Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Agriculture and Forestry

Issue 17 - Evidence - Meeting of February 23, 2007 - Afternoon


DEBERT, NOVA SCOTIA, Friday, February 23, 2007

The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met this day at 1:22 p.m. to examine and report on rural poverty in Canada.

Senator Joyce Fairbairn (Chairman) in the chair.

[English]

The Chairman: Welcome, and thank you all for being so generous in your patience and your attendance today. This is our last visit in what has been an extraordinary week in Atlantic Canada. We are feeling a little sad that the week is coming to an end, but Debert is a great place to have our final hearings.

With us now are Karen Dykens and Ed McMaster. Ms. Dykens is speaking on behalf of the Colchester Food Bank Association, and Mr. McMaster is here from Pictou, Nova Scotia.

We welcome you both. If you could each start with a fairly brief idea of your concerns, then we will throw it open to our senators who are eager to ask the questions.

Karen Dykens, Volunteer, Colchester Food Bank Association: I have been with the food bank as a volunteer for 15 years so I have seen a lot of changes since it came into existence in 1986. The food bank in Truro is one of the largest hands-on food banks in Nova Scotia.

We keep statistics by following our regiment of codes so we understand where our clients' finances are coming from, and what situations they may be in. To date, we have 9,136 clients on file. Of that 9,136, 70 per cent are county.

As we watch trends through the county, we find that age, health, rising costs in living, and the younger family members moving away from the rural areas make it increasingly hard for seniors to keep and stay in their own homes. They have to choose between medication, food, and heat to try to remain in their homes. It is heart-wrenching when a 70-year-old person has swallowed every last bit of pride to walk through the door to ask for a little bit of food so that they can buy heat for the month or medication. We have seen this trend slowly increasing as the years go by.

Last year we prepared 7,452 food boxes, and a large majority went to seniors, the working poor, unemployed, and people in a number of different situations. Each person is dealt with individually, because we have a lot of mentally challenged people who do not know really how to cook food, so we deal with them. We have diabetics in need of food so we try to arrange food that will suit their needs.

Our local farmers have been generous in providing fruit and vegetables. However, one of our clubs, the Old Men's Farm Men Club, grows a garden for us and we are slowly losing those members. That means the produce we can give to our clients is slowly dwindling.

Our community is growing each year and is in greater need, but thanks to the support of the community we are trying to meet the needs of the people. I hope we can address issues for the seniors and the ones needing the use of the food bank.

If you would like more information, we have our annual report, which includes our coordinator's report and all our statistics for the year 2006. Feel free, and I have them both.

The Chairman: Can you please leave that information with us?

Ms. Dykens: I will.

The Chairman: I am glad you have come because we have not been clearly focused during our discussions on seniors. That is good. Thank you very much.

Ed McMaster, as an individual: I concur with everything this lady has said. Not enough food is coming into the food banks to keep it all going. There is an endless demand for the money out there, whether it is for rent or whatever.

I am going to read something by myself. I have a small food bank that I operate on my own, and at my discretion, I guess. I do not have a lot either because the fire department that was supporting me withdrew that support for no reason. It was not anything I was doing or they were doing, but they could not keep up with raising extra money. They needed to fund the fire department, so all their resources were directed away from that little food bank I had.

This morning, I delivered food to the town of Pictou, to a lady and her son who had not eaten for about four days. I said, ``I am going to speak to these senators today, and can you write me a little note?''

She has written a note, and she said, ``For myself, I get $680. My rent is $625, so it leaves me with $55. Plus I have a boy home getting $412, and not well. So we have to pay for our drugs.''

Now they are on the toll plan or something and they only pay $5 for the prescription, but then again he needs special food and so on.

I cannot really read what else she says, ``Plus I am on a list, and he is too, so I do not have much for food. So I am on the. . .'' I do not know what she means there. ``So I do not have much for food.'' The rent is taking it all. I will just pass that around and you can keep that.

What is wrong is that from my grandfather's time to my time, and going into the future, we are living in a sort of world that is perhaps full of propaganda. We are really poorer than my grandfather was. We think we are better off, and that is a terrible misconception.

My grandfather could buy whole tracts of lands with the money he earned, and it was not many dollars. I know the land did not cost much, but I am hard pressed to buy small one-acre or two-acre lots in my lifetime.

His pension, talking about seniors, was $75 a month. He did not pay or contribute in any way to that pension. He lived on a farm. My uncle at the same time, in the sixties, received a similar pension. He had a small store so, at that time, he was able to give his whole pension away, and he did give it away.

My grandfather lived on the farm, so he had to keep his pension because already in the sixties, as you know, farming was starting to slide. They were getting less and less for their product. The supermarkets or the bigger stores were coming into existence and they demanded more and more, if they bought from the farmers at all. They liked to buy cheap and sell high, as you know.

My grandfather's or my uncle's pension was $900. The average wage at that time for a mounted policeman, a fisherman, or whatever, was about $1,920. So, the senior's pension was 47 per cent of the average income. At the same time, some people, of course, were earning less than $1,920, but that would be about the average.

Now, $15 is perhaps an average hourly wage in Nova Scotia, and they tell me that at 1,880 hours that would equate to an annual income of $28,200. My pension, when I add up everything is $14,400, which is an awful lot more than my grandfather made, or took in, but it is equivalent to 48 per cent or 49 per cent of an average income. We seem to have a little more, but in reality we have a lot less than my grandfather had out of his Canada pension, and which he did not contribute to at all.

In fact, the cost of milk at that time was 25 cents a quart. We could have a nice house in the town of Pictou for $50 a month. We could have a little less attractive home in Victory Heights, war-time housing, for $19.50. When we equate those prices to today and look at the increase, this woman I spoke about paid $625 for an apartment, a terrific increase. I would need somewhere over $100,000 to equate to what my grandfather was able to buy with $900. I am not a mathematician — we could equate it all and take calculus and figure it all out — but I certainly feel that I am being ripped off.

