Honourable senators, the Senate is resolved into a Committee of the Whole on the subject matter of Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act.
Honourable senators, in a Committee of the Whole senators shall address the chair but need not stand. Under the Rules the speaking time is 10 minutes, including questions and answers, but, as ordered earlier today, if a senator does not use all of his or her time, the balance can be yielded to another senator. As ordered by the Senate, the committee will receive the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, and I would now invite her to enter, accompanied by her officials.
(Pursuant to the Order of the Senate, the Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau and her officials were escorted to seats in the Senate chamber.)
Minister, welcome to the Senate. I would ask you to introduce your officials and to make your opening remarks of at most five minutes.
Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau, P.C., M.P., Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food
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Thank you, Madam Chair. I’m joined by Chris Forbes, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, and France Pégeot, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Honourable senators, thank you for having me here today.
I am pleased to present this bill to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act. I urge honourable senators to offer their support as well. The Canadian dairy sector needs this measure. The measure was announced by the Prime Minister as part of a larger package last week to respond to the urgent needs of Canadian farmers and food processors in this challenging time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a tremendous impact on our dairy industry, which sustains the vitality of our rural communities. This industry stimulates our economy by generating billions in revenue and supporting tens of thousands of jobs.
In the first two weeks of the crisis, when social distancing measures were being imposed, demand for liquid milk increased suddenly, then dropped just as suddenly when Canadian families finished stocking up. The closure of schools, countless restaurants and the hotel industry added to the decline in demand for dairy products, especially cheese and cream.
Dairy Farmers of Canada says it has never seen such fluctuation in demand from one week to another.
A cow doesn’t have a tap that you can turn on and off, so this created logistical problems and bottlenecks throughout the entire supply chain.
The industry pulled out all the stops to align production with consumer demand. Provincial marketing boards implemented measures to reduce production, including quota reductions, and farmers and dairy processors made generous donations of dairy products to food banks across the country.
But despite these efforts, between the end of March and the first half of April, producers were forced to dump surplus milk on the farm.
Honourable senators, we must do our part and bring an effective solution to this difficult situation. The industry reached out to government and asked that the Canadian Dairy Commission expand its dairy storage programs, which it uses to balance supply with fluctuations in demand.
The Canadian Dairy Commission purchases dairy products like butter directly from processors to sell them off later in the year, when the demand recovers, during the holiday season, for example.
Under its current borrowing capacity, the CDC has already regained control of the situation, but it needs more room to manœuvre in order to keep meeting the industry’s needs, specifically by also purchasing cheese, as it already does with butter.
I therefore ask you to support this bill to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act to increase its borrowing capacity from $300 million to $500 million.
I urge honourable senators to support this bill to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act to increase its borrowing capacity from $300 million to $500 million.
This measure responds directly to the recommendations of the dairy industry to deal with the crisis. Dairy Farmers of Canada has welcomed this measure as an effective way to strengthen the food supply chain. It is one more sign of our government’s strong support of our supply management system in Canada — a model of stability that has helped our farm businesses grow and prosper for almost 50 years already.
Over the past few years, many producers have hosted me on their farms, in their cheese plants or in their processing facilities to tell me about their work, their accomplishments and their aspirations for the future.
I’ve admired them for quite some time, and I know we all take their well-being to heart, so let’s support them. Let’s move forward with this legislation. As we begin taking steps towards our economic recovery, let’s continue to work with the industry and with provincial and territorial governments to support agriculture and agri-food businesses across Canada. Thank you.
Thank you, minister, for being here this morning. I want to assure you, minister, that the Conservative Party of Canada, both in the House of Commons as well as here in the Senate, absolutely supports this legislation. We think it is necessary. We think it hasn’t gone nearly far enough, but I assure you, you have our support on this legislation.
While I understand that Bill C-16 will help the Dairy Commission temporarily store dairy products, there are other issues facing the sector that deserve your attention. The dairy industry says they were misled by your government about the implementation date of the new NAFTA deal. Your government promised them that it would not come into force until after August 1. Your government broke its word, and the deal will come into force July 1, meaning an estimated $100 million in losses for Canada’s dairy industry.
Minister, we are now told that the Prime Minister has promised to compensate the dairy industry for its early implementation of the agreement. What amount of compensation are you going to provide the dairy industry for breaking your $100-million promise to them? Are you going to nickel-and-dime them as you did the entire agricultural industry last week and even here with this bill today, or are you going to provide fair compensation?
Thank you, senator, and I thank you all for supporting the change in this legislation. It’s important and I appreciate it.
We have not committed to any date in the implementation of the new NAFTA, and we have worked very hard as a “team Canada” with a lot of partners across the country from the industry and the provinces to get the best deal out of it for the Canadian economy in general, and it will enter into force in July of this year.
In terms of compensation, we have already committed to the dairy sector $1.75 billion over eight years to compensate them for the free trade agreement with Europe and with the CPTPP, the trans-Pacific zone. This is already ongoing. They have received their first payment, and we will continue the discussion now that CUSMA is about to be ratified.
Thank you. Minister, I also want to raise with you the issue of tariff rate quotas for dairy farmers and the importance of ensuring those quotas primarily benefit dairy producers and processors who have been harmed more under the recent international trade agreements with retailers or distributors. As you know, minister, Global Affairs Canada’s review of the administration and allocation of tariff rate quotas for dairy, poultry and egg producers has been suspended. What will you do to ensure that the tariff rate quotas go to the dairy farmers and processors? And also, minister, has Minister Freeland told you when the review will resume, and have you informed Minister Freeland that it should begin as soon as possible?
Thank you, senator. For the TRQs, I am in constant discussion with Minister Ng, and I am really making sure that our officials in the department and the stakeholders involved in this issue have the opportunity to speak to the people responsible. You can be assured that we are looking after the interests of our producers in Canada.
We are dealing today with legislation about a dairy bill, but agriculture has been hurt across our country before and now during the pandemic. Let me turn for a minute to our grain farmers. Our grain farmers have had a lot to contend with over the last year or so: a rail strike, terrible weather conditions in the prairie provinces during the harvest — I think they called it a summer from hell — rail blockades and a punitive increase in the cost of drying grain due to your government’s carbon tax.
As insufficient as your government’s announcement was last week, it is disgraceful that it made no mention at all of our grain farmers. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting these farms in jeopardy. Grain Farmers of Ontario says that over half of grain farmers are already seeing a reduction in sales, and a quarter of farmers are experiencing cancellation or delays of existing contracts. This organization has begun an advertising campaign to start and to get your government’s attention before it is too late.
Minister, can you explain why grain farmers have been ignored by your government? What are you going to do to address their concerns? I would like some specifics, especially with respect to funding the business risk management programs.
Thank you, senator. Let’s talk about the business risk management program. That offers different types of programs. Some are there to provide support in the case of lost revenues. Another one is to support when they have a significant increase in some costs. Another one is there to support when they have to face natural disasters, and another one is meant to help them save money for a difficult year. These programs are all available, and in an average year it gives them $1.6 billion. These programs are built in a way that they respond to the demand, so it could even increase — and maybe double — this year if it’s necessary.
We are working hard on these programs with my provincial counterparts, because, as you know, these programs are cost-shared so that 60% is being paid by the federal government and 40% is being paid by the provinces. Since the program changed in 2013 under the previous government — and the cuts were about $400 million at that time — it’s more difficult now, during a crisis, to get the support of all of the provinces to make significant changes to these programs.
But they are there, they are working, and we are ready and willing to increase and contribute to some specific ad hoc programs to support sectors that will be hurt the most by the COVID-19 crisis. This is what we have recently announced.
