Sometime during an early autumn trip to his native state of Arkansas to play a concert, Canadian rock ‘n’ roll legend Ronnie Hawkins got to thinking about the plight of Canada’s farmers.
When he got back to Toronto, he called a Liberal MP friend with an idea. What about organizing an urban rally to raise the profile of the farm crisis?
Downtown Toronto MP Dennis Mills took the suggestion and became its champion.
“My pal Ronnie Hawkins called and wanted me to go down to an event at Tyson’s in Arkansas,” Mills said.
“I couldn’t go but when he got back, he called and said we really should do something to raise awareness of agriculture in this country.”
Mills took the idea to the Greater Toronto Liberal caucus and to the Liberal rural caucus. “The support has been tremendous.”
The result is the Jan. 16 “family farm tribute” at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, a day on which Mills says 18,000 urbanites lured to the centre by well-known Canadian performers will be a captive audience for speeches and messages about the importance of farming and the income crisis.
When they file out at the end of the day, they will be handed cards offering hints on what they can do to help.
“The first idea will be to call your MP to ask them what they are doing on the agricultural issue,” Mills said.
“As an urban MP, I say if more money is needed to help farmers, I would urge the government to find the money.”
Various government departments are contributing support and information. Air Canada will fly in entertainers.
Various corporations have agreed to sponsor the event. It will be broadcast on radio and possibly on television.
Mills said it is not a farm aid event to raise money.
“This is not a hug-a-farmer-for-a- day event,” he said. “This is education and mobilization.”
Mills seems an unlikely MP to be promoting a farm tribute. His riding is one of the most concentrated urban ridings in the country – “I have 110,000 voters in 300 acres.”
But he said he does have a “minor” farm background.
As a kid at the Lake Simcoe cottage, he learned to milk cows and feed pigs on the farm next door.
As an adult, he owned a herd of purebred Herefords and eventually owned racehorses.
However, as an urban MP, he also has understood the voter interest in food issues. In the 1980s, a display in his downtown Toronto constituency office about the small share of the food dollar that makes it back to farmers drew wide voter reaction.
“You would have been shocked at the number of people who came into the office to talk about it, to get more information.”
Now, with an income crisis on the farm and some doubts about the survival of many farms, Mills said it is time to tap into that urban concern and interest again.
He suggested the Toronto event could be replicated in other major urban centres.
Any profits generated from ticket sales will be divided among rural charities, said Mills.