because, as usual, I have a lot to say in a short period of time.
This report looked at the possibility of increasing food processing capacity. I would like to bring the debate back to the main issue in this report, which was prepared during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when we were beginning to realize just how fragile our supply chain and our processing chain are. The purpose of the recommendations my colleagues and I made at the time was to tell the government that it needs to have a long-term vision. Let us try to take action for the next time. Let us try to improve our food resilience, our independence and our resistance to unforeseen events. First it was COVID-19. Then it was the war in Ukraine, which led to all kinds of problems. Now another conflict has broken out, and it will surely have additional repercussions. We have to be resilient domestically. That is the purpose of the recommendations. I would like to quickly go over those recommendations.
The first recommendation addressed the urgent need to invest in the network of trade infrastructure, particularly transportation, to improve access to markets and to facilitate domestic transportation. That is fundamental. We are talking about a report from May 2021. Unfortunately, since May 2021, I have not seen much in the way of government action on trade.
The government can complain all it wants that the opposition is holding up the agenda and that we cannot move forward. However, we could also move forward more effectively if real measures were proposed. I am thinking, for example, of our port capacity, of how container prices skyrocketed when the pandemic restrictions were in place and of how much difficulty we had shipping fresh food, whether it be fresh fruit, vegetables or pork. Speaking of which, when fresh pork from Quebec or parts of central Canada, like Manitoba, has to reach the Port of Vancouver, there is a problem. If the port is blocked, then there is a wait. This is a perishable product. It has a certain lifespan. This is such a major problem that most private insurance companies are opting out. We know that the private sector is there when there is money to be made. If there is no money to be made, then it will opt out. The risk became too big, and now producers are stuck paying exorbitant amounts for insurance. I think that there might be one company left that is willing to insure them. It is therefore vital that we take action now, before this all falls apart in five or 10 years. Let us not wait until our back is up against the wall, as we did with the labour force, for example. We can take action. This is very important.
The report also contains recommendations for a targeted program. I think my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue will be very pleased to hear what I am about to say. It talks about a targeted program in collaboration with the provinces and territories, because each is protecting its jurisdiction in order to improve regional processing capacity, particularly regional abattoirs. My colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue, along with me and my entire caucus, have come to the conclusion that we need permanent financial support for regional infrastructures that will ease the pressure on the large existing abattoirs. The goal here is not to shut down the large processing centres. Let us consider that three plants process 85% of Canadian beef. There is a problem there. If one get shut down tomorrow, the other two will not be able to supply enough product. There needs to be a secondary network.
This also makes sense for our greenhouse gas reduction and climate protection targets. Does it make sense for cattle to travel all the way to Pennsylvania to be slaughtered and then come back as frozen meat? I do not think that makes sense. I am not the only one. My colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue can enlighten us even more, but I really do not understand why the government subsidizes transporting these animals instead of subsidizing a more local processing plant that would fit much more neatly into a holistic vision. That means being forward-thinking, having a vision. Unfortunately, I get the sense that this government is usually lacking in that department.
The Bloc Québécois stands ready. We have a vision. We are here to protect Quebec's interests, but we do not want to hurt the common interest. We are working for the common interest. We would like the government to listen to our ideas. This is a very sensible one. Can the government give these facilities more financial flexibility?
Another recommendation in the report was about increasing regional processing capacity. There are actually two separate recommendations in the same recommendation. Another recommendation talked about the local food infrastructure fund, or LFIF, which, at the time, had a maximum envelope of $25,000 per project. This subsidy can be given to small regional processing sites. During testimony in committee, some witnesses told us that the amount needed to be increased because it was not enough. They said they could not develop their businesses because there was not enough money in the fund. When I say that we sometimes produce reports without really knowing what they are for, this is actually a good example. With respect to this particular resolution, action has been taken and we are happy about that. The LFIF has been increased. The government announced an additional $70 million and said that projects worth between $15,000 and $120,000 would be approved.
A number of my Bloc colleagues presented me with the files of people and organizations in our Quebec ridings who worked and allocated resources to submit an application under a clearly announced program that included specific benchmarks set by the federal government. However, they received a reply telling them that program uptake had been so overwhelming that the government had decided to process applications from remote and indigenous communities only, and for projects of up to $50,000. They were told that they would get a call back if someone decided to read their document which, knowing what government forms are like, was probably 350 pages long.