Because I worked all my life, I have a little bit more pension. There is a big change in this Canada Pension Plan too, because if you had two or three bad years, it seems to affect it greatly, and you suffer for it evermore.

I hope you can do something about this. People should be told not to take the pension early. If they can survive at all, they should not take the pension early because they lose 30 per cent of it. Canada Pension Plan people told me this past week that my wife will have to live to be 76 before her pension reaches the right amount, because she took it at 55 years of age. She receives $112. It started out they gave her 2 per cent more. It went up to $124 at the end of the month. If something happens to me, she is there alone with $125 a month. Of course, she will receive some part of my pension in the future, but the whole thing put together will nowhere equate to what my grandfather received in 1960.

There is the problem, and that is why this lady is overwhelmed with people arriving at the food bank. We will soon all be there if it continues.

Canada Pension Plan, and perhaps all of the Canada Revenue Agency, needs to be looked at closely. I do not know that they are doing the right thing. They do the calculations. They present us with a cheque. We can phone them. They will tell us, ``Yes, you had a good year this year and a good year that year. That year, you did not pay any Canada Pension at all.'' When we do have a good year, why can we not pay extra to it to top up and compensate for those bad years? That is only the revenue side of it.

Now, of course getting to work is hell on earth: I can tell you that. Never have the people been healthier. I know some are not healthy — there is always somebody sick — but they are healthier and more educated. My grandfather and my uncle had only Grade 4 education but they were able to earn a living. Now, if you have only that amount of education or something equivalent to that, they shove you in a corner and tell you to stay there and take your social assistance. They do not want you in the workforce.

In Nova Scotia, they can pick the best, and they only pick the best. They do not want, let us say, activists like myself. I would never be able to get another job if I could roll back the years and start over again. I could never get a job again, I do not think, because they do not want activists. They do not want rebels. They do not want anyone like that no matter how skilled they are, or how healthy they are. They do not want them at all, but there is a whole other list of people they do not want.

I worked in Nova Scotia all my life. It was difficult to find a job sometimes, difficult to keep the job, and difficult because wages are always behind the pack, to pay all the bills, and to accomplish anything at all. I have worked at so many things I could not remember them all. I have been everything from a blaster to a beekeeper, and everything in between. The best years I had, of course, as Canada Revenue Agency will tell you, were from 1967 to 1982. That was when it seemed we could make a living, save money and go ahead.

What happens in many cases in Nova Scotia is there is a continuous cycle all the time. Whatever we are doing, if it is going up, we know we will soon hit a peak, and then it will start down. We do not prepare for those lull times, whether it is in agriculture, shipbuilding or whatever. We are not good in Canada at planning for the future.

There was a hearing or something for the fixed link. I know Bill Casey was for the fixed link. I was not for the fixed link. I remember what he would say many times, because I was looking out from my home and seeing 400 people going to work at reasonably good jobs. When I was younger I did not seek to work in the ferries because they were not good jobs, but 400 people were working on the ferries and earning a living through sort of an apprenticeship system. They were promoted to captains, engineers, and things like that so the work was a good thing. They had all the health benefits, and so on. It was something the same as the work I would do at that time at the shipyard. It was a productive forward-moving thing. Then, of course, the fixed-link came along and we appeared at many hearings like this one, and made many presentations, and told them about all the things and people, certainly. I do not know where Senator Catherine Callbeck was in regards to the fixed link, but a fisherman's wife said ``The fixed link is not worth it.'' This was on the cusp of new ferries coming in, and faster ferries, and things like you see down in the Bay of Fundy today that move people faster. It is a whole different concept. These things all have an effect somewhere on someone, and someone loses their job and they can never get back to that point again, because they have gotten too old. They may have gotten hurt, they may be on the wrong side of politics, or may be affected by all the things that play a part in trying to survive in Nova Scotia.

All those things I mentioned play an awfully important part. I strive to get the politics out of the workforce, to get the lodge hall out of it and to get friends, neighbours, and different things like that out of the workplace. In the shipyard in Pictou, we were doing really, really well. Politics got back into it in two or three different directions. It wrecked the whole thing. Three hundred people, four hundred people, sometimes as high as five hundred people worked there, and one day they all walked out. There is nobody there. The buildings and the fabrication shop were never better to build ships, and of course we cannot even haul the ferries that are still going to Prince Edward Island. We cannot work on them because there is nobody left there to work.

Now we are faced with the new problem that everyone is leaving and going out west. Not only are the younger people going out west to work but when the younger people are out there and they have children, the older people go there because they want to be with their grandchildren.

Elmer MacKay called this out-migration the de-ruralization of Nova Scotia. He said it started in the thirties. Well, it is still going on. It never stopped. It only slowed down in those cyclical times for a little while.

I do not know what Peter MacKay will do. I go to Peter MacKay's office, and I speak to him the same as I am speaking to you. ``Let us do something. Let us try.'' I hope that he will do something, because we never had a better chance. I do not know if we will ever again have a Deputy Prime Minister, and the Minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, ACOA, in that seat. It may happen. He may be there for a long time, I do not know. I hope if he is there that he does something to convince people that we have to do better, and we have to have equivalency with places like Alberta. We deserve that. Because we are in this end of the country does not mean that we should be second- class citizens, or that we should need to clean out the food bank on a weekly basis, and things like that.

We have to be self-sustaining. Of course, how do we do that? Here is somebody who is shooting off, but does he have any way to do it? I do not know what the answers are, because people have tried, and I know that Elmer MacKay tried. I worked with him different times, and he tried hard to do things. He accomplished some things, and so did different politicians. They have accomplished things in the past. I hope that Peter MacKay can do something for the shipyard. and that he can do something for our county because right now we are at a very, very low situation.