I’ll offer the example of the amount of money that the grain sector has in their AgriInvest account. This is the most significant one. I think the average is over $100,000. That is significant for grain businesses. I would strongly encourage them to use this money, of which 50% has been provided by the government through the years for difficult times. They also have access to the advance payment programs and they all have access to a loan of up to $1 million based on their production. The first $100,000 is free of interest; for canola producers, the first $400,000 is free of interest.
They are also eligible for AgriStability. To help them, we have moved the application deadline to July 3. Where the provinces have agreed, they can quickly get an advance payment of up to 75%; it is either 50% or 75%, depending on the province. We have put a calculator, an estimator online. Before saying that it doesn’t work, I invite them to try it, because some have been quite surprised that the program is working. I understand they wish it was more generous, but they can get money reasonably quickly through these programs right now.
Welcome, minister. In your presentation, you indicated that increasing the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing capacity from $300 million to $500 million gives it more room to manœuvre, which is a good thing under the circumstances.
I have a two-part question. First, I’d like to know if borrowing terms and conditions will be more flexible. Giving the commission more room to manœuvre is good, but will the terms and conditions be more flexible for borrowers given the circumstances?
The second part of my question is about consultation with the provinces. You and I are from Quebec. Quebec is Canada’s largest dairy producer, so the interests of its dairy industry are front and centre. How did the government consult the provinces? What did you learn from that process?
Thank you for your question, senator. The Canadian Dairy Commission has to borrow money so it can buy. It has done so for butter, and now it will be able to buy more butter and cheese, store those products, and then sell them back to whomever they bought them from. That will give processors more room to manœuvre and more liquidity. That’s how fluctuations are managed. The borrowing conditions don’t include interest. Products are purchased and then sold back to the processors for the same price. That’s how the agreement works.
Thank you very much, minister. It is a pleasure to see you. Thank you for bringing your talented deputies with you as well.
I’m wondering about the aid for dairy farmers during the pandemic, as well as how this relates to the larger issue of international trade agreements.
Three major deals in a row, CETA, CPTPP and CUSMA, otherwise known as the new NAFTA, have granted moderate access to our domestic market to foreign producers, all while maintaining our supply management system. That’s good, on the one hand and, of course, a concern on the other. For Canadian dairy producers, this is compounded both by their concerns over the implementation date of CUSMA and the overarching situation of reduced demand and oversupply brought on by the current COVID-19 crisis.
Under the Dairy Direct Payment Program, as part of the government’s $1.75 billion aid package, the government promised to compensate our 11,000 supply-managed cow’s milk producers to offset market access losses from CETA and CPTPP, and the ones they will incur under CUSMA once it is implemented. All cow’s milk producers who applied by December 13 last year for compensation received their payments before December 31 out of the first round of $345 million. That is helpful, specifically in the trade deal context. The amendment to the Canadian Dairy Commission Act to increase borrowing authority from $300 million to $500 million is supported by the CDC and the dairy industry as a way to help specifically with the consequences of the pandemic.
Is the next round of compensation promised under the Dairy Direct Payment Program still on track despite the current crisis? If so, what is the timeline and what further support, if any, is coming for our beleaguered dairy industry?
As you said so well, our commitment to them is very clear in terms of compensating them for CETA and CPTPP; $1.75 billion, of which $340 million has already been distributed.
Right now, we are focusing on emergency support to all sectors in agriculture and more widely, but our commitment to dairy, poultry and ag producers to compensate them for the three free trade agreements is still very strong. It’s a bit too soon for me to give you more details, but the commitment is still strong.
Minister, thank you for being here today. From what I understand, this bill will enable the Canadian Dairy Commission to subsidize processors so they can store surplus milk in the form of cheese. Isn’t that a very short-term solution, though? Once the crisis is over, there will still be just as much milk on the market. Like you said, you can’t turn a cow off like a tap. We’ll have all that cheese on our hands. As you know, most of that cheese is made in Quebec, and sales of fine cheeses are falling. What are we going to do with all that extra cheese and milk, while farms continue to produce just as much? I think the surplus will be unmanageable.
Thank you, senator. We’re not really talking about subsidies but about enabling businesses to better manage their inventory and cash flow because the products will be purchased at the same price at which they will be resold at a later date. Dairy production cannot be increased or decreased overnight. This sort of adjustment must be made over several weeks depending on the herd. That is the beauty of the supply management system. Since the Canadian Dairy Commission is a strong, organized, structured and experienced organization, it will be able to restructure and ensure that supply meets demand in the coming months. The greater availability of funds will give the commission time to adjust its production to reflect the new reality.
I have a supplementary question to that of Senator Boehm. The Quebec dairy farmers that I spoke to are worried. They’re mainly living off their line of credit and some of them are worried about contracting COVID-19 because they don’t have anyone who can replace them on the farm. They are getting hit with a double whammy: COVID-19 and the coming into force of CUSMA on July 1.
Can you tell them when they will receive the second round of financial aid related to the free trade agreements? They asked me to ask you that question, and I’m asking it to you because farmers need certainty right now.
I understand what you’re saying and I too am in constant contact with these producers. I live in a riding with nearly 500 dairy producers. I understand their anxiety, and the mental health of our producers across the sector is of concern to me. Assistance in health matters is a provincial jurisdiction, but by way of Farm Credit Canada, we have put certain programs in place to try to help them manage this stress.
To respond specifically to your question, I have no date to give you for now. As I said to Senator Boehm we are currently focusing all of our efforts on emergency programs. We are trying to bring in very broad programs that might help the maximum number of people who have lost their job or their income, programs that will help the maximum number of small, medium and large businesses. Then we will proceed by sector. The agriculture sector already has risk management programs and we are prepared to extend and enhance as needed.
My message to producers is to recommend that they use existing programs like AgriInvest that I was talking about earlier, as much as possible. The dairy sector is lucky to have an organization as solid as the Canadian Dairy Commission to help it deal with the challenges and adjust production.
I will share my time with Senator Dagenais and Senator White if time permits.
Minister, as I mentioned in the chamber in recent weeks, many small towns and rural communities that would normally be holding agricultural fairs and exhibitions will be unable to do so this year. My own agricultural society in Fergus, Ontario, with a 183-year history, will not be holding a fair in 2020. The Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions anticipates that the financial strain of missing this year will mean that 1 in 10 agriculture fairs will not be able to reopen at all, and 5 in 10 are uncertain about their future.
These events are major economic drivers in rural and agricultural communities and contribute $2.9 billion annually to Canada’s GDP. Is the government considering supporting this industry, such as providing stabilization funding for agricultural fairs, exhibitions and agricultural societies?
Thank you, senator. I also have quite a number of fairs in my riding, with 36 municipalities. Hatley was supposed to have a big fair this year for its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary.
The support for fairs comes a bit more through the Heritage department, through either Tourism or, eventually, Culture, depending on the opportunity they have when they celebrate such an anniversary. For the time being, I would refer them to the general support we are offering to NGOs mainly. Some specific programs coming from Heritage might eventually support them.
For those who were supposed to have funds this year, they have had the flexibility to use the funds to cover some exceptional costs caused by COVID-19.
Grain Farmers have conducted a survey recently and indicated that 61% are worried about making it through this crisis; 55% say they will either make no profit or, in fact, lose money; and 84% believe they will have a lower profit margin.
Is the government going to make changes to the risk management suite of programs to provide a backstop that they’re looking for as they are planting their crops, and they’re not sure whether they will have a market to sell to?
Thank you. The business risk management programs are there and ready to help. I know they would like it to be more generous, but I strongly encourage farmers to apply. They can go online, try the estimator — with some effort still — and they can find out how much they could get from the AgriStability program. They don’t need to have their final numbers for 2019. They can put their best estimation and then find out how much they could get. They can try different scenarios as well and ask for an advance payment, which could go up to 75%, depending on their province.
