Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to participate in this important debate regarding avian influenza.
The past year has certainly been a challenging one for agriculture and the agri-food industry. What with BSE, drought in some areas of the country, flooding in others, trade issues and now avian flu, the industry has been burdened with many hardships.
The Government of Canada is working side by side with the provinces and the industry to help our farmers, our farm families and the entire valued chain to get through these tough times and to continue its world-class status as a producer of safe, high quality food.
I would like to point out that the Government of Canada acted quickly and decisively to deal with avian flu. Earlier this month we made the hard decision to depopulate all commercial poultry flocks and other backyard bird and smaller operations referred to in the control area in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. This serious measure was necessary, first, to prevent the spread of the disease and second, to help us quickly eradicate it.
As drastic as this measure seems, it is in fact the safest way to get the growers to restock their operations. However, in the meantime it is our priority to keep as much of the poultry business in British Columbia, particularly in the control areas, afloat and doing business. For growers who will have to wait for the green light to restock, there are a number of measures in place to support them until they are back in business.
We are also working to keep continued access to supply for the processing sector. The chicken industry of Canada is showing remarkable determination, working together to supply the B.C. market. This is one of the strengths of supply management.
First and foremost, we see farmers helping farmers, supplying the product from the rest of Canada to the B.C. processing industry for further processing and distribution. If after this has been fully utilized there is still a market shortage in B.C., then and only then will we consider how supplementary imports can fill that gap.
Our focus has been to support directly the B.C. industry in maintaining its long term viability and customers as we work to restore the B.C. flocks.
Within supply management we take care of our own. All members of the affected sectors, the farmers, the processors and others, both in B.C. and nationally, are working hard together to meet the challenge facing the B.C. industry.
Through Canada's supply management system, chicken producers in other provinces plan to increase their own production by 10% and supply the B.C. primary processors with those extra birds. This will maintain a minimum of processing operations and reduce the impact on employees. This initiative will ensure that B.C. processors and consumers have access to all the poultry products they need.
I would like to add at this point that the cooperative approach being taken by the federal government, the province of British Columbia, the poultry industry in that province and the industry throughout the rest of Canada is truly commendable. It is truly the Canadian way.
Recognizing the challenge our colleagues in the B.C. poultry sector are facing, the industry throughout Canada is chipping in to supply that province to keep processors processing and consumers consuming. There is an old saying: Through adversity comes strength and through strength comes perseverance, and everybody's efforts are truly commendable.
Of course this issue is not just one of business and commerce, it is a human issue affecting farmers and family farms. Under the Health of Animals Act, compensation cheques to the owners of animals ordered destroyed are being issued. Farmers are being paid market value for their stock. As of April 16, 23 compensation cheques have gone out for a total of $2.4 million.
The elimination of the disease will require special sanitizing of barns and farms before population can restart. If depopulation eliminates the disease, as hoped, restocking could start again in late summer or early fall this year.
In the meantime, these farmers and farm families who produce supply managed commodities are eligible underneath the Canadian agricultural income stabilization program. The CAIS program is available to provide assistance to these producers whose production margins drop by more than 30%.
Our federal officials are also working very closely with provincial officials and industry leaders to help producers better understand how the disaster component of CAIS could support their income during this difficult period. Information sessions on CAIS are being held for farmers on April 26 and 27 in Chilliwack and Abbotsford. In addition, a federal-provincial letter with a simplified application form has been sent to all producers to make it easier for them. A federal-provincial avian flu working group has also been struck to examine the economic impacts created by the flu outbreak.
There is also assistance to ensure that the industry understands how the employment insurance program can help affected employees. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada officials are on the ground in the affected areas to provide assistance through its work sharing and EI programs information services. Some 50 regular EI claims have been received to date, with hundreds more expected. If mass layoffs occur, HRSDC officials will offer group information sessions at either the employer's premises or a mutually agreed upon site. Mass EI claims-taking will also be available, as will the information on the work sharing program.
We recognize that all aspects of the poultry industry in British Columbia are under severe pressure. The situation is extremely complex, but great effort is being made to carefully analyze it on an ongoing basis to ensure that the right policies are in place to resolve the crisis and minimize the time needed for the industry to recover.
We are in constant contact with the province and the industry to ensure that their views and advice are taken into account in the decision-making process as this issue unfolds. I am confident that before long we will have this industry solidly on its feet.
I have been a poultry farmer for a very long time. I know the suffering that is going on right now out in B.C. and I take that very much to heart. I have been in conversation with different people from the Fraser Valley and Abbotsford area. I know what they are going through and I know what it is to have one's flock depopulated. It sounds very quick and sanitized, but it is really a heart-rending experience if anyone has ever gone through something similar to that.
I will make my commitment as a member of Parliament, as a chicken farmer and as a very strong supporter of supply management to see the Fraser Valley poultry industry up and running as quickly as possible.