The car works, the rail cars, are down. That industry is suffering. The agriculture industry is moving lower and lower every year. The ferry, of course, is static, and Peter MacKay helped there. Both sides of the house, of course, were on one side, and he was on the other side so we were able to retain that ferry service. For the few jobs that are there now I hope we can keep that service going.

I could talk about many, many things for a long, long time. I do not think some things will continue much longer for the primary producer. I know you want to talk about agriculture and forestry, but the primary producer almost must be able to sell that product directly to the person that will use it, or the purchaser.

When the oil business came a few years ago, we were going to be the same as Alberta. They called it the new Alberta: Nova Scotia, we will all be rich as a result of the gas. Well, boom, that did not work at all. People lost money on it. We did not make anything. We lost money on things like Simper Gas and so on, so that did not work.

One thing they talked about at that time was what they had done it in Scotland. They created markets for people who, whether they had a pig to sell, raspberries, strawberries, honey or whatever, they would take their wares to the market and rent space perhaps for a small fee and sell them. Now, we are doing something the same as this, but here is how things go wrong.

I want to tell one more little thing. The people in Pictou County all used the Sobeys store to sell their products. They sold everything from mitts, to gloves, knives, berries, and honey at the store, something the same as they do here in Colchester County. Anyway, Sunday shopping came.

That is why you have to think, when you make decisions, about the outcome for some people. You cannot think only about the good side. You have to think about the devastation that may be caused by your move.

Premier Rodney MacDonald threw up his hands and he said, ``I cannot deal with this Sunday shopping thing anymore. We are going to let everybody be open if they want to be open.'' That closed the flea market. A hundred people there that took their products to town — whatever it might be, vegetables, everything was there just the same as the Halifax Market, and of course like the markets in Saint John, New Brunswick, and so on — that ended December 24. There is no place to go. They have gone to schools and they have gone to different places.

If, in your wisdom, you could construct or devise some types of markets like that, then whether it was this lady who had something surplus from the food bank, or something that someone donated that could not be eaten, she could sell it at some place like that to buy supplies for the food bank.

There are answers out there. I do not know what the model looks like in Scotland, but some of the funds from the offshore oil in the North Sea were used to establish those things.

I have a whole lot more to say, but I know that we are out of time.

The Chairman: I know a bunch of people around the table have something to say, and who we want to hear, too. Thank you very much, Mr. McMaster. That was terrific, and we could see where you were going, but we will start the questions and go from there.

Senator Mercer: Ms. Dykens, I want to thank you for 15 years of volunteering for the food bank. It is a long time, and our community is a better place because of it, and I thank you for that.

Mr. McMaster, having a little food bank on your own is quite a task.

Ms. Dykens, the numbers were startling. You had 9,136 clients. Of that number, 70 per cent were from outside of the town of Truro, so from rural areas. You did not tell me the percentage, but you said the client base is becoming much older now. There are more seniors than there used to be, but is there still a broad base of young people, particularly single-parent families?

Ms. Dykens: Yes, there is. We have a lot of single mothers and single dads that need help, and we classify them as the working poor, where they are . . .

Senator Mercer: Are they working?

Ms. Dykens: They are working, but their wages are not enough. Between their cost of living — babysitting, housing and transportation — they cannot keep up with everything. They find that if they can get some meat and maybe some canned goods from the food bank, some foods will help them through.

Senator Mercer: Yes: the current federal government introduced a program for childcare, giving parents with children in the qualifying age $100 a month: $1,200 a year. That program replaced the previous one, the agreement signed between the Government of Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia to provide more childcare spaces. In dealing with people who receive this money, is it helping? Is it helping from the childcare point of view?

Ms. Dykens: From the childcare point of view, yes it is helping some. We see that some mothers have the opportunity to use childcare, to put their children into daycare at a lower rate than it used to be, which helps them have that extra little amount of money to put into food and clothing for the children. We see a difference in that respect for childcare. The problem is a long way from being totally resolved, but we are slowly seeing some difference in that.

Senator Mercer: Is the food bank in Colchester a part of the Feed Nova Scotia network?

Ms. Dykens: Feed Nova Scotia is more of a distributing area. We are hands-on. We deal with clients day to day, five regular serving days, but we have been called in during emergency cases such as fires, floods and hurricanes.

Senator Mercer: You are right about Feed Nova Scotia being a distribution network, as well as servicing clients. Do you receive food from Feed Nova Scotia?

Ms. Dykens: Yes we do. What we get depends on how much we receive at the food bank. They have other food banks which they distribute to and it is done on a percentage basis. They take our stats as to the amount of clientele we have, and they base the percentage of food we will receive from them. There may be a smaller food bank like the one this gentleman runs that serves maybe once a week, so their percentage of food would be less.

Senator Mercer: I have spent a lot time in Pictou County over the years. My family has cottages in Pictou County. I am surprised. Is there not a food bank in Pictou County?

Mr. McMaster: Yes, there is a food bank in Pictou town, but it is something like this food bank: it is overtaxed. They cannot keep up with it, and then there are other reasons as well. As Ms. Dykens says, there are people that do not want to go to the food bank.

Sometimes, I make up boxes. When the fire department was helping me I would make up boxes and deliver them, sometimes to a friend, who would deliver them to the person, and only he knew. I did not know who was getting it. Only he knew who was getting it.

Sometimes, I would drop the stuff at a certain mail box. I would say, under that mail box there will be something for you, or in this store there will be a package for you, and that is where they would pick it up. They would just go in say, ``Did Ed McMaster leave me something here?'' They would not know what was in the box, but they would go and pick it up. It would be food, of course. Sometimes it was money.

The other point is, you cannot buy oil or pay the power bill with food from the food bank. The oil man will not take cans of beans or something. That is the big part of the problem.

Sometimes I had to have cash, and sometimes it was my own cash. Often it is my own cash.

