Five years ago, grain movement in Western Canada ground to a halt, a crisis that left Ottawa scrambling to contain an escalating economic crisis across the Prairies.
The crisis grew so bad that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt ordered the railways to move a certain amount of grain per week or risk fines of up to $100,000 per week.
The backlog, which left millions of tonnes of prairie grain stranded in bins and fields for months, is estimated to have cost the western Canadian economy up to $8 billion. It took a year to clean up.
Fast forward today and it’s starting to feel a bit like the time-looping scenes from the movie Groundhog Day, with farmers again warning ongoing poor levels of service are affecting their bottom lines.
The current backlog hasn’t quite hit 2013-14 levels, but the warning signs, and the resulting fear amongst producers, are all there. With spring seeding just around the corner, many producers have input, land, loan and mortgage payments due.
Those payments, farm groups told reporters in Ottawa last week, can’t be paid if the producer hasn’t been able to deliver grain to the local elevator.
The government of Justin Trudeau, Canadian Federation of Agriculture President Ron Bonnett said, must have a plan and be prepared to take action by the time Parliament resumes from its two-week long break March 19.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau has tried to pin the current logistics problems on the previous Conservative government, arguing that government left him with a “Band-Aid, temporary bill.”
The bill Garneau is referring to is the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, which expired in July 2017, an emergency piece of legislation brought in by the previous government during the height of 2013-14 crisis.
It’s true that the act was a temporary piece of legislation, with the legislation designed to be a place-holder while former cabinet minister David Emerson reviewed Canada’s transportation system.
But that’s not the full story.
It was Garneau’s decision to let the legislation lapse before the Liberals own transportation plan, Bill C-49, was in place.
Remember, Parliament voted unanimously to extend the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act for one year in June 2016.
The extension was intended to give Garneau time to draft Bill C-49, which wasn’t presented to the House of Commons until May 2017. That bill aims to modernize all parts of Canada’s transportation network, not just grain transportation.
The same day Garneau unveiled Bill C-49, he said he had no plans to ask the House of Commons to extend the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act until the new legislation was in place, even though Parliament was set to rise for its summer recess in a matter of weeks.
Garneau’s decision to let the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers act meant that grain shippers were left trying to move grain in similar conditions to those faced during the backlog five years ago, with a limited amount of tools at their disposal.
In an interview in December, Garneau said he had no regrets about letting the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act expire.
“I believe it was important for us to get on with C-49.”
He insisted he would monitor grain movement throughout the shipping season.
Not extending the Fair Rail For Grain Farmers Act isn’t the only decision opposition MPs are second guessing.
The House of Commons Transport Committee was called back in early September to study Bill C-49, before Parliament resumed. During those hearings, then Conservative transport critic Kelly Block moved a motion that would have pulled the grain section of Bill C-49 out to allow it to be fast-tracked through Parliament.
The Liberals refused and voted down the motion. Garneau has since repeatedly insisted the legislation must remain whole as it amends only one act: The Canada Transportation Act.