Today is International Women's Day, and I am happy to spend the rest of it here with you, Mr. Speaker.
Let us say it right off the start: this is a very serious situation. These past few days, there were reports in the papers about the U.S. Department of Commerce maintaining countervailing duties on exports of live cattle from Quebec and Canada.
After the endless lumber saga, still without an end, and the saga of the lone mad cow found in Alberta, now the door is being closed on the pork industry. One after the other, our industries are threatened with closing, without the government taking appropriate action to support its agricultural industry as it goes through these difficult times.
No doubt about it, this is an emergency. Let us get right to the source of the problem.
While most OECD countries have strengthened their support for their agricultural sector, the past few years have seen Canada taking the opposite direction and abandoning its agricultural sector. Keen as it was to be at the top of the class in terms of open borders and free trade, the federal government, under the direction of the then finance minister, overlooked emergency safeguards. As a result, in the middle of the farm crisis caused by the slump in prices combined with the mad cow crisis, agricultural industries are dying, and their very core is threatened.
What country in the world would be so careless as to abandon an export industry among the most important for its economy, as this government has for the past several years? Eighteen months after a single case—not a pandemic, just one case—of mad cow disease was discovered, the U.S. border remains closed from coast to coast. Where is this government leader who promised us harmonious relations with our only North American neighbour?
The fact is that, since the promises made during the election campaign, the leader of this government has shirked his responsibilities and failed, to date, to deliver the goods, while at the same time doing his utmost to interfere in provincial jurisdictions. Must we remind this government that it is neglecting its own international responsibilities?
It would have been easy to prevent the mad cow crisis in Alberta from affecting the rest of Canada and Quebec by regionalizing health practices. But this government, known for its efforts at centralization, would have had to swallow its pride and decentralize in order to do that. How scandalous, having the provinces make their own decisions.
In this respect, Quebec's regulations are in many ways, better and more avant-garde than federal regulations. Its tracking system allows it to follow an animal from the beginning to the end of its life, which means it can isolate potential diseases and epidemics.
Here is another example. Quebec has prohibited animal meal since 1993, while the federal government waited until 1997 to do so. If the federal government had been as proactive, the Quebec and Canadian borders would have opened a long time ago, except in Alberta, or even in just one geographic region in Alberta where the only case of BSE in Canada was diagnosed.
So it is easy to see why an agricultural industry subjected to such strict regulations as those in Quebec would be so frustrated by the department's little progress in this matter. The president of the UPA, Laurent Pellerin, and the president of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, were saying nothing less last year, when they indicated they were in favour of regional mechanisms for the marketing of agricultural products, but were disappointed by the federal government's lukewarm response to this idea.
We can look even further ahead. If Quebec had decided in 1995 to take control of its own destiny, we would not be here discussing this and people would be enjoying our beef at steak houses in the U.S. Anyway, these additional arguments will doubtless make Quebeckers think.
Now, I want to come back to our cattle. It is essential that Canada improve its cattle tracking system.
If the investigation into the sole mad cow in Canada took so long, it is because it was impossible for the investigators to determine quickly and with certainty the farm on which an eight-year-old cow had been born, and those it had been on subsequently.
For cattle born after 2001, there is now a system in place to determine the farm of origin. However, it is not always mandatory to record movements from farm to farm, so it will continue to be difficult to trace the places an animal has been, when it has been on three or four different farms as the Alberta cow had.
There is still no real ability to track cattle in Canada, as there is in Quebec for example. There, every change in ownership must be recorded, from birth to slaughter.
Canada will, as a result, never be able to earn and retain the trust of its neighbours and cattle buyers unless it puts in place tools that allow it to offer meat from an animal whose birth place and changes of ownership are clearly known, and whose diet presents no real risk. Had such a system been in place, the ban put in place by our neighbours to the south could not have been justified so readily.
Furthermore, while waiting for the border problems and the problems with tracking cattle to be resolved, the government has come up with some agricultural aid packages that do little for Quebec producers. According to the latest figures, Quebec producers have suffered losses of $241 million after compensation. Cattle producers say that the most recent federal strategy does not include any direct assistance to compensate for plummeting cattle prices, nor any kind of interest-free loan program.
What is more, the federal programs do not take the Quebec reality into consideration. Most cattle producers there are in fact dairy producers who sell cows that are no longer good milkers for meat. These are termed cull. With this practice, 25% of a dairy herd is replaced every year.
Unfortunately, the federal program compensates for only 16% of their herd, while cattle producers in western Canada, who raise beef cattle specifically, are getting compensated for every animal slaughtered. This is compounded by the drastic drop in cull prices; prices have dropped by as much as 70%. As a result, producers receive compensation for only two-thirds of the animals they sell.
The five different aid packages developed in an attempt to remedy the crisis have been ineffective in Quebec. Perhaps the time has come to recognize that, once again, in this area as in many others, the federal government's intervention model as it relates to support for the cattle industry is based on a reality totally foreign to Quebec. Looming at this picture, we can easily imagine the distress of the cattle industry in Quebec.
In his February 23 budget, the federal finance minister had a golden opportunity to help the cattle industry in Quebec and Canada. But it would appear that he merely announced that a portion of the funding announced on September 10, 2004 would be reallocated to increase by $17 million the federal contribution to the program to expand our ruminant slaughter capacity.
The current negotiations between the producers and the government show that this funding is not for Quebec's plan to set a floor price for cull. In that respect, federal officials suggest that the projected acquisition of Colbex, for example, would not qualify for the federal program.
This budget is additional evidence of the Liberals' insensitivity toward Quebec. Although they are awash in surpluses and able to find $42 billion new for various programs that encroach on provincial jurisdictions, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance have produced a disappointing budget for the agriculture sector.
Even though the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food himself stated, on November 29, 2004, that there was a problem with cull cattle, and while the Bloc Québécois, the Quebec Liberal Party and everyone in Quebec's agricultural sector are calling out loudly for strong aid measures, what are these big thinkers who lead the government waiting for?
The UPA and a number of agricultural groups will be on Parliament Hill tomorrow. What will the finance minister and the Prime Minister tell them?
Here are a few recommendations for the cabinet to sleep on tonight. The Prime Minister should ensure that the United States government vigorously defends the reopening of the border in the American courts. The meeting between the Prime Minister and President Bush at the latter's Texas ranch in a few weeks should be the perfect opportunity for this.
We recommend that the government do its part, as the Government of Quebec has done, so that Quebec's dairy producers receive a floor price of 42¢ a pound for their culled animals, until the market price rises to the floor price.
In addition, these groups recommend that the government regionalize its animal health system in order to ensure that one isolated case of mad cow in Alberta does not paralyze the livestock industry all over Canada and Quebec, absolutely indiscriminately.
Also, the federal government must adopt targeted measures in order to compensate beef and dairy producers, for example, by setting up a real program of direct assistance to provide immediate aid to producers in order to compensate for the dizzying drop in prices; by establishing an interest-free loan program; by establishing a real cull cattle and veal calf program, to overcome the fact that the federal government only compensates 16% of dairy herds, while the real rate is 25%; and by making existing programs more flexible so money can reach producers who are seriously affected by this crisis as quickly as possible.