I would say this is the first step. Obviously, if they have funds in their AgriInvest, I would encourage them to use these funds. Right now, there is about $2.3 billion available in AgriInvest across the country. Half of these funds come from the government and have been gathered for when they have to face a bad year.
Thank you. My next question is on behalf of Senator Paula Simons: According to the union which represents CFIA meat inspectors, as of this week, 40 federal inspectors had contracted COVID-19, including 21 in Alberta alone. Because so many inspectors are off sick or under quarantine, there is now a shortage of trained people to do the work, and the union says people without the necessary training or experience are being asked to step in. What guarantees can you give us that inspectors have the necessary skills, training and backgrounds to do their job effectively, and what steps are you taking to ensure that all CFIA staff are protected? Thank you.
Thank you. I would say three weeks or maybe a month ago — we lose track of time these days — we announced an increase of $20 million to CFIA’s budget. The objective was to specifically give them the capacity to hire more resources. Up until now, they have hired 70 more inspectors and 20 more vétérinaires. This is new personnel available to do the inspections.
We have also entered into agreements with some provinces. It’s already done informally. We have good collaboration. We can train even provincial inspectors, so we can share resources and be more flexible. If you wish to ask for more details, I can also turn to the vice-president of CFIA, if needed. Thank you.
Good afternoon, minister. I’m still astonished by your government’s lack of vision with respect to the agriculture industry.
All we have heard since you became minister is that the government will compensate producers and farmers for the losses they incur as a result of the international agreements that have been signed.
Today, we have before us a bill that I intend to support because farmers really need this assistance, as lacking as it may be. However, a strong agricultural industry cannot be built with financial assistance and six-month payment deferrals.
I bring to your attention the fact that the U.S. government will provide $19 billion in aid to its farmers. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture is asking for $2.6 billion and your Prime Minister has introduced a bill that provides barely 10% of that, or $252 million.
I’d like you to do more than repeat the Prime Minister’s daily announcements. Tell us the total envelope that your government will set aside for the agriculture, food and fishery sectors to help them get through the current crisis.
It’s always difficult to compare ourselves to the United States, because our approach is completely different. We have risk management plans that were approved in response to demand.
Over the past five years, the average was $1.6 billion. We can safely assume that this year will be much more, perhaps even double that.
Furthermore, there are programs, such as AgriInvest, that allow producers to deposit $10,000 into a bank account to which the government also contributes $10,000. The purpose is to create a cushion for difficult years. There is currently $2.3 billion sitting in these accounts, and we’ve noticed that producers are not using that money. My message to producers is that they must absolutely participate. Unlike the Americans, who must react when issues arise, we already have in place four different programs to address four different types of risk. These programs need to be used, and we’re prepared to look at doing more.
You mentioned the $252-million announcement. In past years, an average of $15 million has been allocated to the AgriRecovery program, for example. We’ve already announced that will go up to $125 million. That shows how much more we are prepared to do in these extraordinary times. We upped the amount from $15 million to $125 million, and I’m sure the program won’t stop there. We have been talking to the provinces about this a lot because AgriRecovery is essentially a program designed to meet the provinces’ needs, not, in a direct way, the producers’ needs. This is just one example that shows we want to do more.
The $77.5 million we announced for processors has nothing to do with the risk management programs because it’s separate from those measures. The $50 million for buying surplus food to send to our food banks and northern communities, for example, is additional money as well. There’s also $20 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, plus $5 billion in additional loans through Farm Credit Canada.
Can you please elaborate on the rationale behind the government’s decision to increase the Canadian Dairy Commission’s loan capacity by $200 million instead of awarding the dairy industry’s farmers an aid package, as we have done for many other industries? You have talked about and discussed programs, but there is some concern that many of the farmers are still not eligible for any of the support that has been put forward. Thank you.
Thank you, senator. Well, the rationale is that it is exactly what has been asked for by the dairy sector and the Canadian Dairy Commission. They have asked us. With the commission, the dairy sector is very well organized and experienced. They know how to manage their stock and they have started to do so with the previous $300 million they had access to. Because this is an extraordinary situation, they are asking us to increase it with the confidence that they will be able to manage their stock with this additional $200 million.
In terms of the eligibility of the farmers for the different programs that we have announced, one important situation that we have heard was for the smaller producers who were not necessarily incorporated, so they were not eligible for the wage subsidy or the loan of $40,000. Now they will have access to a similar kind of money through the local development agencies.
In Quebec and other places, they’re known as community futures development corporations, or CFDCs.
This is making a big difference for the small producers.
If I can explain, one of the reasons is there are so many businesses under this category and they are not all producing. Many of them have been created for, let’s say, administrative purposes. We couldn’t support and give a $10,000 grant for a business that is not really in business but just doing administrative kind of support. Working with the local development agencies, we will have this direct contact with the businesses and with the farmers so we know that we are helping those who really need it.
It has been very disturbing for many of us to read stories about milk being spilled or dumped, as you can imagine, so thank you for putting this legislation together. It has been spilled and dumped because of capacity limitations, processing backlogs and other challenges.
In your opinion, will this bill solve this issue and eliminate spoilage at all levels, including the additional cheese and butter that’s being fabricated or manufactured or put forward?
Yes, I’m confident that it will. Actually, no milk has been dumped since the middle of April because the Canadian Dairy Commission, with the producers, had the time to reorganize and manage the stock with the $300-million borrowing capacity that they already had. That’s why I’m confident that they will be able to go further in the coming months with this additional capacity.
On a timing basis, while awaiting all the details coming into place, have you been working with the industry to put together an aggressive market distribution plan that could include food banks across the country? What have you done? Could you please elaborate on that?
I would say that the dairy sector is already very well organized to promote their products, and I would encourage all Canadians to look for the blue cow on their products.
Through the food policy, we have a program that is called the Buy Canadian Campaign, and one of the objectives is to promote Canadian producers, obviously. I must admit that right now we are focusing on emergency programs, but different channels of the food policy will also be moving forward in the near future.
Is there any concern over our food sovereignty, given what my colleague Senator Boehm was referring to? Senator Boehm was referring to the USMCA, and given that international aid has been much greater than the Canadian aid to many in the agricultural industry, is there any concern over our food sovereignty? Are the farmers satisfied that their current needs are fully met?
I don’t have a concern about our food sovereignty. We are being very careful to protect and to make sure that we have good collaboration with our international trade partners, starting with the United States, obviously.
They have the same interests as we have to keep the borders open to trade in different sectors, including the food sector, because our agri-food sector is so integrated. We have so many products that are being grown or raised in Canada, transformed in the U.S. and are then coming back here to our tables, and the other way around. As well, I’m having regular conversations with Secretary Perdue to make sure that we protect the flow of food supplies through the border.
As I explained a bit earlier, it’s really hard to compare with the United States in terms of support. Historically, we have preferred to put business risk management programs in place so that when a shock happens these programs are already up and rolling. I understand the farmers would like it to be more generous, but they are there, ready to help, and we are trying to make it simpler and we are willing and ready and we have already started to add some programs to fill the gaps.
Yes, I see more aid coming, and this is why I’m asking them to use the actual programs so we can identify where the needs are, where the gaps are; we want to focus our emergency support on those who need it most.
The government’s reserved about $50 million of the $252 million to buy surplus quantities of food that would otherwise have been destroyed, and they will be distributing it into areas of the country where food insecurity is prevalent. The U.S., of course, is committed to buy $3 billion in surplus food, and I recognize the economy of scale is tremendously different.
Could you speak on how our government came to the $50 million figure and how this food be distributed across the country? What about the North? It’s so expensive for citizens in northern Canada to buy food because of the cost of distribution and transportation, which really hurts them at the counter.
Thank you. It started with the first $100 million distributed to food banks across the country through five main partners, and more recently last week we have added $50 million, dedicated to buy surpluses and channel it through food banks across the country, also including our northern communities.
