Lack of ag group consultation on transportation baffling

The rail transportation review that includes movement of western Canadian grain took a sharp turn last week.

The federal government announced that roundtable consultations are over, and it won’t extend the deadline for written submissions past Sept. 16, which falls in the middle of harvest.

Of the eight roundtable sessions that formed the heart of the consultation process, only one addressed grain transportation, which has been called the most significant challenge facing prairie farmers. As well, only two producer groups, Pulse Canada and the Prairie Oat Growers Association, were formally invited to the table to comment.

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The Western Grain Elevators Association and G3 Canada took part, but major producer groups have yet to provide input.

The political website iPolitics reports that some western agricultural groups, even some western agriculture ministers, weren’t aware that consultations were underway.

Neither Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart nor Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler were invited to take part in the formal consultation phase.

Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says he has unsuccessfully pursued a meeting with federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau for months.

It’s strange. It’s puzzling.

Farm groups are already suspicious that soon-to-be updated rules might favour rail companies after former Conservative MP David Emerson’s 18-month-long review of the Canada Transportation Act was released in February. Emerson’s report recommended, among other things, that revenue caps on rail companies be removed in seven years to introduce a more commercial focus on rail transportation. Producers see revenue caps as a way of keeping a check on near monopolies of Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway in their western Canadian operating zones. Rail companies say they need more revenue to invest in infrastructure to resolve transportation issues.

Emerson’s report and the ensuing consultations came about after farmers faced serious difficulties moving their grain in 2013-14, when the largest crop on record faced a difficult winter that challenged transportation, leaving farmers waiting for long periods to move their product and unable to capitalize on high market prices.

This is meat and potatoes stuff for farmers.

Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay from Prince Edward Island hasn’t had a high profile in this.

A Transport Canada spokesperson says the Sept. 16 deadline was needed to process input before the House sits and to prepare for meetings with provincial ministers.

He said agriculture ministers and producer groups can have their say even after the Sept. 16 deadline, but that will prove difficult before this year’s harvest — potentially the second-largest ever.

You’d think Garneau and MacAulay would want to hear from more producers before the rail companies try to move this year’s predicted large harvest to avoid the pitfalls of the 2013-14 shipping season, even with CN and CP saying they are ready for the challenge this time.

On the plus side, the Liberal government did extend the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act for another year. It allows Ottawa to set mandatory targets for grain movement by rail companies or face fines. That helped to address the 2013-14 crisis. That’s a reasonable move given the uncertainty around the consultation process and the potentially massive harvest.

Still, this consultation process appears rushed and incomplete.

Garneau and MacAulay must assure producers that their input will be swiftly sought and considered.

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