Feds tight-lipped on trade dispute help

Agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said improving business risk management systems is a higher priority than trade-dispute resolutions.  |  Michael Raine photo

QUEBEC CITY — A call last week from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture for immediate federal help for farmers affected by trade disputes has not been answered.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said resolving disputes, especially those with China over canola, pork and beef, remains a top priority. However, she said improving existing business risk management programs to help those affected would come first.

She agreed that global market challenges have changed since the current BRM programs were announced a year ago and that’s why the country’s agriculture ministers at their annual meeting agreed to work on improvements for 2020.

But that’s not much comfort to those facing a crisis, said CFA president Mary Robinson.

“We’re in a position where we need to see something ad hoc for the immediate and we need something long term with BRM restructuring,” she said after the organization’s summer board meeting.

During a roundtable with Bibeau and most provincial ministers, the CFA outlined its concerns.

“The concept that we were trying to float is, if you can think broadly, AgriRecovery, but perhaps not requiring provincial money,” she explained. “We’re in a bit of uncharted territory with regard to the amount of hurt that’s being felt by this trade disruption and it’s not just one province.”

Typically, AgriRecovery requests come from provinces and are cost-shared. Robinson said the current problems go far beyond geographic regions and amount to a national issue.

The hurt is deep and requires an appropriate response, she said.

“Canadian farmers are bearing the financial brunt of the geopolitical brinkmanship across the globe and are disappointed to see a lack of support from the federal government for this critical economic sector, particularly when considered in light of the support provided to other sectors impacted by these trade wars,” Robinson added in a statement issued after the federal-provincial-territorial agriculture ministers’ meeting.

Alberta minister Devin Dreeshen said ministers did discuss compensation.

“That came up loud and clear, that there’s compensation on market access loss on free trade deals but here there’s market access loss on negative trade issues and why isn’t that compensation in the same pot,” he said. “That was something that a lot of provinces pushed hard to say, (that) this is no different.”

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit said his province is monitoring the situation but it’s too soon to say if federal help is needed and how much. He wants to see what the market does as the current crop comes off.

“We’re not seeing a significant reduction in canola prices right now,” he said. “Whether this happens later on in the fall, we’ll have to watch.”

He also said he is concerned about who would be entitled to compensation because primary producers, processors and shippers could all have claims.

He said while everyone is frustrated with China, Ottawa appears to be doing what it can.

“China is what China is,” he said. “You can say all you want about why aren’t you doing something. Well, if China won’t let you come, there’s not much you can do. We’ve asked them to put the pressure on.”

Bibeau said several colleagues travelled to China last week on other matters and were able to have informal discussions about canola. Regular discussions about meat certificates continue, she said, but canola is trickier because China still has not provided its evidence of pests it says it found in shipments.

Meanwhile, the federal Conservative opposition said the Liberal government has sat on its hands and done nothing to help farmers, noting that the promised compensation for supply-managed farmers has still not materialized.

Bibeau said details of the complex arrangement will be announced before the government’s mandate ends in October.

The issue is complicated by the fact that dairy wants direct compensation, while other sectors want investment.

“We’re talking about distributing billions of dollars of public funds to thousands of producers across the country so we have to do it right,” Bibeau said.

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