I should have said that with the $100 million in the beginning, there was also a specific fund of $25 million in addition for northern and Indigenous communities.
What we are doing right now is to identify the agriculture sectors who have surpluses — how is it available — the quantities, the format, the packaging, where it is, and also talking with our northern communities and our food bank networks to see their capacity: how much they can get, how much they can distribute, how much they can store. Where are the challenges around transportation or around packaging, for example?
So it’s not only a matter of buying food, but also a matter of making the right connections to deal with all these logistical challenges as well.
Do you feel that there’s enough qualified information for you to be able to create a strategic plan to really address the North? There are stories and reports about the cost of food and the quality of food, and making sure that the right food is sent up to service the needs of the communities. I’m not sure you really stated anything that was concrete. Do you have a sense of a plan that people working for you will be able to execute? Will that be executed immediately or in the near term so that people will have some benefit and relief from exorbitant prices?
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the North, but I’m working closely with Minister Vandal on this. I’m having weekly conversations with my provincial and territorial counterparts, and this is an issue that is being raised every week. I know it has been confirmed to me directly, yesterday, that conversations are ongoing with the government of the territories as well, to find the best way to utilize this $50 million to meet their needs.
I’m working with people who know the issue better than I do.
The new financial measures announced last week by the government for the agriculture and agri-food sectors were received with mixed reaction, and rightfully so. We have learned some of those measures are not even new. More troublesome is the fact that some of them are not even related to COVID-19, as they were already budgeted and/or were a campaign commitment from the government. I’m talking about the re-announcement of $125 million that was already provided for in the AgriRecovery program, as was the $5 billion in funding to Farm Credit Canada, which is a campaign commitment.
Could you explain to our farmers, Canadians, businesses, Canadians working in the agriculture and agri-food sectors who are struggling, why the government is re-announcing measures it already committed to put in place before this pandemic even began?
Thank you, senator. As I said earlier, in Canada we decided years ago to put in place business risk management so these programs will be ready when our farmers face a difficult situation and a difficult year. This is the way we have decided to do it, and I think it’s the right way. Producers and farmers know what they can count on if it ever happens.
There are four main programs under the BRM: AgriStability is meant to support farmers when they have a significant loss in revenues; AgriInvest is meant to build a savings account in a bad year; AgriInsurance is meant to support farmers when there is a natural disaster; AgriRecovery is meant to support when they have to face exceptional costs. For the last five years or so, the average amount of money that was out to support the producers through AgriRecovery was $15 million.
We have announced $125 million, and it’s only the beginning under this program. I expect more requests to come from the provinces. I wouldn’t agree that it’s not new money. It’s a significant commitment from the government and we have moved forward first, because normally under AgriStability we wait for provinces to come to us and ask for the program.
We are moving forward saying that everywhere across the country, whether the province decides to put its 40% or not, we are moving forward with our 60% contribution. Normally the level of eligible expenses is limited to 70%. We have raised it to 90%.
Thank you for the answer. I would like to follow up on the question from Senator Dagenais.
The government asked the agriculture and agri-food sectors, what would be the financial aid that they actually need to get through this crisis. They say it is $2.6 billion, and the government announced only $252 million, which falls very short of what they are asking and what they desperately need. You asked them and then you simply did not follow or listen to what they say?
I listen to farmers every day. Once again, we cannot turn our back to the business risk management. In an average year, it’s $1.6 billion. I expect it to be much more this year. There is $2.3 billion already available in the AgriInvest account. We have increased the financing for pork producers and beef producers by $100 million last week. We have put $77.5 million for food processors as well, so we are moving forward in different ways.
Once again, I will encourage our producers to use these programs so we can identify where the gaps are and who are those most in need.
Thank you, minister. Thank you for what you do. It’s difficult sometimes being an agriculture minister. I was just thinking back to 1976 when I was a young, 30-year-old reporter on the Hill and seeing the face of former minister of agriculture Eugene Whelan when milk was being poured over the top of his head. He seemed to enjoy the taste of it. That was a big story about the angry Quebec dairy farmers. It’s a tough job, but you have to have the personality and, I guess, a commitment to get through it.
The question about dumping raw milk was alluded to. No one likes to see that, but you seem to be stressing the fact that you don’t expect to ever see that again during the time of this pandemic.
You also talked about money for distribution through food banks. There are half a million children in this country in poverty. Can you tell us in specific terms about how milk, butter, cheese — the simple things that we take for granted in our lives — will be distributed to people in poverty, besides food banks?
Thank you, senator. I want to thank the milk and dairy producers and processors because they have made significant donations to food banks when they were facing the obligation to dump milk. So a big thank you to them.
Our food banks are limited in terms of the capacity they can take, and I think they benefited from it very much. We have put in place two different funds to support our food banks. The first one was the $100 million that has been distributed mainly through five important partners: Food Banks Canada, the Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Breakfast Club of Canada and the Federation of Community Organizations. We have worked very closely with them to make sure they were able to reach every part of the country, and we have put aside an amount of $30 million to have this flexibility to fill the gaps.
Then we added $50 million to buy surplus. It’s not only to buy surplus, but we want to be sure that the connection is made, so if there are challenges in terms of transportation or packaging, it’s being taken care of and we find the right partners; that what we are buying is really meeting the needs of the people we want to support in the different areas. We are also working closely with the northern communities.
Thank you for that. If I could pivot to temporary foreign workers, we had our first Social Affairs Committee meeting yesterday, and we had people speaking to us from Agriculture Canada. It is stuck in my head that the New Brunswick premier said foreign workers are not coming and they’re not going to come. We had gone through this and I have seen this over and over again where there is always a shortage of foreign workers.
I noticed when your deputy was here, Mr. Forbes, he talked about this. Also at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Committee on May 5, just a few days ago, he talked about foreign workers coming here. Is there any guarantee that this country can fill that void? Is there any guarantee during this particular time, with the money that has been distributed to young people across the country, of others replacing those foreign workers temporarily to get a taste of working in their own country, and giving them that motivation with sort of an on-the-ground program? The United States had the Peace Corps doing things all around the world, but doing something within your country to give value to who you are as a young Canadian, to sit and work, albeit temporarily, because I don’t know how that void is going to be filled.
Labour shortage is definitely a huge challenge. It was already a challenge before the COVID-19 crisis. We normally welcome 60,000 temporary foreign workers, and even with all of them, we used to have 15,000 or so vacant jobs. So this is definitely a challenge.
That is why we are working very hard with the Minister of Immigration and with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to try to simplify the process as much as we can, so we can get as many temporary workers as we can. In April it actually went well; better than what we expected. We were able to receive 11,200 workers, while last year it was 13,000. So we are hopeful that we will be better than we thought a month ago.
Maybe just to complement this part, we are offering $1,500 to employers — mainly farmers but also food processors — who have temporary foreign workers. So $1,500 per worker to help them support the extra costs related to the 14-day isolation period.
We have also put in place the initiative Step Up to the Plate, which is a portal where you can find all the agriculture jobs offered across the country. We are trying to promote these jobs differently with all the stakeholders.
Through the Canada Summer Jobs program, we have also made the agriculture and food sector essential. Now farmers can get workers through this program — not necessarily students, but young people — and have 100% of their salaries paid.
Maybe I can also remind everyone that we have agreed to transfer $3 billion to the provinces so they can top up the wage of essential workers, including agriculture and food workers.
What would you say to young people today to encourage them to go to work on a farm or in the dairy industry, to get their hands a bit dirty at this particular time, pick up a reasonable paycheque and be part of their country in the rebuilding process? What would you say to young Canadians?
I have three at home, not all mine but still, three young people at home, and this is a conversation we are having. I think it’s a conversation many parents are having.