Senator Mercer: Mr. McMaster, the food bank network is an important one for the social support across the province. I know how Ms. Dykens identifies her clients and where they come from. How do people find you, or how do you find the people that you help?

Mr. McMaster: They call up. That woman where I delivered directly to her house does not care about me coming, so in broad daylight I can come directly to her house. She lives in an apartment in Pictou, and I can go right in there, but other people do not like anyone to know. Some food banks do the same thing. They will open up at night to help students. Students are a big part. The cost of an education is unbelievable, and they do not like to wait in a line-up and things like that, so sometimes, and I do not know if Ms. Dykens does this, but food banks will open at night or on the weekends to give people something.

Senator Mercer: Ms. Dykens, you have local suppliers, some farmers, and I think you said senior clubs of people planting gardens for the food bank, which is commendable. I cannot remember your exact words, but you said you will lose them. Is that because they are aging?

Ms. Dykens: Their age: We have already had two deaths in this one group that have faithfully grown us a garden since I can remember. They had retired and this was their way of keeping busy. Since then, we have lost five members of that group to death, and the other ones are slowly aging to the point where they are unable, and their children that might assist them have moved away.

Senator Mercer: However, I think planting a garden is an interesting way of involving people and helping the food bank.

Ms. Dykens: Yes it is, and we have a community garden which helps as well.

The Chairman: For all those in the room, I should have mentioned at the beginning that this distinguished looking senator at the end of the table is not really a senator. He is your member of Parliament, Bill Casey, and very welcomed to be here today.

Senator Callbeck: Thank you both for coming today, and thank you for the work that you do with the food bank. It is an extremely important area.

Ms. Dykens, you have been at the food bank for 15 years?

Ms. Dykens: Yes.

Senator Callbeck: You have seen the demand at the food bank increase?

Ms. Dykens: Oh yes.

Senator Callbeck: Up and up every year?

Ms. Dykens: It has increased immensely from when I first started to now. Every year, every month, we have at least 30 new clients.

Senator Callbeck: I think you said 70 per cent of the demand is in the rural area?

Ms. Dykens: Yes.

Senator Callbeck: A lot of those people would not have cars?

Ms. Dykens: No.

Senator Callbeck: How do they get the food? How do they get to the food bank?

Ms. Dykens: It is networking. A neighbour may drive them in, or a person with a van would come in and let us know that a family is in need. Maybe they are too prideful to come in themselves, but someone would let us know and we would send the food out with them. They would get their stats, their insurance number, and things that we need, and they would sign the paper and bring it back so that they did not have to enter particularly.

Senator Callbeck: That is what I was wondering: if there was a way to deliver.

Roughly, what percentage would be senior citizens?

Ms. Dykens: I think we are looking at 20 to 35 per cent at least, in that range.

Senator Callbeck: Mr. McMaster, you operate your own food bank. You are the first witness to appear who is doing that, and I congratulate you on it. How long have you been doing that?

Mr. McMaster: Well, my family always helped poor people, and I guess that I can say 30 years anyway. I do not have too many seniors in my area. Some seniors require help, but mostly it is mothers with children. If they are single, home alone, it is not too much of a problem. They can survive on what they get. However, once a child enters the picture, or if there is an older child, then there is not enough food from these payments that they receive.

The thing I passed around says it all. There is not enough. The rent takes it all. Then, like everyone else they have Christmas, birthdays and all these things that they would like to participate in, and that is only natural. We live in this country that has so much of everything that I cannot understand why it cannot get up there.

Some things take the money. There is gambling, there are cigarettes, but in most cases I find, and I do not if my colleague here will say the same, there is often no problem with gambling and no problems with drugs or things like that. They are only trying to survive and they do not have enough. The rent takes it all. The telephone takes another big jump. All these things get bigger and bigger.

Senator Callbeck: You see a tremendous demand increasing all the time?

Mr. McMaster: It seems a lot different than when I was a child. The people always looked after one another with groceries.

Here is another thing. Once they start eating a certain type of food they do not want to deviate from that. Even though there might be something that people at the food bank, or even myself, would buy for them. I sometimes get that.

A woman called me one day and she said ``I have nothing to feed my son. He is going to try and get a job fishing tomorrow, and he would like to have something.'' I bought what I thought would be something nourishing for him to go fishing. I dropped it at the place, I arrived home and I got another call. ``He wants noodles.'' Well, I did not know anything about noodles, so I had to say, ``Please describe the noodles. I will go back in and get the noodles,'' which I did. That poor soul did not have the right food. He died with a rare form of cancer at about 21 or 22 years old: a cancer not seen in Caucasian people before, a cancer that was related to only Asian people. It was in back of here in his nose. It spread to his whole body in due course.

You have to lead the members of Parliament, or whatever, to get this food. If we cannot feed the people here, what are we doing in other countries? I do not want to get on the democracy side of it. I have a grandson in Kandahar, and I have a granddaughter on the Halifax school board, and the last while I am not pulling punches with politicians or anyone related to government, I can tell you that. I have been fighting as hard as my grandson is, I hope, in Kandahar. We have to sharpen up. I do not want to get emotional about it.

The Chairman: I am sure that he is, and that you have been doing a worthy job helping people throughout your life.

Senator Mahovlich: In Ottawa, I guess they hire these actuaries to figure out pensions. However, I do not think they come to ground zero to find out what the needs are. If I was to ask you now, ``What would this person need? She is a single parent, and she has a son. What amount would she need a month? She is getting $680 right now. I do not see how she can stay alive with that, when she is paying $625 in rent.''

Mr. McMaster: I do not know.

Senator Mahovlich: What would her need be?

Mr. McMaster: Well, here is what happens. The landlords take advantage of them, and I suppose that would lead to wage and price controls or something, and no one wants that. The landlord knows what she is getting, so the landlord would continue to increase the rent. I do not know what happens in the bigger cities.