Is that acceptable in a G7 country? I do not think so. People received this letter informing them about the $50,000 limit, yet the government website still says that applications for projects worth between $15,000 and $120,000 are welcome. That means that other organizations may be filling out forms just for the sake of it too. The government really likes paperwork. That is my complaint and I would like the government to take note of it. I hope that the parliamentary secretary is paying attention, because he spoke earlier about the importance of processing companies. That takes money. We have to invest money there. It is urgent.
The next recommendation is on the fight against food insecurity. I just talked about northern first nations communities, which are very important, of course. It is not that they are not important, except that there are other people who have submitted a request. As far as this specific point is concerned, urgent action is truly needed. In 2015, someone promised us that every first nations community would have clean drinking water. I do not think that has happened yet and I have a hard time saying that without blowing my top because it is unacceptable in 2023.
This same government also promised us a $1‑billion fund to reduce food insecurity at schools across the country. Where is that money? We recently adopted a motion calling for action. Where is the money? Our local organizations in Quebec are ready to receive that money. The great misfortune of Quebec is that we have 80% of the responsibilities, but just half of the money, which is here. Our money is here and it is stuck because things are not moving. I am asking the government to send us that money. We will do something with that money. We will feed our children.
The recommendations also talk about more flexible regulations. That is particularly difficult in the slaughtering industry. Of course, food quality and safety must not be compromised. However, can we be flexible and diligent, dare I say intelligent, even? During this study, we heard stories of unreasonable inspections by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, even though the agency lacks resources. The government is incapable of ensuring decent and adequate border control, yet it is going to task three full-time inspectors with monitoring whether a drop of condensation will fall from the ceiling in four days' time. It sounds ridiculous, but it is all true. Can we improve efficiency?
There are not a lot of resources available. One of the basic principles of economics is resource allocation. Why does one item cost more than another? Because it is scarcer. At any given time, human resources are very limited. I was talking earlier about the importance of having a long-term vision and acting for the future. I have mentioned this before in the House. I get somewhat upset by the fact that the government is so focused on the current labour shortage and in a bit of a panic, wondering what to do about it. I am no great scientist. I was a high school teacher in the 1990s. That is a long time ago, and I guess that dates me.
In the 1990s, I was teaching my students the inversion of the population pyramid. I told them that we would have a labour shortage at some point. I cannot believe that no one in the government knew that in the 1990s. How is it that the government is only realizing today that it should have maybe done something? That is the problem with four-year mandates, which are often even shorter, and with parties being focused on elections and electioneering. Unfortunately, many political parties here are not setting a very good example right now. Many people are taking action in the very short term by repeating the same slogans that are not always true. I would ask those people to work constructively so that we can make progress.
We talked about improving that, about implementing a system of internal control at the CFIA to prevent abuse. There could be an appeal system. Some of the other recommendations had to do with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE standard and the specified risk materials for beef slaughter. Right now, when an animal is slaughtered in Canada, producers have to dispose of a large portion of the animal, including the brain and spinal column, and that costs them a lot of money. It was fine during the crisis, but that was a long time ago now. The control measures were very effective and, at the international level, Canada has now obtained its World Organisation for Animal Health negligible risk status. That means that we could perhaps sit down and review all that. I am not saying we should just do whatever we want and throw it all out tomorrow morning, but can we sit down and look at this to try to improve our beef farmers' profitability? That would be an intelligent thing to do, and it would bring about quick change.
Let us dig into that because it is vitally important. I have been saying this for four years, and I am not the only one saying it. Things have changed. The risk is negligible now. I think we could do it. We also need to realize that we are eating beef that was slaughtered in the United States, which does not have that standard. That is a disconnect we need to address eventually. Are we holding foreign producers to the same standard as our own? I could easily launch into a half-hour tirade about reciprocity of standards, so I will stop there and get back to that at the end of my speech.
We also suggested incentives for creating industrial research and development clusters. In fact, this study is what made me realize, in a bit of a panic, the extent of our chronic underinvestment in Quebec's and Canada's agri-food processing system. The situation is appalling, frightening even. When I ask the government to try to take a long-term view of things, this is a damn good example of what I mean. Can we stop waiting for processing plants to close before implementing measures to foster investment, maintenance, balance?
We just saw it happen again in Vallée-Jonction where a pork processing plant recently shut down. The reason we were given for this site's closure is that it was the oldest and had less invested in it. It was the most outdated and the least efficient. Why not make sure that our processing plants stay efficient? That would require encouraging the private sector. A tax credit might be the answer. It does not need to cost a lot of money. However, there has to be something.
As soon as it becomes less profitable for these multinationals—in many cases, they are multinationals—to renovate the current site rather than shutting it down and opening a new one, there is no guarantee that these multinationals will reopen a site here. Let us not wait for that day. Maple Leaf is an excellent example. The company decided to open a site in the United States.
