Ag committee’s mental health hearings prove riveting

Most people think that the most important part of Parliament Hill is the House of Commons.

After all, question period is broadcast daily. Clips of ministers and members of Parliament in the House of Commons foyer are regularly aired on television.

For journalists on Parliament Hill, the daily scrums are a regular part of their day.

But while question period might be the most visible piece of the Hill life, many would argue the most influential part of the Canadian governmental system is committee.

House of Commons committees, where members study a wide range of issues, sit on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Each week, MPs hear from a variety of witnesses including lobbyists, academics, researchers, ministers, community organizations and individuals.

Committees are where the kitchen table issues are often aired out in the political realm for the first time.

It’s where policy issues are flagged, where regulatory frustrations are raised and, sometimes, where personal heartbreak is shared.

For agriculture, which rarely finds itself in the spotlight of the House of Commons chamber, committee is even more critical. Committee is often the only place where what’s happening on the ground weaves its way into Parliaments hallowed halls.

For months, Canadian farmers have been sharing their stories about their struggles with mental health.

Those who work in agriculture every day know that Canadian farmers are stressed out.

Anxiety is rampant.

Depression is reality.

Suicides are far too common.

Concern about farmers’ mental health has been on the rise within farm groups for months as organizations struggle to assist members who are trying to farm.

Everyone knows the risks. Weather, isolation, rising costs, falling commodity prices and trade uncertainty are only some of the stressors farmers face.

MPs have started to pay attention, too.

In June, the House of Commons agriculture committee decided to study the issue.

In a rare move, MPs agreed to a bi-partisan study, backed by the Liberals and the Conservatives.

Since then, the response to the study from within the farm community has been overwhelming.

The committee has been flooded with requests from people wanting to speak to the matter, while online farmer after farmer have come forward with their own stories.

Those who cannot attend committee have been invited to submit briefs.

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week. The House agriculture committee held two meetings where MPs heard from several farmers about the stressors they face.

A Saskatchewan farmer told MPs she’s repeatedly felt like her only worth to her family was in her life insurance policy.

An Alberta farmer said he’d been bullied because he spoke up about his personal battle with anxiety, depression and PTSD.

A third farmer told MPs her husband committed suicide six months after his brother died of an unexpected heart attack.

Their testimony was raw. It was real. It was relatable.

According to the witnesses, their stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

As they spoke, you could hear a pin drop in the room.

No one touched their phones.

No one scrolled through their iPads.

When the witnesses finished, more than one MP personally thanked them for sharing their stories.

A few wiped away tears.

Others, particularly those MPs on committee who still farm, took a moment to share their own struggles — be it with the weather or other stressors.

It’s unclear at this point how long the committee’s study will run. No final deadline for brief submissions or fixed number of meetings has been set.

One thing is certain.

What happens at committee matters.

It leaves an impression. One few in the room are likely to ever forget.

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