I’ve heard a lot about the emergency benefit for students, that people are afraid students might prefer to stay home rather than go to work. They will have to prove they have looked for a job, but I think this is really the time to teach our young people our values; the importance of supporting our communities, especially in times of need like this.
Talking about what the experience would be like working on a farm, they would learn something that many of them would probably never learn in a regular summer. What do they want to be able to tell their kids when their kids ask, “How was it?” Do they want to say, “I took advantage of the system” or “I learned to garden”? Then when they talk about 2020, they can say, “It’s because of COVID-19 that I now know how to grow food.” I think it’s a matter of education in each family.
Minister, I appreciate those comments very much. We do have these questions, with figures, stats, deadlines and so on, but I think there has to be a sense of humanity put in place when we’re dealing with this and we see all of these announcements. Behind every statistic, there is a human being or somebody who has passed on. I think in terms of families and how we’re dealing with this thing, there is an opportunity for regrowth in this country. I really believe that we can learn so much, and that’s why I was emphasizing that there is no better place than working on a farm. Thank you very much.
Minister, first of all, thank you for joining us. I want to thank you for all the work that you do. I know you work very hard to support our agricultural community in this country.
I will also take this opportunity to thank those who support you, both your political staff and Canada’s public servants. Both groups have stepped up to the plate over the last number of months in this emergency situation to help Canadians, and they’ve done that very well. That is particularly true for Canada’s food inspectors and especially meat inspectors.
I have two questions for you. First, we’re satisfied in this room that today’s legislative amendment is responsive to what dairy producers and processors have asked for. It will deal with the issue of spillage and waste. In my first question to you, I will focus on what the government is doing and has done as opposed to what it isn’t doing. Could you tell us briefly about both new and existing programs that are also supporting dairy producers and processors as we move through this challenging time?
The second question takes us back to meat inspectors. I will follow up on Senator R. Black’s question about those 40 inspectors who have been affected by COVID-19. It’s helpful that our colleague from the inspection agency is here with us today. You dealt adequately with the employment supply chain issue. I know we have very capable resources at the provincial level and they were able to step up. I want to go back to health and safety, though. I would like to know specifically what is being done in addition to the measures already taken — because we’re talking about a good, professional employer here — to ensure that we can maximize the health and well-being of our food inspectors across this country, particularly those who work in inspecting meat plants.
Thank you. I will start with the programs and the business risk management. I will always come back to this because those are the most important ones. I could go through a wider list, but let’s focus on the business risk management. The programs already exist, but that doesn’t mean that the money will go out. The money will go out only if there is a need. It can depend; it can be more on one program for a year and a different program for the other year.
The best example of that is AgriRecovery. In an average year, we use $15 million in this program. Now we have already committed $125 million. I am convinced that it will be more because we are having discussions right now with the provinces around this specific program.
In terms of new programs, we have the $77.5 million for processors mainly, the $50 million for the surpluses, the $20 million for CFIA. These are additional measures. We have all the additional lending capacity and flexibility in terms of criteria that we have given to Farm Credit Canada.
You’re right that our food inspectors are doing an amazing job in a very difficult environment right now. Many Canadians will realize what it means to be an essential worker. It’s obvious for the health sector, but they are realizing that the food system is a critical infrastructure. It is our food workers, from the inspectors to the scientific, but it also includes all the workers in the plants, our farmers in the field, the young person working in the grocery store and the trucker. They are all essential workers and we have to take care of them. Obviously, you’ve seen the efforts we are making to provide personal protective equipment to the medical sector. We are now putting in place — and I’m a member of that committee — resources to support the other essential sectors, including food and transportation, to help them find the right channels to procure PPEs.
I will go back specifically to food plants for an example. The way it works is that the provincial or local public health authorities are responsible for giving directions to the owners of the plants on measures that should put in place to protect their employees and create a safe environment. While we at CFIA are there to ensure food safety, we work very closely with the local public health departments and businesses to make sure we protect the workers, including our inspectors.
If you want more specific information, I will turn to Ms. Pégeot.
France Pégeot, Executive Vice-President, Canadian Food Inspection Agency
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Thank you very much, senator, for your question. And thank you for recognizing the work that is being done by our meat inspectors. I certainly agree that the overall agency has worked very hard to advance its mandate since the beginning of the crisis, and particularly our meat inspectors. Given the challenges that they face, they have really stepped up. We need to honour and thank them for their contributions. Thank you very much for doing that. I want to add my voice to yours.
Since the beginning, the health and safety of our inspectors have been our top priority as the leaders and managers of this organization. We have made no compromise for that. From the outset, we have been working with the plant managers. We’re taking an approach where, essentially, each plant is different, and each plant needs its own local solutions. So we have been working with plant managers, with unions, with our own staff, of course, and with public health experts to make sure that there are preventive plans are in each establishment. We want to provide guidance on how to report and how to ensure that we know when COVID-19 cases come up in the plants, and how to go about addressing the situation to make sure there is a safe working environment. So we’ve done that. We’ve made sure that various steps and actions were taken to provide a safe environment to our inspectors, but also to ensure they feel safe to work there, feel comfortable contributing to the economy and putting food on the tables of Canadians.
Welcome. Thank you very much for the work that you and your colleagues are doing. I also want to thank our colleagues Senator Griffin and Senator Lankin for helping to inspire this question.
Bill C-16 reminds us that difficulties associated with food supply chains for industry also have serious ramifications for individual Canadians both in terms of increasing food insecurity and rising food costs. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, those in our communities who have the least are disproportionately experiencing these consequences and are therefore experiencing greater vulnerability and need. Although some provinces are moving toward reopening their economies, the responses are not necessarily consistent. As a result, issues related to labour and food supply remain. What steps are or will your government be taking to maintain and expand direct income support to individuals, such as the CERB or some other iteration of that income assistance, during this period of economic recovery?
My question is for the minister. Minister, there are a lot of maple syrup producers in my district. It seems like they are being totally shut out of all the aid your government is offering. Let me describe what maple syrup producers are going through. They’ve been affected in three ways. They’re affected because they’re also running a business. The pandemic hit at the beginning of the season, and they had to shut down immediately. The loss of hospitality, tourism and restaurant dining activities has had a real financial impact on them. Furthermore, the pandemic began just as the maple syrup season was gearing up, which meant they couldn’t get the workers they needed. Lastly, producers are falling behind on grading the maple syrup due to labour shortages, which means delays in payment.
Has the government considered the needs of maple syrup producers? Which of the measures you recently announced to help the agriculture sector applies to maple syrup producers?
You’re right, they have been hit hard at the peak of their season. Like all farmers, maple syrup producers are business owners. They can apply for the general programs that have been put in place. For instance, there’s the program that provides interest-free loans of $40,000, $10,000 of which may be forgiven. For small —
I am getting to that. They will now be eligible through the CFDCs. As it was announced earlier this week, $211 million will be given to the regional development agencies. Much of that, I believe we are talking about $71 million, will be distributed through the CFDCs. In so doing, we want to ensure that all small businesses have access to $40,000 in funding.
However, we are looking for the right way of doing this, to avoid including businesses that are not focused on production but that are more administrative. By going through the CFDC network, we are ensuring that there is direct human contact between our agents and farmers. This is a very recent announcement that was made only two days ago. I therefore encourage small producers to meet with their CFDC, BDC or CED administrator.
There may only be crumbs left for these people. An amount of $210 million is not very much for farmers all across Canada. It is wishful thinking to say that this measure will resolve the problems facing maple syrup producers. I am thinking of the Constantin family in my region, who has been hard hit. Obviously your program, which involves the CFDCs, will not be enough.
Another problem for New Brunswick producers is the loss of buyers. The United States has decided to stop buying maple syrup or to negotiate much lower prices. Are you aware of that problem? What do you intend to do to support these New Brunswick producers?