We need to anticipate costs and be visionary. We have asked the government to make agri-food processing a priority, which is not currently the case. Yet the agri-food sector is the second-largest manufacturing sector in Canada. It is not that this sector is not important, but we seem to take it for granted, a bit like agriculture. We tell ourselves that they are there, they are good, they are going to do the work and there is no problem. The result is that we support them half as much as in the United States and four times less than in Europe. These folks get up every morning and go to bed very late at night to feed our people. I very humbly think that we should have a lot more respect for these folks. We should give them support when they need it. The produce sector is one that especially needs a little breathing room right now.
I talked about it earlier. We asked for a one-year deferral of the repayment of the Canada emergency business account, or CEBA, loan. If the government does not want to take a blanket approach, that is okay. We agree on that. We asked the government to provide a help desk, a line of communication, and to look at this on a case-by-case basis.
I can immediately say that this affects the entire restaurant sector. Last week, I made a public statement with the owner of the café La Bezotte, which is in my riding. If people are willing to make public statements to say that the situation is ridiculous and that our businesses need room to breathe, it is because they are in a tough spot. These people are courageous and I thank them. I thank Daniel for agreeing to do this. This raises public awareness and puts pressure on the government. People are not asking for much and it does not cost much.
When I asked a question earlier I was given a nice, vague response about how the government has always been there for small businesses, that it will continue to be there and it has helped them a lot. I am told that $8 out of the $10 in assistance given out during the COVID‑19 pandemic came from the federal government. I think it goes without saying that this is because of the fiscal imbalance, which is huge. The means are there. That is not an answer.
Many things have happened since then. There was the Ukrainian conflict, and the federal government took advantage of that to impose an additional cost on farmers by imposing a tax on Russian fertilizer. We all agree that we should take measures against the Russians, but we need to be smart about it. Perhaps if we had been smart about it, we would have avoided taking a measure that no other G7 country took and that is not even having any impact on Russia, given the size of our market. Russia is laughing at us right now.
Our farmers are the ones who always end up paying the price. The worst part of all this is that, when we finally managed to convince the government to reimburse people, because it did not make sense for our farmers to pay for nothing, the government was unable to do so. It did not know who had paid what since, for example, there were co-operatives that had split the costs evenly. Instead, the government put the money into an on-farm action fund, which is fine except that farmers are paying for this program themselves and then the government wants them to be happy that it gave them a program. Come on. Let us be serious here.
I talked about the labour shortage. We need temporary foreign worker programs that make sense. My colleague from Lac‑Saint‑Jean got a study going at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration about closed work permits. An NDP member talked about that earlier. Right now there are situations that do not make sense. This affects a very small minority of producers, but it does not make sense, and we cannot just let it go on. The problem is the closed work permit system, which is old and outdated. Let us switch over right away to the open, sector-specific work permits that industry is calling for so we can give farmers the flexibility they want.
I have said a lot about long-term vision in my speech. I invite everyone here to reflect on the foreign worker mechanism. We need them when nobody else wants to do the work. This is a good solution, but can we keep operating like this for the next 50 years? Can we start creating pathways for these people? That was one of our recommendations, too. Can they bring their family members if they want to stay here and work? Can they become citizens of Quebec, or of Canada in the other provinces, so they can contribute to society and succeed?
Not so long ago, we dedicated an opposition day to the issue of successful immigration. Our proposals are the product of careful thought, and we try to avoid moving inappropriate motions. Unlike some other political parties, our motions do not combine four or five irrelevant points with one important one. We focus on substance, and if members want to vote against our motion, they really need to give a solid reason. The motion on successful immigration was adopted in the House almost unanimously. It was a serious motion.
Voting in favour of the motion is all well and good, but action must follow. That is another problem. I was talking about the local agri-food industry fund earlier. The government frequently makes big announcements, but there are often two problems. Sometimes there is not enough money, and by the time the 10th application comes in, the money is already gone. Other times, the requirements are so complex that the money goes unspent, and two years later, the government gets to announce the same money again and look very generous, when in fact it is simply recycling money it already announced. This vicious circle should be stopped.
There is also the issue of Internet access in communities and cell phones in rural areas. If we want our businesses to modernize, they have to have the tools to do so. In my riding of Berthier—Maskinongé, there are still municipalities where the mayor has to use pagers to reach his municipal councillors. Does that sound right in 2023? Come on. Then we ask our businesses to be efficient and make investments. Satellite-controlled irrigation and climate control systems are important.
I hope someone asks me a question about reciprocity of standards.