Senator Mahovlich: We have a lot of problems in the cities, too.

Mr. McMaster: Yes, I know.

Senator Mahovlich: In Toronto.

Mr. McMaster: If there is $1,000 that the landlords think they can get for rent, the rent will be $1,000 overnight.

Senator Mahovlich: They will grab it.

Mr. McMaster: I do not know. You are a good hockey player, but if you can figure that one out more power to you, and you are a good man to have on the team.

Senator Mahovlich: You mentioned that, but we had the same problem. When I started to play we had a president of the league who used to come and tell us how great our pension was. I would not dare to ask a question. If I asked a question he would embarrass me, so I would not ask another question. It turned out I could not survive on what they gave me when I finished. They were taking advantage of us.

We played hockey. We had to get out of the North, just like kids have to get out of here now because there is no work. People move on, and there are people who would take advantage of everyone. This is what we are here, to try to have some basic understanding of what the needs are for some of these people on food banks. It seems to be a real problem.

Mr. McMaster: It is the same when the students go to university. In the Halifax metro area they put a big demand on food banks because they do not have enough money. There are some young people here. I do not know. They probably experienced the food bank situation in university: so much for rent in the university, or outside the university. I have a son that went through that. He was at the food bank while trying to go to university. He came out with two degrees, and still does not have a job. He is back to the original thing he was doing.

Senator Mahovlich: A lot of these young people come out of university with a debt. I do not think we are heading in the right direction here, because a kid at 25 years old wants to be married. They want to buy a house. How do they do it? We put too much stress on our young students, I think.

Mr. McMaster: I had the money saved to go to university. I never did go. I tried to be a commercial pilot. A fellow came along who had recently left the air force, or he was still in the air force, but here is what he said. ``Civvy street is full of pilots, and you will never get a job in a million years.'' I was out of that program right away. That is how jobs end in Nova Scotia: just bang.

The Chairman: Thank you both so much. You have given us a down-to-earth and lively presentation, and we thank you for coming.

We have been on the road for the last several days, and in spite of the difficulty of the issues, we have enjoyed meeting the people in Atlantic Canada.

For our final group today, we have Jayne Hunter and Pam Harrison, representing the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia, and Barton Cutten, a student statesman.

Pam Harrison, Co-Chair, Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia: Ms. Hunter and I represented two groups that came together to form the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia. Ms. Hunter was with Literacy Nova Scotia and I was with the Coastal Communities Network. When there was a downturn in the fisheries, The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, TAGS, program was put in place to assist rural communities through that terrible time of adjustment. At the end of that, about $350,000 was left over, and we took that amount of money and started a foundation.

The foundation's purpose is to put small amounts of money into communities that have ideas of how to improve rural Nova Scotia. Our grants never exceed much more than $1,000, but $1,000 in a rural community is the equivalent of two fundraisers. You take the energy out of a good committee to must put on two fundraisers to raise $1,000, and then to do the work. We said, ``Let us take that step away. Give them the $1,000, and the energy they would need to fundraise they can put into something good in their communities.'' Well, beautiful stories came out of that $1,000.

We had a program where they took that $1,000 and went to a dairy. They said kids are not getting milk, and the dairy said, ``Well, we'll give you 30 per cent.'' They took that $1,000 and that was 30 per cent, and then the family paid 30 per cent. Families paid only one third of the cost of milk for their children. That seems like a minor thing, but it was a huge thing for those families.

Then we gave $1,000 to a school, and that school put the Grade 6 kids in business. They started a little business within that school. Senator Callbeck, it was something like that ``I Want to be a Millionaire'' project that I took to Prince Edward Island years ago. Anyway, these kids started this canteen and they sell only nutritious food. There were apples, oranges, bananas, cheese, yogurt and things like that. The kids learned if they paid this much for it and they sold it for this much, there was a bit of a profit. Not only was the program giving good nutrition, but it was also teaching the children about business.

We funded 10 of those similar projects one year. Our theme that year was around nutrition.

The last two years we have looked at homelessness in Nova Scotia, which is heartbreaking. In rural Nova Scotia, homelessness does not surface any more than poverty does because it is an embarrassment. Homelessness in rural Nova Scotia may well be a child who sleeps Monday night in his best friend's basement, Tuesday night at his grandmother's house, and Thursday night he is someplace else, because homelessness is so hidden. We have given a grant of $10,000 — $5,000 in 2006 and $5,000 in 2007 — to a group who is addressing the issue of homelessness in rural Nova Scotia.

Our annual report is here and we would like to circulate that to start. Our voice is to tell you that it is not buckets of money that makes a huge big difference, but it is putting small amounts in the hands of people who have a vision of how to address an issue. That is the sort of thing we want to say: that when funding is addressed it needs to be addressed to people who can figure out how to make a difference.

Ms. Hunter and I were talking on the way in about the circumstances that put people into poverty. Oftentimes, it comes down to the fact that they do not know how to make good choices, and the first bad choice leads to a second bad choice.

The other day I was walking my granddaughter to school with a young mother. She and her two little ones were on their way to preschool. In the country we say, ``How is it going?'' She said, ``Well, we could not afford winter tires for the car so Kevin was going to work yesterday and the car slid off the road. We did not have any money for a tow truck so we had to wait until enough people came along to take the car out of the ditch, and by that time it was so late that he missed work, and so he lost a day's pay.'' There is a story of how that cycle came from not having enough money to buy tires. We sometimes think money always has to go for food, but there is a whole lot more to this situation.

I know you are stressed for time, so I am going to stop right now, and let somebody else have their turn.

The Chairman: Well thank you very much. I know that we will want to ask questions.

Barton, could you explain being a student statesman?