All producers have access to risk management programs. In the case of a significant decrease in income, the AgriStability program might be the most appropriate. An online calculator has been posted to help businesses determine what they might be entitled to. We’ve also increased margins so they can submit a request for an advance payment. Depending on the province, the margin has gone from 50% to 75%. Businesses have until July 3 to apply. During this time, they can look at various scenarios and see what they might be entitled to before submitting an application under this program. Perhaps some of them have contributed to the AgriInvest program. All of these measures are available to them.
Minister, in an interview published in early January, you said you needed evidence to build a case with your cabinet colleagues about the negative impact of the carbon tax on our farmers. You said you were more than willing to advocate once you had more evidence of the impact the carbon tax would have on farms and farmers.
Last week, thanks to Blacklock’s, we found out that you had the evidence in front of you but that you aren’t willing to share that information with Canadians. You told your colleagues in the House of Commons that the information is “secret.”
Minister, did you ever intend to provide an exemption for farmers who are being unfairly burdened by this terrible carbon tax, or was this just your strategy to buy some time because this isn’t really about helping Canadians as much as it is a PR strategy aimed at securing votes?
Thank you, senator. No, I’ve always been very candid and genuine with our farmers. I was hearing very different figures from the various stakeholders and from the department. The figures were significantly different.
That is why, last December, when we hosted our Federal-Provincial-Territorial Meeting of Ministers of Agriculture, I said to my colleagues, “Give me the evidence. Help me build a case, and I will advocate for you if there is a significant impact on them.”
You will know that we have already exempted farm fuels and fuels from cardlock facilities, and we have provided a partial rebate for propane and natural gas used for commercial greenhouses. So I was genuinely open to making the deal.
I’ll tell you the figures that came out in the end, but just to say that the report you referred to is public. Some numbers were confidential because of budget confidentiality, but the report is available. If you wish, I can share it with you.
To put these estimates in context, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada used data from the Agricultural Taxation Data Program to show the impacts on a per-farm basis as a percentage of total operating costs. The estimates ranged from $210 to $819 per farm, and 0.05% to 0.42% of total farm operating expenses.
Minister, every time your government announces new funding during this pandemic, you provide little to no details. Is this because these announcements are meant not so much as agreements to help Canadians, but rather measures to improve public relations and score votes?
Minister, your government has so far announced no plans to table a budget in the near future or to even provide a financial update. Is that because you don’t want Canadians to know how deep is the hole we have dug for ourselves? Don’t you think it is prudent and necessary that the government, in short order, does provide a financial statement to Parliament?
I believe we are being very open and transparent as each financial commitment is deployed. We have held the equivalent of seven question periods in three days through virtual and in-person meetings. I’m sure that the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister will present a budget or a budgetary report in due course.
Minister, with all due respect, Parliament has hardly been sitting, and the government has hardly been transparent. We know that the deep financial hole this pandemic has dug for us will make it very difficult and might even be much more difficult to deal with than the pandemic itself.
I’ve run out of time, minister. Thank you for your answers.
My question is from Senator Ratna Omidvar, and it is similar to the question asked by Senator Munson.
I would like to ask you about what is coming. You were mentioning that there are funds available for farmers and dairy producers but they don’t use it. After the relief and after the crisis, there will probably be more funds for a stimulus.
Do you think there are some things that need to be corrected in the agricultural sector and need reflection, to come up with a better, more sustainable agricultural and dairy production?
Always. We can always do better. Right now, we are focusing on emergency measures to support those who need it most. But we will very quickly turn to a reflection around our vision for the future, and for the future of the agricultural sector.
Many people are talking about whether we can increase our food sovereignty. Canada remains a very important trading country. Our food industry is very much integrated with the United States. I think some regions will have more flexibility and others are more related to export. This will be very interesting and it is a provoking moment to think about the future of every industry, but also to think about it in a more sustainable way in terms of sovereignty and the environment.
This is an exercise I look forward to undertaking and to push forward because we were already thinking about the future, obviously. Still, this probably will change the vision for the future.
Thanks to you and your team for being here today. This is important legislation that we certainly look forward to supporting.
My question — and I’m going to reduce it based on my colleagues — has some commonalities. Of course, the legislation we’re meeting to discuss takes that necessary step to protect our dairy industry.
There was also $250 million announced for other programs to support agriculture for the beef and pork sectors, for safety measures, for processors and for a buyback program.
However, we’ve been hearing from farmers and processors all across the agricultural industry who are struggling and don’t benefit from these measures. Is there direct support for other sectors coming? If so, when can we expect or anticipate it — a little bit of a look and feel — and if not, why not?
Thank you, senator. Yes, we’ve put in place two specific programs for pork and beef producers. The idea behind that is to support them in covering extra costs they have to face because of the challenges that our processing plants are facing right now, either from the lack of labour, because too many of their employees are affected by COVID and they need to close down for a few days or weeks eventually, and also, while putting these protective measures in place within the plants, it makes the production slower.
Because of that, farmers have to hold back their beef and pork and it means more costs for them. Just think about feeding the animals longer. We want to do everything to avoid humane slaughtering as well. These two programs focus on supporting farmers with these extra costs. The other $77.5 million is for processors to put retrofits in place and any measures they can put in place to first protect their employees, including our inspectors, and second, optimize their operation line, their production capacity in these new circumstances.
Are there other supports coming? Yes. Which ones? I cannot tell you now, but I can tell you that we are having discussions with many provinces right now under the AgriRecovery program because this program is meant to support extra costs. The way it normally works is that the provinces come to the federal government saying, “We have analyzed this sector and we would like to open an AgriRecovery program.” The province will put in its 40% and the federal government will cover 60% of the costs.
Thank you, Deputy Minister Forbes and the members of your team, for joining us today. We’ve heard a lot today about the impact of COVID-19’s economic impact on both rural and urban communities and the impact on food security.
In a report published earlier this year, PROOF, the Food Insecurity Policy Research group, noted that one in eight Canadian households, including more than a million children, struggled with food insecurity. This was before the impact of this unprecedented pandemic.
Canadian food banks are now in very high demand. We know that. One location in Toronto saw its use go up 53% since the beginning of the pandemic. A court dealing with this issue is data. In a meeting of the Senate’s Social Affairs Committee earlier this week, officials from StatCan indicated that the department had undertaken very limited, if any, collection of specific data concerning children and youth. It appears that we do not have a current understanding of the situation that children face here in Canada.
Does the government have current statistics or have a plan to gather information and statistics to guide its policy to ensure food security for children and their families?
What is the government’s plan to connect food banks and other community organizations to get overstocked food to these families that are in dire need now and in the future? Thank you.
Thank you, senator. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, the $2,000 per month, was meant to be fast and to support each and every family where they have lost their revenue. Our first priority was to build this safety net very quickly. I think it worked well.
We have also provided $100 million to food bank networks across the country, working mainly with five major networks, including Food Banks Canada, the Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Breakfast Club, which is specifically dedicated to kids, and the Community Organization Federation. This is one important step that we’ve made. The other is $50 million through buying surpluses, making sure that it can reach the food banks and northern communities. That is another significant commitment and action that we have taken.
Maybe I can also raise the Food Policy for Canada, which we announced almost a year ago. Within this policy, there is a school food program and to proceed with it, we have to work with the provinces because the best way to reach kids is through schools, which are the responsibility of provinces. So this is a discussion that we need to have with provinces, to work collaboratively on this issue.
Thank you for coming today, minister and deputy minister.
My question is mine, but it originally comes from Senator Black from Alberta. Beef producers’ participation in AgriStability is extremely low for a reason. It doesn’t work for them and it’s not equitable for their operations.
