Ottawa offers more measures to help ag sector

The federal government continues to unveil policies and dollars they say will assist agricultural sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A $100-million fund, launching in partnership with Calgary-based Forage Capital Inc., will be used “to support proven, viable companies through unexpected business disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to the federal government, Farm Credit Canada is the sole investor in the fund designed to help stabilize and improve the flexibility of companies as they recover from the pandemic.

Primary producers, agri-tech firms, manufacturers, packers and distributors can all apply. The maximum available amount to each firm is $10 million.

“This type of investment fund will offer companies another option when faced with business disruptions. Through the application of flexible and innovative solutions, the investments will preserve jobs and strengthen food security for all Canadians,” said Minister of Agriculture Marie Claude Bibeau in a statement.

The fund announcement came shortly after federal officials announced changes aimed at creating flexibility within the temporary foreign worker program. The temporary changes allow workers who have lost their jobs to stay in Canada under their pre-existing closed work permit and start at another job sooner.

“If you are here and you are working on a farm, but you lost your job because of COVID-19 and you want to stay and find work elsewhere on another farm, you can do that as quickly as possible,” said Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

It’s expected the wait-time to transition from one job to another will go from 10 weeks to 10 days because of the change.

Employers will still require a labour market impact assessment demonstrating they attempted to hire from within the existing labour pool before accessing foreign labour.

“We want to be sure that we’re studying very closely where the gaps in the labour sector are and linking that to a specific job offer, it’s a system that has worked well,” he said.

Mendicino did not say how many people he expects to take advantage of the program, but noted there are 200,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada currently on closed work permits, and 20,000 seasonal agricultural workers. He expects another 10,000 seasonal agricultural workers to arrive within the next couple of weeks.

“We’re always studying very closely what the needs for the sector are,” he said.

Bibeau said in a statement the change, “builds on all the work we have been doing since the moment COVID struck to ensure our agriculture sector, particularly our horticultural producers, can count on their workforce and that they can ensure their safety.”

A $3-billion fund to support wage top-ups for essential services is also being considered by Ottawa as an important step in supporting the sector. The fund, which required provincial approval and financial support, would allow low-earning workers considered essential to receive additional money.

Provinces are responsible for deciding which workers will receive the top-up. Bibeau says the federal government is still waiting from provinces to see if they will include workers in the agriculture sector.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec had already introduced their own wage top-ups for essential workers.

In the House of Commons, a law allowing the Dairy Commission of Canada to increase its loaning capacity by $200 million passed, allowing the Crown corporation to borrow up to half a billion dollars. While all parties supported the bill, many opposition MPs expressed disappointment in the government’s overall support for the industry.

The bill moved to the Senate for debate on May 15 and is expected to be in effect by the time the current dairy year ends on July 31.

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