Quebec’s dairy protection law has no place in modern world

In early December after years of resisting, Quebec finally changed its Food Products Act to remove a ban on the sale and production of edible oil-based products.

Saskatchewan successfully challenged the law this spring under the Canadian Agreement on Internal Trade, which is designed to ease interprovincial trade barriers within Canada.

To have such laws remaining on the books in Quebec is indefensible, given the country’s recent positions stressing freer trade within international trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe and the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Saskatchewan has also challenged Quebec laws that prohibit the use of words that Quebec considers unacceptable on certain food product labels. Items made mainly from vegetable oil products with small amounts of dairy in them are not allowed to use words similar to “butter,” “milk,” and “cheese” on their labels.

That challenge was also successful, but the law remains in place while waiting appeal.

Quebec has also appealed the ruling against its edible oil ban but opted to change the legislation while awaiting the appeal decision.

Both legal challenges were supported by Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia.

It is encouraging that Quebec appears to be moving on the edible oil ban, but the labelling law must follow.

Canada’s dairy industry already receives protections through supply management production quotas and tariffs on imported product. That ought to be enough.

The system gives Canada’s dairy producers some of the most stable incomes of farmers anywhere.

To suggest dairy producers require additional help on top of that would suggest an industry in dire trouble and unable to compete, but that is not an accurate picture.

It also ignores the fact that dairy producers in other provinces do just fine without the limits on vegetable oil products in place in Quebec.

No consumer safety issue is at play to justify the restrictions. The law is designed specifically to discriminate against one industry while propping up another.

It, like any protectionist law, does what governments have no business doing. It picks winners and losers and institutionalizes some while forcing others to pick up what they can by working on the margins of the economy.

Quebec is the only jurisdiction in the country that still restricts dairy labelling in such a way. Until last month’s change, it was also the only province that banned edible oil products outright.

Of course, how long Quebec clings to its old protectionist ways has little to do with fairness and everything to do with politics.

Giving in to outside pressure on dairy, which is a motherhood issue in Quebec, would not likely sit well with Quebec voters. Better for the provincial government to be seen to be forced into change.

Doing away with these restrictions would almost certainly lead to new markets for western grown canola, soybeans and other crops, but that is not the nub of the issue.

Canada is more than a collection of fiefdoms and more than a national economy. We exist within a continental trading bloc under NAFTA and have long been ardent free-trade supporters on the international stage.

Those principles must hold domestically as well if we wish to be taken seriously in our wider ambitions.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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