Federal government ignored warnings of grain backlog: NDP

Access to information Documents show federal agriculture and transportation departments forewarned grain movements would be impeded

Opposition MPs were demanding answers to revelations the federal government was warned by the head of Canada’s largest railway that the industry would struggle to get last fall’s record harvest to market.

“Mr. Speaker, new documents revealed under Access to Information show the Conservatives ignored the grain transport warnings. They knew before but yet did not act,” NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen asked in Question Period June 9.

“Will the minister now admit that his failure to heed warnings contributed to billions of dollars that farmers have lost in this fiscal year,” Allen said.

His question comes after Access to Information documents obtained by iPolitics revealed CN president and chief executive officer Claude Mongeau had sent a Nov. 11 letter to the head of the Western Grain Elevator Association, Wade Sobkowich, blasting him for “misleading rhetoric on such important matters.”

In the same letter, Mongeau offers to sit down with the association “to discuss the challenges we all face to move this record crop” so long as the association agrees “to be more fact based.”

Transport minister Lisa Raitt and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz were sent emailed copies of the letter Nov. 11.

Mongeau’s letter comes as stories of stalled grain began surfacing in Ottawa, with Ritz insisting the railways were doing an ‘adequate’ job moving grain given the crop’s record size. More grain had moved off the combine in the fall than ever before, he added.

By December millions of tonnes of grain were stuck across the Prairies as stakeholders blamed each other for the months long backlog expected to cost the national economy between $7.2 to $8.3 billion.

That same month, Ritz’s office would respond to Mongeau’s email, a month after the initial warning.

In a Dec. 13 email, the minister’s office mentioned a meeting between Mongeau and Agriculture Canada deputy minister Suzanne Vinet. That meeting, CN’s president confirmed in a reply, was set for early January.

The lack of a face-to-face meeting infuriated the NDP’s agriculture critic June 9.

“If this was so important then why didn’t they have a personal meeting with Mongeau and then bring all the other parties together?” Allen said in an interview.

If the minister had sat down with the railroad in November, Allen said, the entire situation, including the need for emergency legislation under the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, might have been avoided.

“We might have actually fixed it in January,” he said. “Now we’ve lost the opportunity. We’ve lost market; we’ve dented our reputation, tarnished for no reason other than this minister didn’t do his job. That’s shameful.”

When asked about CN’s letter, Raitt said June 9 she remembered receiving a call from a stakeholder about the looming crisis in the fall.

“I actually called Claude Mongeau,” she said. “We’re trying to find the date but I was alerted to a concern about too much grain and not enough cars probably around late October, early November.”

When the call came, she said, “my people immediately called CN and CP and said ‘do you guys have this handled’ and they said ‘yeah, we’ve got it all handled,’ and then winter hit and the railways were forced to shorten the trains.

“Whether CN and CP would have been able to manage the excess grain in a normal situation? I don’t know,” Raitt said.

Both national railways remain under federal orders to move a minimum 11,000 cars of grain per week or risk fines of up to $100,000. Those orders, which expired June 1, were extended under the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act.

Ritz was in transit June 9 and could not be reached for comment by press time.

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