Transportation stakeholders not wooed by consultation promise

The Liberals promised to be a more transparent and accountable government. They promised public consultations on major policy decisions — consultations that would give Canadians and industry a chance to influence federal policy.

But talk to Canada’s farm groups and prairie agriculture ministers about the federal government’s consultation process so far on grain transportation and you will hear a very different story.

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart and Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler say they have not had a chance to speak to federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau about Ottawa’s plans for Canada’s grain transportation system.

In fact, both ministers said July 22 that they weren’t even aware the federal government had officially started consulting.

Transport Canada announced in a news release July 21 that Garneau had wrapped up his eight roundtables on the future of Canada’s transportation system. Stakeholders, the department said, would have until Sept. 16 to put forward their submissions, a timeline both Stewart and Eichler say is particularly bad given it falls in the middle of harvest.

Despite the review being triggered by the 2013-14 grain transportation crisis, only one of the eight round tables with Garneau focused on access to tide water.

Meanwhile, a list provided by Transport Canada shows only two producer groups — Prairie Oat Growers and Pulse Canada — were invited to attend the two-hour meeting in Winnipeg.

Farm groups are livid.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which has been trying to meet with Garneau since March, has called the process “unacceptable.” The CFA has demanded an immediate meeting.

With prairie farmers anticipating another bumper crop (the Western Grain Elevators Association has estimated this year’s harvest could be as big as 74.1 million tonnes), memories of the 2013-14 grain crisis are renewed in people’s minds.

Three years ago, Canadian politicians, farm groups and railways were caught off guard by a record-setting 76 million tonne crop, which crippled the western Canadian grain handling system and left millions of tonnes of grain stranded for months. The backlog is estimated to have cost the prairie economy $5 billion.

Fearing a repeat, Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s agriculture ministers have written letters to the federal government warning them about the size of this year’s crop. Stewart has sent letters to Garneau and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, along with Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway.

None of the letters sent to Garneau, Stewart told reporters, have been answered.

All three prairie ministers said they raised the issue with MacAulay during this year’s federal-provincial-territorial meeting in Calgary. MacAulay held his own roundtable on grain transportation, organized by Agriculture Canada, with industry stakeholders July 18 in Winnipeg.

The Liberal’s handling of the grain transportation file was expected to be met with intense scrutiny by Canadian farm groups, who fear a repeat of the crisis three years ago.

In addition, resolving Canada’s grain transportations woes thus far, has been a bi-partisan process that has involved the entire supply chain and provincial governments. At the height of the crisis, Conservative, Liberal and NDP MPs worked together to come up with a fix.

The House of Commons agriculture committee held several emergency meetings to give farm groups a chance to share their two cents.

Longer-term solutions, the Conservatives promised, would come out of a review of Canada’s grain transportation system.

That review is the one currently underway — where only two producer groups have been consulted.

Farmers and provincial agriculture ministers aren’t the only ones baffled by the process thus far.

Upon hearing Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s agriculture ministers haven’t talked to Garneau, former federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz tweeted “how could that happen?”

Ritz was the lead on the file when the Conservatives were in power.

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