Mr. Speaker, before entering the special debate on the situation surrounding the mad cow disease, I would like to take this first opportunity in the House to thank all the constituents who put their faith in me on June 28, in the riding of Châteauguay—Saint-Constant.
It is with humility, but also with vigour, that I undertake these new functions. The leader of my party has honoured me immensely by asking me to be the official critic of the Bloc Quebecois for agriculture and agri-food.
Like several of you, serving this sector is not new to me and I promise you that I will concentrate all my energy, as a Quebec elected representative, on furthering the cause of our farmers who are presently going through a real crisis.
Let us go back to the reasons why we are here together tonight. What we have to know is that, on the mad cow disease issue, Quebec has been doubly affected. The mad cow disease crisis should never have affected Quebec's cattle producers, who have long been following stricter rules than those concerning producers in the rest of Canada.
The discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Alberta in May 2003 and the American embargo that followed have deeply paralyzed Quebec's cattle industry. If Quebec were sovereign and were controlling its borders and its health policies, it would not be hit by the American embargo today.
As Mr. Laurent Pellerin, president of the Union des producteurs agricoles, said on May 21, 2003:
If we were separate provinces each with its own distinct inspection system and if we had a more regional approach to product marketing systems, only one province would have to deal with this problem.
The current situation is especially frustrating for Quebec producers who, for a long time, have had a series of rules that are stricter than Canada's for the very purpose of ensuring the health of their livestock and the quality of their products.
Ottawa, which says it is open to having special agreements with Quebec, should talk as soon as possible with Quebec authorities about decentralizing the entire food inspection system and dividing Canada into several health regions. Such regionalization of health practices would spare Quebec producers a similar crisis in the future and would allow Quebec to promote the excellence of its practices. Quebec producers are currently being penalized because a case of mad cow was discovered in Alberta, some 5,000 km away. It is not right for Canada to be considered as a single health region.
The regulations in Quebec are much better than Canada's on many levels. For example, a tracking system follows an animal from birth to death, and, the use of ruminant derived meals was banned in Quebec four years before it was in Ottawa.
The minister argues that he has come up with long term solutions, but he is doing nothing to protect producers from any new cases of mad cow.
Let us now talk about the assistance programs that are ill suited to Quebec's needs. The federal government has implemented assistance programs to support producers and help them make it through this crisis. Livestock producers concentrated in Alberta are getting compensation for every head of cattle slaughtered.
In Quebec, the majority of beef producers are in fact dairy producers who sell the cows that no longer produce enough milk. These animals are what we call cull cows.
Every year, producers cull 25% of their herds. Unfortunately, the federal program compensates for only 16%. Although the price they get for their cattle has dropped by 70%, they only get compensation for two thirds of the livestock they sell. The federal government has to improve its compensation program for cull cattle as soon as possible.
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food recently set up his BSE-5 program to provide assistance to the beef producers hard hit by the mad cow crisis, but the flaws in this program are hurting Quebec.
The scientific term for the mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. The BSE-5 program was set up with Alberta in mind. Unfortunately, Quebec was forgotten. The program has a $488 million budget, of which Quebec is only getting 4%. For Ottawa to be fair, they should have improved upon the BSE-4 program under which Quebec was getting its traditional share of 10% to 12%. Then, Quebec would have received between $40 million and $45 million. Quebec's current share is estimated at $15 million.
As for cull cows, the dairy farmers are culling 25% of their herds and only receiving 4% from Ottawa.
It is not just the nasty separatists who are demanding fair treatment for Quebec. Let me read from an article by Laurent Pellerin in La Terre de chez nous of September 23:
The case of BSE is another patent example of the impasse this centralizing vision of agriculture can lead to. Ottawa has produced five different assistance programs to try to help soften the blow of the crisis. The needs of Quebec's dairy farmers are neglected for the simple reason that the intervention model is based on a reality that does not exist in Quebec and which cannot be applied, especially in its final phase, to the cull cow and calf sectors. We can bet that things would have been very different if the UPA's calls for “special status” had been listened to and heeded.
That is what the Bloc Quebecois is demanding of the Liberal government. Ottawa must reinvest in agriculture while respecting Quebec's programs, particularly the Financière agricole du Québec. Ottawa should improve its aid program for dairy producers in Quebec, who are different and who produce 50% of the milk in Canada. Most of Canada's dairy cows are found in Quebec, and that is why Quebec supplies 200% of the veal consumed in Canada.
Ottawa must standardize health practices. Ottawa must act rapidly to eliminate meat meal in all animal feed and ensure that producers do not face additional costs.
It is appropriate to ask whether the Liberal government has the political will to end this crisis equitably and help the Quebec producers who are severely affected by this situation. In Quebec this really is a crisis.
Moreover, the government must begin a major operation to have the United States open its border. It is clear that scientifically speaking the case of the mad cow is over and done with. The current crisis is not scientific but strictly political.
As I mentioned a little earlier, many of our cattle producers are suffering because of this situation. Recently, I talked with a former producer of Saint-Benoît-de-Beauce who lost everything because of the mad cow disease crisis. I say “former producer” because he was forced to sell off all his herd this year, that is 36 pure bred cows and 42 commercial cows. Last year, he sold 54 feeder calves for a total of $39,000. This year, he sold as many, but for half the price.
The problem is that he is not alone in his situation. We learned this week that six Abitibi cattle producers were forced to give back the keys of their farm to their financial institutions. These are often ancestral farms that are disappearing. Thus, we may ask ourselves if the government wants to solve the problem. Despite this, cattle producers are desperate for help, and we are very anxious to have the minister listen to their message.
That being said, we have other questions for the minister and the Prime Minister. In the United States cull cows sell for 55¢ to 60¢ a pound of live weight; in Canada they sell for 10¢ to 15¢ a pound. So we ask the minister to go half way and set the floor price at 25¢ to 38¢ a pound. It would be a win-win situation for both consumers and producers. However, does the government have enough fortitude to impose such a floor price on the middle men who did not lower their prices during the crisis? This crisis has done irreparable damages to several producers back home.
Second, can Quebec expect to receive its traditional share of these programs? As I said earlier, milk producers are culling 25% of their herd but they only get 4% of federal help instead of their traditional share of 10% to 12%.
The minister decided to have this emergency debate on the mad cow disease crisis. Up to now Quebec producers have been well aware that the measures taken by the minister are tipped in favour of Alberta, and all they get is a few crumbs. We have every right to wonder how interested the Liberal government is in the survival and development of Quebec agriculture and how far it is willing to go to allow it to prosper.