Farm labour issue fires up ag debate

The agricultural labour shortage drew the most heated conversation during last week’s election debate, sparked when the Green Party candidate referred to the temporary foreign worker program as slavery.

Representatives from the three other parties, including the Liberal agriculture minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Conservative critic Luc Berthold and NDP critic Alistair MacGregor, took umbrage with Kate Storey, a farmer and the Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa Green candidate, for her position.

“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is just a Band-Aid,” Storey said during her answer to the last question of the event, which was organized by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. “It’s nothing more than modern day slavery. It has to go.”

Berthold was the first to react, saying Storey exhibited a lack of respect for producers by insinuating they treat their workers as slaves.

“This is unacceptable. I just don’t know how to say it. This is not true,” he said.

Bibeau said she was shocked.

“On several occasions this evening you have attacked farmers,” she said. “It is shocking that you are putting all producers in the same basket that they are poor environmental stewards, poor stewards of the workforce. Now you’re saying they are treating immigrant workers as if they are slaves.”

Storey suggested the workers put in 16-hour days for less than minimum wage.

MacGregor said that language is “problematic.”

“I mean, who’s worked 15 to 16 hours on a farm? I have when I was a teenager because that’s the reality working on a farm,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get the crop in.”

Berthold noted that the Conservatives would unveil a specific labour platform during the campaign.

The feisty conclusion came after a civil exchange of party ideas on numerous issues. Those included promoting Canadian agriculture, business risk management programs, support for emerging sectors and technology, compensation for supply management, resolving the trade dispute with China, maintenance and growth of export markets, and how agriculture can help reduce carbon emissions.

On the question of China, no one had a firm solution. MacGregor acknowledged the problem is political, not a phytosanitary problem with canola seed. Berthold continued, as the Conservatives have throughout the issue, to blame the Liberals for dragging their feet.

“The Chinese crisis is highly complicated and clearly Mr. Berthold doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the issue,” Bibeau said, noting that a request for assistance has been made to the World Trade Organization.

All the parties reiterated their support for supply management. Berthold said the Conservatives would not give up any more access in future trade agreements and would adhere to the full compensation program laid out by the then-Harper government in 2015.

MacGregor suggested that both the Liberals and Conservatives promise to protect supply management but markets continue to erode.

MacGregor said he was opposed to GMOs during a rapid-fire round but promoted gene editing as a future technology worth considering. Storey was also opposed to GMOs but the other two candidates were in favour of them.

All four agreed that activists should not be able to enter farm properties.

Berthold was the only one opposed to front-of-package labelling as currently proposed. Similarly, the others favoured Canada’s Food Guide as currently written but Berthold did not.

All the candidates said agriculture should be a top priority for the next government, but there were few ideas on how to make it so.

The Greens would transition to organic and regenerative agriculture, smaller farms and work to cut agricultural emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 years.

The NDP promotes the idea of local food hubs across Canada.

Bibeau listed off the investments the Liberal government has made in agriculture, including innovation funding, the superclusters and research.

The Conservatives would ensure farmers are competitive.

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