Barton Cutten, as an individual: I am 26 years old and I was born and raised on a family farm here in the area. I am almost finished an Honours degree in Science and Environmental Systems Management, plus I am a sales agent for an agricultural company. I get around a country quite a bit, so I have that front-line perspective that is pretty good.

On the statesman side of things, I care greatly about the long-term good of our communities, so I am active in researching and thinking about possible constructive solutions that can take us out of our current conundrum. I guess that is my student statesman in a nutshell.

I want to start by praising this interim report, especially the rural economic development section. ``Connecting Rural and Urban Interests'' on page 62 will need to be a vital one, because there is a disconnect within the two facets. I believe that disconnect is causing problems for sustainability in rural areas, and ``Farming and Multi-functionality'' is the other section.

To expand on the section, ``Connecting Rural and Urban Interests,'' as I said before there needs to be a reconnect. A lot of people in our urban areas have little understanding of how food is produced and what it takes to produce it. Increasingly, with the tightening up of food safety standards, a lot of urban citizens assume that the increased cost will be covered somewhere, but a lot of the demands are downloaded onto the farmers and it increases expenses. If food safety is to be a public good, and those higher prices are not reflected within our commodities, the increased costs must be covered by the public coffers. That is another pressure point on our farmers right now that makes it hard to make a living.

Farmers as a society and a culture must regain access to their markets, because as of right now they are selling commodities, and obedient corporations, to minimize inputs and to maximize profits, are going to give as little as they can to farmers. There is a potential to create a lot of value within the value-added chain within farming groups if they can cooperate enough to process, market and distribute their food a little more. Every single individual farmer does not necessarily need to go out and sell their product directly, but there needs to be more of a group cooperation, and that can help claw back some of that revenue from the farm.

A lot of farmers here in Nova Scotia want to get their revenue from the market. They have clearly said that they do not want to be dependant on government funding. That is the direction they want to go in, so anything that can encourage that goal is welcome.

Talking a bit about farming and multi-functionality, to continue to have a cheap food policy here in Canada, farmers must start finding sources of revenue outside primary food production. I think there is a huge potential in energy generation. That will be one source if we want to keep providing cheap food.

There is tremendous potential to expand upon the research, and implement the technology called anaerobic composting or digesters. This technology is where food waste or animal manure is essentially composted, and the methane produced is harvested and converted into electricity. Hence farmers can sell the methane, and that can be a source of revenue.

Also, there is potential for farmers to lease out some of their land for wind energy. Those two things I think are lucrative and can create some sort of stable, predictable income for farmers to manage their businesses on.

As a note, we were talking earlier about who has direct selling access, such as for electrical producers. As it was stated before, here in Nova Scotia the industry is regulated by Nova Scotia Power, but there is a piece of legislation that is stalled in the current legislature. It has been stalled for about four years. It is called Recommendation 51, and in short, it essentially recommends deregulating the power industry. Scotian WindFields, which is a cooperative company that is the primary proponent of wind energy production here in the province, is chomping at the bit to put up more production, but they must sell it right now to Nova Scotia Power, and Nova Scotia Power does not have any kind of belief in the industry. Scotian WindFields do not want subsidies, they do not want any support from governments, they only want to be able to sell direct. On the local side, any local politician or leadership hopeful that was to pick that up issue and run with it, I think, would be a popular person at the end of the day.

A possible idea of how to reduce the cost of living within the rural areas associated with agriculture would be to allow farmers to build more dwelling units on their properties that other people can live in. Right now, in Nova Scotia, municipal and provincial regulation state that outside of the primary house that the farmer lives in, farmers are allowed to have one more dwelling with four people that they do not have to pay increased property tax on. If that could be changed, and they could increase those dwellings to maybe two or three homes, then that would provide cheaper rent for employees that are living and working on those farms. That housing can help reduce the overall cost of living within rural areas without being dependent on any kind of government subsidies. The Senate might want to recommend that formally to provincial and municipal governments, as a possible approach to help alleviate some of these rural poverty issues.

There is something fundamental that, I think, a government entity that is not dependent on being elected will have to pick up on, and it is called closing our nutrient cycle. I will be blunt. We need to start land-applying more of our bio- solids back into our agricultural food production systems. For those that are not familiar with what bio-solids are, in short, it is treated human waste. Right now, our food production system is linear. We have synthetic inputs, whether they be nitrogen or phosphorous. Food is consumed by humans, but those residual nutrients that are excreted are not put back into the land. A lot of human waste is still being dumped out to sea. Some of it is composted, but it is usually dispersed into other areas.

I am not recommending here how exactly to go about that, but I think there needs to be true leadership within the country to take that lead. In the political forum of people that are elected, no one wants to touch it, pardon the pun. The issue is so controversial that the only time it ever comes up in the public realm is in a reactionary matter when something is literally pushed upon them. I think for the first government body to do that, it would pay off in spades.

Talking about rural economies and societies at large, this is my final point. The increased implementation of high- speed internet within rural areas is fundamental to sustaining rural economies, because then people in rural areas are not dependent upon primary resources or their immediate geography to be provided with a source of income. I think that is happening in Nova Scotia, slowly, and I think it is something I would strongly encourage all governments to continue so people in rural areas are not dependent on what is right in front of them for a source of income.

There is a big issue about food production and the accessibility of food. It is striking how even farmers today, who are right at the hip of agricultural production, rarely produce their own food. It is perplexing. I think if we can encourage a culture of food production within our rural areas, where the agricultural land allows, especially for people that are unemployed because they have the time to do it, this food production could help alleviate some of those fundamental necessities for living, plus provide fresh healthy food at the same time.

One idea might be to encourage people within the arts to take up residencies in rural areas so to speak, especially people funded by government grants. Encourage them to go to rural areas, and then tie in some of that rent money, say, to rural owners. That could be a creative way of funnelling more money into rural areas without having some sort of big subsidy program.

The Chairman: Thank you very much. You added a few new things to our hearings from witnesses, and that is important.