The industry has recommended changes to the program, including removing the 3 million payment cap, removing the reference margin limit and increasing the trigger to 85% for the 2019-20 year. As we’ve heard that the government wants producers to use the current BRM programs, will the minister implement these changes so that the producers will be able to access the support?
The program is working. It’s not as generous as they would like it to be.
You might remember that in 2013 the program had been cut, and it meant by about $400 million for a regular year. If we still had these rules, and if it hadn’t been cut by the previous government, everybody would be happy. But since it has been cut to make changes, we need an agreement with all the provinces. We need all the provinces and the federal government to agree to bring back the money in these programs. Obviously, during a crisis, it’s not the best time to build insurance programs. This is why we have tried to make the program easier to understand. We have postponed the deadline application date until July 3. We have increased the level of advanced payment they can get. We have put an estimator online, so they can create some scenarios and see how much they could get if they apply and get up to 75% in advance very quickly, depending on the province; either 50% or 70%.
We are really doing our best to make it more accessible. We are having weekly discussions and our officials are having in-depth discussions with my provincial counterparts to see how we can all agree on any kind of improvement to this program.
The Western Livestock Price Insurance Program has been very successful, especially for the young beef producers in Western provinces. It’s apparent that the Atlantic region has nothing like this and is requesting a similar program. Will the minister work with the industry on lessons learned and implement this program to create equity and further growth of Canada’s beef sector, especially for young producers coming into the farming market?
Yes, we are having discussions under this program. This is not an easy one to deal with at the national level because this is a more regional approach. The ministers from the Prairie provinces have brought this to me and we are looking at different ways to reach the goal we want, which is mainly to support our beef producers. I’m always open to see any options we might have. I cannot be much more specific. If you want to get more specific around this program, I would turn to my deputy minister.
I think the aim of the question was to try — and I realize it is regional — to find some way to allow all regions to participate in a successful program. I believe I heard that you’re working towards that, even though there are problems with it being regional. That’s really what the question is about. If it’s working in the West, it would be nice to take something that is successful and help eastern farmers. I appreciate your answer. Thank you.
I would like to thank you, minister, and your officials, for being here with us today.
Minister, most Canadian dairy farms are in Quebec and Ontario. However, dairy production is crucial to agri-food security and is an important economic driver in every region of the country. How will the benefits of the $200-million increase in borrowing capacity provided for in the bill be distributed across Canada? Have you looked at how this money will be distributed by region and, if so, based on what criteria?
Thank you for your question. The dairy sector benefits from an experienced, competent and well-equipped organization, thanks to the Canadian Dairy Commission. The supply management system does not make regional distinctions. For example, a dairy producer in Newfoundland and a dairy producer in La Prairie will pay the same transportation costs. This is shared equitably among the different provinces and this equity is one of the strengths of the supply management system. It helps promote the vitality of our regions by providing stability to the dairy, poultry and egg farms that support our regions. I am sure that the method the Canadian Dairy Commission uses to purchase products will be absolutely equitable across all regions of the country.
Thank you. My next question is the following. On April 17, 2020, the U.S. government announced $19 billion in financial assistance through its initiative known as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. As you know, this program will provide $16 billion in direct financial assistance to agricultural producers and $3 billion to purchase dairy products and meat. In comparison, even though the Government of Canada increased the borrowing capacity of farmers by $5 billion on March 23, it has allocated only $252 million in direct assistance. Furthermore, these measures were announced more than two weeks after the U.S. government’s measures, which are far more generous for producers south of the border. In view of the significant pressure on the North American agri-food market and our food supply chain, why was there a delay between the U.S. announcement and the announcement of direct financial assistance for Canadian producers?
Thank you for the question. It’s always difficult to compare ourselves to the United States, because our approach is completely different. Several years ago, Canada decided to develop a series of risk management programs, which put us ahead of the Americans, because our producers already knew what programs were available to them. There are four programs in particular that will help them when they experience a loss of revenue, a natural disaster or increased costs, and a savings program that helps them through lean years.
These programs already exist, but we will improve them. We’re identifying the sectors that have the greatest need and for which the existing programs are insufficient. That’s how we’ll identify the sectors that need targeted emergency assistance.
In a normal year, we’re talking about $1.6 billion, but the risk management programs meet that need. If we need to allocate more, we will, and we expect the figure to be significantly higher this year. For example, in a normal year, the AgriRecovery program provides $15 million in assistance, but this year we’ve already hit $125 million. There are programs being developed with the provinces through this same channel to help the sectors most in need.
Minister, thank you for coming to the Senate today. I have to say that I fully endorse the proposal before us today to increase the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing capacity in order to help it deal with an abnormal fluctuation in the market. I understand that production is planned yearly based on anticipated needs. This year, the pandemic is skewing the system. I understand that we’ll be buying more products than we need temporarily and putting them on the market later, so that the market can continue to operate as usual.
As such, I don’t really have any questions to ask you about the bill. I understand it quite well, and your explanations were crystal clear. However, since you’re here, I do want to ask you two questions as a senator from Quebec.
The first is about the shortage of temporary workers on Quebec farms. Many of those workers come from abroad, but foreign labour will be reduced this year. The Quebec government set up a program to encourage students to fill in for the absent foreign workers. Then the federal government announced a program to help students who can’t find a job. That measure and other measures are having a perverse effect in that they provide no incentive for students to go work on farms. When the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion appeared before the Senate, I asked her whether it would be possible for the $100 a week offered by the Quebec government not to count towards the $1,000 revenue threshold, because that’s when you lose the entire benefit. Do you have any news on that front?
Temporary foreign workers are essential to the food industry. To make it easier to hire them despite COVID-19, we’re allowing them to enter the country and we’ve implemented exceptional measures to fast-track their documents. Some workers have faced challenges in their countries of origin, even if just in terms of local transportation to get the necessary visas and documents. We’re working as efficiently as we can at this time. In April, some 11,200 workers arrived in Canada, compared to 13,000 last year. We do still believe we’ll be able to welcome many more than the early, concerning scenarios we were shown at the beginning of the crisis had projected.
We’re also trying to bring in measures that will encourage Canadians to work in the food sector and on farms this year. We’ve implemented the Step up to the Plate platform to bring together employment resources in the agriculture sector all in one place to make things easier for people. You’ll notice that we’re trying to adapt the various measures being implemented to our current reality. We’re building the airplane in mid-flight. That is our current reality.
You mentioned the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, and that’s one example. We specified that students have to have looked for work, and they have to be able to prove it if we ask them. We’ll be following up in the months to come. That’s an important detail.
We transferred $3 billion to the provinces so they can pay essential workers and the health and food sectors higher wages. Quebec was among the first to introduce measures like the $100 benefit. It’s hard to make small adjustments right now. Whenever we change something, we try to make sure it helps everyone. At this point in time, we want to introduce programs that help as many people as possible, but we know those programs aren’t perfect. Our priority has been acting fast because we want to create the best possible social safety net under the circumstances. I don’t yet have an answer to your particular question. Thank you.
I have a second question. The students who will be part of the temporary workforce this summer will hopefully be going back to school in late August or September, but the harvest won’t be finished by then. There will still be needs in September and even early October, in Quebec in particular. Has the department thought about establishing a program to encourage people in the restaurant industry, who apparently won’t be going back to work any time soon, to work on farms, learn more about them and find out what it takes to get the food they serve on the table? Many young people work in the restaurant industry, in the kitchen or as wait staff. These people aren’t working right now because restaurants are either closed or operating at minimum capacity. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to implement a program to encourage these workers to temporarily replace students or work with them this summer? They could learn about the food chain.
That’s a good idea. With regard to the $3-billion transfer to the provinces, we’re giving them the freedom and flexibility to use that money to create the programs that they feel are the most appropriate for their situation.
