Bovine TB outbreak shakes Liberal approach to crises

When rancher Brad Osadczuk told the House of Commons agriculture committee Nov. 22 he was spending $92,000 a month to feed a third of his quarantined, soon to be culled, cattle herd, you could have heard a pin drop.

That’s not chump change. It’s more than half the salary most backbencher MPs on the agriculture committee make in a year ($170,400 before taxes). Heck, it’s more than what many working Canadians make.

All of a sudden an emergency bovine tuberculosis situation thousands of kilometres away on a handful of ranches in southern Alberta had a human face.

While Conservative MPs had been asking questions about the outbreak for weeks, the story gained little traction in Ottawa, where cattle markets and ranch life isn’t top of the agenda.

That is until Nov. 22, when Osadczuk and two other ranchers told MPs point blank that if they didn’t get help soon, they would be “broke by spring.”

The ranchers said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency wasn’t answering the phone. No one could get a straight answer on how tests were progressing and cash flow for extra feed and water was non-existent.

The situation, ranchers said, was like having all your assets and bank accounts indefinitely frozen.

After hearing from the ranchers, federal New Democratic Party and Conservative MPs wanted the CFIA to appear in front of the committee to explain, with NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau arguing MPs must ensure the agency has the necessary resources.

But Liberal MPs disagreed, insisting that the situation in Alberta didn’t require study and should be left to the minister. Besides, the committee was already under a tight timeline to finish its review of the Agriculture Policy Framework, which expires in two years.

In a 5-4 vote, the Liberal MPs voted down the request to hear from CFIA on the bovine tuberculosis situation, although they did agree to write a letter to federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, at Brosseau’s urging, asking him to speed up testing and expedite compensation.

Less than 24 hours later, a Conservative motion asking the Senate agriculture committee to look into the situation passed, a study suggestion backed by Health Minister Jane Philpott. The Senate investigation was to begin Nov. 29.

Meanwhile, former Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told iPolitics that MacAulay was “dead asleep at the switch.”

The Justin Trudeau government has been trying to put out the bovine TB fire ever since.

The House agriculture committee has now reversed its initial decision and asked the CFIA to appear in front of the committee Nov. 29 for two hours, at the same time as MacAulay was already scheduled to come for supplementary estimates.

Meanwhile, CFIA officials held a technical briefing with media Nov. 25 to clear up confusion in which the agency committed to work on improving communication with affected ranchers.

The CFIA has also approved a plan to open a feedlot to ease overcrowding on ranches where quarantines force operations to house double the number of livestock they would normally because calves haven’t been sold.

As of press time, details about the feedlot were not available, with overhead costs likely to be covered by Agri-Recovery funds.

The CFIA said the feedlot’s services would be available to any rancher in the quarantined zone who needs to move calves.

The Alberta government has formally requested disaster funding via Agri-Recovery. Saskatchewan officials are said to be in discussions with federal officials and Alberta about what do to help the four quarantined operations in Saskatchewan.

The situation has raised questions about MacAulay’s and the CFIA’s response to the outbreak, including how long it took the agency to begin testing animals and why it took so long for Ottawa to recognize the urgency. Yet, it’s safe to say the Liberals have learned a few lessons about agriculture crises and how rapidly they can gain traction thanks to the power of a human connection.

Only time will tell if those lessons stick.

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