Senator Mercer: Thank you to both witnesses. Ms. Hunter comes from Literacy Nova Scotia and you, Ms. Harrison, are from the Coastal Communities Network. We had a witness, Ishbel Munro from the Coastal Communities Network a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa, and I have her presentation here. I want to close the loop here, so I can understand this. Is Coastal Communities Network a formal part of Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia?

Ms. Harrison: We were the two founding member groups. When the TAGS money was sent our way, it was to enhance rural communities, and the downturn in literacy was identified as one issue that was part of the problem. That is why those two groups came together to receive the money.

Senator Mercer: I look at your annual report, which you were kind of enough to distribute to us. First of all, I look at the money, but second of all, I look at the organizations that you gave grants to in 2005, which are listed there. I know the geography well enough to see that it is pretty well distributed all over the province from Cape Breton to Yarmouth, and a lot in between, and in all rural communities, of course. Where did the close to $300,000 come from that was in the bank, as stated in the annual report?

Ms. Harrison: That money was the leftover money in the TAGS program. The TAGS money was federal money. TAGS was put in place to help the downturn in the fisheries so that was that leftover pool.

Senator Mercer: So the TAGS money was —

Ms. Harrison: It was our start-up money.

Senator Mercer: I am starting to understand. Do you now accept donations?

Ms. Harrison: That is what we are attempting to do. We are doing a public relations program to let the rest of Nova Scotia know that the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia is in place, and if their passion is to improve life in rural communities, then they can give to the foundation. Our working board would enable that to happen.

Senator Mercer: According to this report, you are registered under the Canada Corporations Act, but you are not a registered charity?

Ms. Harrison: We are. We have a charitable number. Now, we can give tax receipts.

Senator Mercer: That is fine because obviously, you need that. I think this is another interesting answer to some of the problems: to have foundations that are focussed only on rural issues. This is an interesting thing. Thank you very much.

Senator Callbeck: Thank you all for coming today. Ms. Harrison, that program you initiated in Prince Edward Island, How to be a Millionaire, is one of the best programs for youth that I know of to help develop entrepreneurial skills.

When you say that a small amount of money can go a long way, that is very, very true. I want to ask you a question about micro-credit. When I say micro-credit, I am talking small amounts of money, $500 or $1,000. When we had the Prime Minister's Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs, this issue came up in an awful lot of areas about the need, especially rural, for women entrepreneurs to be able to access that $500 or $1,000, so they could start their own little business. Do you think that demand, or need, is there?

Ms. Harrison: I expect it is, and I expect in Canada the need would be a little bit more than $500 or $1,000. The Coady International Institute, out of St. Francis Xavier University, had that theme many years ago. When the gentleman came to Halifax not too long ago from India, who won the Noble Peace Prize, I listened to him speak and I thought to myself, we really should take that model and push it hard again, because I believe there is a place for the home-sewing kind of industry.

Senator Callbeck: Yes.

Ms. Harrison: That is a good point that you raise. We have not done that in the foundation, but what is beautiful about the foundation is that every year the board of directors sits around and says, ``What theme will enable the best thing to happen in rural Nova Scotia this year?'' We change our theme from year to year so micro-loans might well be a theme for the future. That is a good suggestion.

Senator Callbeck: I think it is good, especially for rural Canada. Half our women entrepreneurs live in rural Canada, and this is something we heard time and time again.

Mr. Cutten, you mentioned that urban people living in the cities have little understanding as to how food is produced, and I think that is true. How do we go about creating a greater awareness among people that live in the city?

Mr. Cutten: That question can be a tricky one. Some initiatives are in place now to foster that reconnect. One, here in the Maritime provinces, is called Open Farm Day. It is an annual event, where people within the Department of Agriculture help promote on-farm tours. Farmers at large, if they want to, can sign up and say, ``I can open my farm up for a day or two.'' People from the public can come and get a taste for what is going on. It is very successful. I believe last year in Nova Scotia, a little over 20,000 people went out to farms to see how things are done, which is good, but that is nowhere near a million.

It is a hard problem to solve, because everyone is busy in their everyday lives and it is hard to take the time to do that. I think this is where the advantage of more direct marketing within farming groups could really help foster that connect, even if it is more on a social side of things than, say, on the physical side, where you foster these relationships where you no longer buy from a large store that is somewhat faceless. You deal with people that are within the primary agricultural industry, and those relationships can be formed. It works well at farmers markets, and perhaps that model can be expanded upon, especially within areas where the geographical distances are there between farm production and the market, or that accessibility to transportation is there.

Maybe we could promote daily markets. A lot of the farmers markets now are held only once a week, which is good, but I think there is tremendous potential to expand upon that. Based on my experiences around the province, farmers markets are successful and they are busy. That approach gets around a lot of the revenue crisis as well, because they cut out a lot of the more organized middle people, so a lot more of that retail revenue can come back to the farmers.

Senator Callbeck: Thank you very much. You certainly have given us a lot of ideas to think about.

Senator Gustafson: Mr. Cutten, you obviously intend to farm?

Mr. Cutten: No.

Senator Gustafson: Well, that answered my question.

Mr. Cutten: I enjoy the society, but I find that I can better help the industry and society at large by not committing as much time to farming. I enjoy it, but I have to admit honestly that I do not have that passion to farm, but I deal with farmers a lot everyday.

Senator Gustafson: I farmed all my life, and still do. I am 73 years old, and I have never seen such a critical situation as we are in today. We have gone through diversification, growing different crops and trying different methods. Some things can be done, but the bigger problem is that we need to get some money out of the commodities that we are selling. We will never have a level playing field unless we deal with the situation that the United States is subsidizing highly. We have been told for 20 years, ever since I was a member of Parliament, and now on the Senate, we will get the Americans off subsidy, and we will get the Europeans off subsidy, and that will not happen. Canada must decide whether we want a farming industry or not. That will take some money, but I believe that money can be returned into the country if it is handled properly. I have one more question. How many of your friends are farming or will farm?

