Madam Speaker, of course, agriculture is a crucial sector in our country's economy. Like the industrial and technological sectors, it plays a capital and inescapable role. That much is crystal clear. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade better known as GATT will come into effect in 1995.
For the first time in the history of international trade, GATT will subject the agricultural sector to a set of predetermined trade rules that will apply to all countries.
Article XI has been replaced with customs tariffs that will allow our supply management systems to survive in a new era of international trade.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the agriculture or agri-food sector in our national economy, and I listened with interest to my colleagues opposite, the hon. members for Québec-Est and Vegreville, whose criticisms were not unjustified, far from it. I agree with them that there is certainly room for improvement and, as the hon. member for Québec-Est talked about grain transportation, there is no question that this government must resolve the issue of grain transportation.
It is true that it does not make sense, that there are no excuses in the world. But let us not forget that the problem has been around for years. We are not more responsible than others, except that our government has a duty to find a solution.
Although the grain and wheat sector was extremely important, previous governments let the situation deteriorate from month to month. There is no excuse and I am sure that the Minister of Agriculture and the Prime Minister are very aware that solutions must be found.
We cannot let a sector of our economy suffer as was the case in the past. There are so many issues at stake in the agricultural sector but I just want to address a few that were mentioned by our colleagues.
The hon. member for Québec-Est said that the failure of GATT with article XI-well, a failure-when all the countries in the world agree on an issue and want a trade agreement, it would be rather difficult for us to go against an agreement signed by all the other countries. Some claimed that the six-year transition period was too short, but I think that six years is more than enough time to adjust, especially with today's technologies.
Let us consider the little time we had to adjust to free trade. I do not want to start an argument with my colleague, but you used to belong to a political party that was in favour of free trade and you did not criticize the fact that we had very little time to adjust to the changes caused by free trade.
Free trade came in at a bad time and many Canadian companies were affected. The hon. member's own leader was one of those who favoured that free trade agreement-even your other colleagues in the Parti Quebecois did all they could to elect the previous government in 1988.
In any case, that transition period was so short that we have suffered the consequences. We must be consistent and know what positions we took in the past. So your argument about six years for agri-food does not stand up. I think that six years is reasonable. It is one of the factors.
Our colleague from Québec-Est also mentioned a company. I do not know if it is just by chance or because the field interests me, but he referred to a Quebec company called Interal Marketing Inc. which produces Grand Pré milk. This Quebec company exported its product to Puerto Rico where it held 40 per cent of the market and provided a good return to Quebec.
This problem arose a few years ago and I was interested in it. When I was in the opposition, I had the opportunity to raise the issue in the House and to make representations for the company.
I spoke many times with the company president, Michel Gilbert, and very recently I wanted to find out what the decision was. A panel of Canadians and Americans was set up to solve this problem, since Grand Pré makes its product in accordance with hygiene and other standards. I wish to inform my colleague from Québec-Est that I received a letter from Mr. Gilbert which says: "Thank you very much, Mr. Assad, for following up the above-mentioned matter. As a result of your efforts, the minister"-meaning the former minister, Mr. Wilson-"finally decided to refer the matter to a panel".
This question of Grand Pré is an important factor. They went to the panel. I heard recently that this panel's decision will be known in a few weeks. Like the officials at Foreign Affairs who are dealing with this issue, I am sure that the decision will be favorable and that Grand Pré products will be back on store shelves in Puerto Rico and regain the market which they held before. This is an important point.
Since the free trade agreement, many Canadian companies, not only industrial companies but also agri-food, have had difficulties. We know that the Americans have used tactics to limit access to the U.S. market because they knew that we could compete and had quality products.
As our minister said, the quality of Canada's agri-food is probably among the best in the world. That is no exaggeration; we know it is true.
As regards the part of the Department of Agriculture's budget allocated to the West, to Quebec or to any other region, the hon. member for Québec-Est said that the situation may be a blessing in disguise, because since Quebec farmers were receiving less, they set up various co-ops such as the UPA, an organization with which I worked in the past when I was a member of the National Assembly. This may provide part of the answer; it may be true. However, I am not prepared to say that Quebec did not get its share.
Let us go back to the days of Eugene Whelan, the former Liberal Minister of Agriculture who created the supply management system and quotas for dairy products. I know that the hon. member for Québec-Est worked for Mr. Whelan's department then. When milk quotas were established, which province got the lion's share? It was Quebec of course. That province was providing 48 per cent of the total dairy production. This was a major component of the province's agricultural sector. I knew many Quebec farmers who had milk cows. This was a phenomenal success for these people. Their family farm increased in value, they had a guaranteed income, and things were going well. This is something which must not be overlooked when you look at the situation of Quebec's agricultural producers.
Indeed, it is a blessing in disguise that we have to create various bodies. I attended several meetings held by the UPA and other agricultural organizations in the riding I represented as member of the National Assembly, and it is true that many initiatives were taken by our farmers in Quebec, but this is to their benefit because the market is very competitive right now. The technological sector has a major role to play. This past experience will certainly help us in the future.
As regards horticulture, I had a meeting a few days ago with officials from a Quebec provincial organization. I was told that a fantastic market exists, just south of here, in the Boston region and certain parts of New York State, where the population exceeds 15 million people. There is a very short but very important period during the year for Quebec producers, especially in the field of fruits and vegetables, when they can meet the demand.
Over the years, the agricultural sector has taken an increasingly important place in our economy. I even said before that agriculture has become more important than national defence. If we leave that sector in the hands of our neighbours or other foreigners, we will pay for that and the price might be very high. Consequently, I believe it is necessary, and in fact it is this government's responsibility, to correct the mistakes made in the past. I am convinced, considering the Minister of Agriculture's determination, that we can arrive at solutions.
I hope that the hon. member for Québec-Est will stop comparing the East and the West, or Quebec and the West, because this simply does not solve our problems.