With regard to temporary foreign workers, I hope that, even if some of them arrive a bit late, we’ll have the number of workers we need in our fields by the fall.
Minister, welcome to you and your officials. In a past life, I worked for the Government of Quebec, and I worked very closely with several Quebec farms and with their federation. Agriculture is unlike other types of industries and is about more than vegetable and livestock production. It’s about land use, it represents the livelihood of thousands of families, but more importantly, it’s at the very heart of the rural economy in many regions of Quebec and Canada.
If your government doesn’t provide adequate financial assistance to address the current crisis, a number of these businesses will shut down, and we risk a repeat of what happened with the Bureau d’Aménagement de l’Est du Québec. People my age will remember this was a time when dozens of farms in eastern Quebec were shuttered. Entire communities shut down. Government assistance is therefore very important for this industry, which can’t be moved, since the workers live on the land, unlike industries that can be moved and relocated.
I’ll continue with questions in the same vein as those of my colleagues. Over the past few months you’ve put in place a number of measures. Some, like the CESB, are very generous but much criticized by several industries, especially restaurants, which will soon be opening up but will have difficulty bringing back staff. It is often more advantageous to receive the benefit than to work under these conditions. Furthermore, you invested almost $7 billion in this program, which is 12 times more than what you’ve invested or will invest to support the agriculture industry.
This week I read in a paper from my area, La Prairie, that your former parliamentary secretary, Jean-Claude Poissant, is dumping between 700 and 800 litres of milk a day. That’s a lot of milk. Mr. Poissant says that transforming milk production — milk has a short shelf life — into other types of production, such as cheese, won’t happen in the short term. It requires major investments, training and equipment. It’s rather unrealistic to say that current milk producers can be transformed into producers of other, less perishable products.
I’m trying to understand your government’s philosophy. On the one hand, you’ve invested $258 million in an industry that’s vital to the regional fabric, whereas that industry was asking you for nearly $2 billion. On the other hand, nobody was begging you to rush to the rescue of students. You could have waited until September to enhance the loans and grants programs for students who hadn’t gotten a job. What’s the rationale for supporting students so generously and only partially meeting the needs of farmers? Mr. Poissant told me that his farm alone has lost $10,000. If we add up the losses incurred by Canada’s farms, they need $2 billion, not $258 million.
Thank you, Senator Boisvenu. There are billions of dollars available through the risk management programs. As I was telling you, in a normal year, $1.6 billion is available. Of course, the figure will be much higher this year. That’s obvious. That’s why we’re reminding everyone. These programs are offered year after year so that farmers know what to expect and how they can prepare for setbacks.
There is $2.3 billion available under the AgriInvest program. The philosophy behind the implementation of our programs is to help the people who need it most. I want to emphasize the word “people”. The focus is on workers and individuals. With the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, we targeted people who lost their income, and we wanted to be sure that we were able to help as many people as possible. Students also need help.
It is more difficult than usual this year for young people to find jobs, and not all young people are fortunate enough to be able to turn to their parents to meet their needs and help pay for their studies. It is therefore important to give them access to a benefit. They are not making a choice by deciding whether to work or to get the Canada emergency student benefit. It is not a choice. It is an alternative that is available to them if they cannot find a job. They have a duty to make an effort to find a job. At the same time, we cannot leave them with nothing for the summer if they are unable to earn the money they need to continue their studies.
As I said, there are existing programs available. Farmers can ask for that money. The $1.6 billion available to farmers over the course of a typical year is even more important now. My message is, go get that money. We’ll set up other programs to fill the gaps and support sectors and regions with the greatest needs. We’re trying to make it easier for people to access this program, and I know people would like it to be simpler and more generous. To make it more accessible, we extended the enrolment deadline, made bigger advances available to producers, and launched an online calculator so they can figure out how much they’re entitled to.
There’s $2.3 billion sitting in AgriInvest accounts. Farmers aren’t withdrawing that money, but it’s there, it belongs to them all. It’s not in individual accounts because everyone has different needs, but there’s still $2.3 billion in AgriInvest accounts that’s available to a lot of farmers right now.
How are you going to control this, when we know that tens of thousands of people have already applied for the CERB without good reason and there appears to be a directive to approve all applications, since people are asking for assistance?
I asked the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion and her senior official about this when they appeared before us two weeks ago. This is what I asked them: What controls have you put in place? They replied that they didn’t have enough time to do so. Their priority right now is getting cheques out, and the controls will come in after a year or two. How are you going to control the industries you’re helping, when what you’re telling farmers is to take the money and you’ll help them later?
I invite you to consult the various assistance programs we have in place right now for the various kinds of industries. We’re trying to save businesses that would be viable under normal circumstances. We’re trying to give them the means to bridge the gap with loans, payment deferrals and wage subsidies. Once again, we are really focusing on assistance to workers. That is our priority.
We prefer to give a little more at this time, even if it means recovering this money in a few months, rather than leaving people in need who will then have nothing to eat at the end of the month and have to go to food banks. We’ll have a chance to catch the people who abused the system after the fact. Right now we don’t want people to starve.
On March 23, you announced a $5-billion aid package for food processors and producers in the form of loans that would be managed by Farm Credit Canada. That $5 billion was one of your election promises, it is not new money. It is money you already had, because you announced it during the election campaign.
We indeed planned to increase the borrowing capacity of Farm Credit Canada. We did it much sooner than planned. We had a few years to do it. It is true that it is not new money, but it is money nonetheless.
It’s wonderful to have you back in the Senate, minister. On behalf of all Canadians, thank you for all of your work and that of your colleagues at this very difficult time for our country and our world.
We’re happy to see that the government responded to the dairy sector’s request for an increase in the borrowing authority for the Canadian Dairy Commission. This will be helpful, and I hope we will be able to pass Bill C-16 today so that the CDC will be able to increase its capacity to purchase and store more cheese and butter, thus alleviating these blockages in the dairy supply chain and avoiding further food waste, which we want to do at all cost.
We’re aware that the agriculture supports package announced to date has been described as a beginning, and you today have mentioned there is more to come. You haven’t said what it is, which is fine.
On another related matter, could you tell us if your department has done any kind of collaborative analysis with other departments of the potential or existing uptake by the broader Canadian agricultural food sector, including dairy, of the other various pandemic-related emergency response supports instituted by the government for any Canadian business, no matter what sector they happen to be, not just agriculture?
Chris Forbes, Deputy Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
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Thank you for the question. It’s certainly something we are looking into. The minister mentioned a number of the broader initiatives. It’s probably too early for us to have data but it is something that we want to track because we get feedback from the sector about the usefulness of those measures and we want to understand how well they are working, so it’s something we’re actively looking at with colleagues.
Thank you very much, Senator Coyle. What are the steps the government is taking, or will take, to maintain and expand direct income support to individuals, such as the CERB or some other iteration of that income assistance plan, during this vital period of economic recovery?
Thank you for being here, minister. I want to follow up on earlier comments in relation to cheese and butter processing. Since CDC approved the program, it does not include the cheese product that was on hand by cheese makers. My question is now whether or not those cheese makers will be able to sell their cheese under the $50 million food surplus program.
They are eligible. It’s a conversation that we are having right now with the different sectors across the agriculture industry to see what type of producers are available, in what format, in what region, to see how it matches with the needs of the food banks and of our northern communities as well, and if there are any types of logistical challenges like transportation or packaging.
Honourable senators, the committee has been sitting for 125 minutes. In conformity with the order of the Senate of earlier this day, I am obliged to interrupt proceedings so that the committee can report to the Senate.
Minister, on behalf of all senators, thank you for joining us today to assist us with our work on the bill. I would also like to thank your officials.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
The Chair: Honourable senators, is it agreed that the Committee rise and that I report to the Senate that the witnesses have been heard?