Mr. Cutten: There are not as many I would like. I deal with a lot of dairy farmers, so the option for succession within a supply-managed industry is higher, but when it comes to the prospects of a lot of the other — beef, or right now hog industries — the prospects are not there. We have young transient farmers that skip around from farm to farm, with no real hope or option to enter the industry. I think we need a higher return for our products, and more government support for initial investment — because that is a big barrier now, even for young farmers that want to, and can, sell a good product, but they do not have that initial investment.

Senator Gustafson: You have analysed it properly, to my thinking, because the dairy industry, for instance, or anybody that is covered with a marketing board, does better than the American person that does not have a marketing board. They are doing better, there is no question. Ask them, and the figures add up.

On the other hand, it is not happening that way for pork producers, cattle producers or grain producers. In a country like Canada, where we export 80 per cent of our grain, we need to somehow level the playing field, or go out of business. As Senator Sparrow used to say to the government, and he was a Liberal and I am a Conservative, and we agreed: ``Let the government tell us. Do they want us in business or do they not?'' That approach is blunt, but it is about the way the situation is out there, in my opinion. I congratulate you on looking for directions and things that will improve the way of life for farmers, and keep doing that.

Mr. Cutten: Thank you.

Senator Gustafson: I think until we find a way to put some money into it, we need a Canadian farm policy; a bill that will project 10 years ahead, and give young people like yourself an opportunity to decide, ``Can I go down this road?''

That was a speech I guess.

The Chairman: But a good one.

Senator Mahovlich: My dad had a farm. I think we lasted six months, so it is a tough league. He went back to mining, and he was a miner most of his life.

Last year, my wife and I visited Italy. We had a little holiday in Italy, and at two in the morning in the middle of Rome, I heard this racket. I wondered, what the heck is going on? I was paying a large amount to have a nice hotel, and everything. I looked out my window and they were setting up their tents in the middle of Rome. All over the city of Rome, it was market day. The farmers are allowed to come into the cities and do their marketing, and it is quite a farmers' market. You can get anything, any kind of vegetable you want. This market went two or three days a week.

In Toronto, we have a market downtown, St. Lawrence Market.

Mr. Cutten: I have been there before, yes.

Senator Mahovlich: It is worthwhile, but it is all controlled and neat and clean. I guess farmers are allowed to come into town in a certain way and leave a certain way, but in Rome, it is all over the place. They have markets all over the place. Is this what you think the farmers here should do: go into Halifax or other cities and set up markets?

Mr. Cutten: I think, ideally, that is what they should do. I do not know the practicality of having every single farmer take time out to do that, but I think in principle, yes, it is a good idea. One thing that I think is lacking, or is a hindrance — not so much a hindrance as an obstacle to that approach — is that the farming culture has been ingrained into selling their raw commodity to someone. I think the necessary skill sets, in large, within our primary producers to do that, especially on the interpersonal side, is lacking. There needs to be a little more education there. If they could get that, then yes, I think that that would be a good direction to go in.

Senator Mahovlich: That would get rid of all the supermarkets?

Mr. Cutten: I do not know about that. We are in seasonal production here in the province, so I do not think we could do that.

Senator Mahovlich: Yes, that is another problem.

Mr. Cutten: I think we will be dependent on those larger stores for a reasonable part of our food consumption, but I think farmers markets could happen. It also creates tremendous opportunity for employment, even within our urban- rural transitional areas where a lot of the younger people that might not necessarily want to do, or cannot do, the primary farming, could have an opportunity to sell the commodities that their culture and society has produced.

The Chairman: Ms. Hunter, I gather that you and Ms. Harrison work together?

Ms. Hunter: It is a volunteer board. I actually work for Literacy Nova Scotia, and Ms. Harrison volunteers with Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia.

The Chairman: I know you do, and you do a great job. When you are engaged for food banks and this kind of thing, what is the degree that you run into literacy as a debilitating thing in people's lives?

Ms. Hunter: I have to throw out the stats. Thirty-eight per cent of Nova Scotians have difficulty. They are below what is called the cutoff point at level three that is needed, according to the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, IALSS. One thing that we always look at when we give grants is that it is a capacity building grant, that an education component is always involved, so we are always looking at the adult learning part, or children's learning. It is always a major portion of what we do.

The Chairman: I gather we have had some good news in the past week that all is not lost?

Ms. Hunter: The Movement for Canadian Literacy has received some good news, I believe, yes.

The Chairman: Thank you for what you do.

This has been a learning experience for us. The whole trip has been a learning experience, but we have had terrific hearings here in Nova Scotia. We have been led by our Nova Scotia leader here, Senator Mercer. We thank you, and we thank all of you who are at the back of the room who have hung in here today and listened, and some who have taken part.

This has been an educational trip for us. I thank you too for your comment on our interim report, our small report, because on the basis of that, we have chosen to go across the nation into every province. At the end of our trek, we will end up going into the territories, too, because they are often forgotten, and they too have rural problems.

We will make sure you have copies of the report when we complete it, but its value is only the degree to which we have had the opportunity to talk to people like you, to go out and talk to people who are struggling, and the people who have innovative ideas that we have heard on the trip. We will do our best to follow up our interim report with one that, hopefully, will, in some small way, make a difference to our agricultural community in this country.

Ms. Harrison: Thank you for giving us an opportunity to speak and thank you for listening. That is very much appreciated.

The Chairman: Thank you.

Senator Mercer: Madam Chairman, I would like to acknowledge in the audience, the Warden of Colchester County, Mike Smith, and thank him for coming as well.

The Chairman: Colleagues, thank you. You have been terrific. We will carry on. The next trek is out to Western Canada.

The committee adjourned.