Canadian Dairy Commission Act: Consideration in Committee of the Whole

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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Senator Munson: Thank you, minister. Thank you for what you do. It’s difficult sometimes being an agriculture minister. I was just thinking back to 1976 when I was a young, 30-year-old reporter on the Hill and seeing the face of former minister of agriculture Eugene Whelan when milk was being poured over the top of his head. He seemed to enjoy the taste of it. That was a big story about the angry Quebec dairy farmers. It’s a tough job, but you have to have the personality and, I guess, a commitment to get through it.

(1240)

The question about dumping raw milk was alluded to. No one likes to see that, but you seem to be stressing the fact that you don’t expect to ever see that again during the time of this pandemic.

You also talked about money for distribution through food banks. There are half a million children in this country in poverty. Can you tell us in specific terms about how milk, butter, cheese — the simple things that we take for granted in our lives — will be distributed to people in poverty, besides food banks?

Ms. Bibeau: Thank you, senator. I want to thank the milk and dairy producers and processors because they have made significant donations to food banks when they were facing the obligation to dump milk. So a big thank you to them.

Our food banks are limited in terms of the capacity they can take, and I think they benefited from it very much. We have put in place two different funds to support our food banks. The first one was the $100 million that has been distributed mainly through five important partners: Food Banks Canada, the Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Breakfast Club of Canada and the Federation of Community Organizations. We have worked very closely with them to make sure they were able to reach every part of the country, and we have put aside an amount of $30 million to have this flexibility to fill the gaps.

Then we added $50 million to buy surplus. It’s not only to buy surplus, but we want to be sure that the connection is made, so if there are challenges in terms of transportation or packaging, it’s being taken care of and we find the right partners; that what we are buying is really meeting the needs of the people we want to support in the different areas. We are also working closely with the northern communities.

Senator Munson: Thank you for that. If I could pivot to temporary foreign workers, we had our first Social Affairs Committee meeting yesterday, and we had people speaking to us from Agriculture Canada. It is stuck in my head that the New Brunswick premier said foreign workers are not coming and they’re not going to come. We had gone through this and I have seen this over and over again where there is always a shortage of foreign workers.

I noticed when your deputy was here, Mr. Forbes, he talked about this. Also at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Committee on May 5, just a few days ago, he talked about foreign workers coming here. Is there any guarantee that this country can fill that void? Is there any guarantee during this particular time, with the money that has been distributed to young people across the country, of others replacing those foreign workers temporarily to get a taste of working in their own country, and giving them that motivation with sort of an on-the-ground program? The United States had the Peace Corps doing things all around the world, but doing something within your country to give value to who you are as a young Canadian, to sit and work, albeit temporarily, because I don’t know how that void is going to be filled.

Ms. Bibeau: Labour shortage is definitely a huge challenge. It was already a challenge before the COVID-19 crisis. We normally welcome 60,000 temporary foreign workers, and even with all of them, we used to have 15,000 or so vacant jobs. So this is definitely a challenge.

That is why we are working very hard with the Minister of Immigration and with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to try to simplify the process as much as we can, so we can get as many temporary workers as we can. In April it actually went well; better than what we expected. We were able to receive 11,200 workers, while last year it was 13,000. So we are hopeful that we will be better than we thought a month ago.

Maybe just to complement this part, we are offering $1,500 to employers — mainly farmers but also food processors — who have temporary foreign workers. So $1,500 per worker to help them support the extra costs related to the 14-day isolation period.

We have also put in place the initiative Step Up to the Plate, which is a portal where you can find all the agriculture jobs offered across the country. We are trying to promote these jobs differently with all the stakeholders.

Through the Canada Summer Jobs program, we have also made the agriculture and food sector essential. Now farmers can get workers through this program — not necessarily students, but young people — and have 100% of their salaries paid.

Maybe I can also remind everyone that we have agreed to transfer $3 billion to the provinces so they can top up the wage of essential workers, including agriculture and food workers.

Senator Munson: What would you say to young people today to encourage them to go to work on a farm or in the dairy industry, to get their hands a bit dirty at this particular time, pick up a reasonable paycheque and be part of their country in the rebuilding process? What would you say to young Canadians?

Ms. Bibeau: I have three at home, not all mine but still, three young people at home, and this is a conversation we are having. I think it’s a conversation many parents are having.

I’ve heard a lot about the emergency benefit for students, that people are afraid students might prefer to stay home rather than go to work. They will have to prove they have looked for a job, but I think this is really the time to teach our young people our values; the importance of supporting our communities, especially in times of need like this.

Talking about what the experience would be like working on a farm, they would learn something that many of them would probably never learn in a regular summer. What do they want to be able to tell their kids when their kids ask, “How was it?” Do they want to say, “I took advantage of the system” or “I learned to garden”? Then when they talk about 2020, they can say, “It’s because of COVID-19 that I now know how to grow food.” I think it’s a matter of education in each family.

Senator Munson: Minister, I appreciate those comments very much. We do have these questions, with figures, stats, deadlines and so on, but I think there has to be a sense of humanity put in place when we’re dealing with this and we see all of these announcements. Behind every statistic, there is a human being or somebody who has passed on. I think in terms of families and how we’re dealing with this thing, there is an opportunity for regrowth in this country. I really believe that we can learn so much, and that’s why I was emphasizing that there is no better place than working on a farm. Thank you very much.

(1250)

Ms. Bibeau: Thank you.

Thank you, minister. Thank you for what you do. It’s difficult sometimes being an agriculture minister. I was just thinking back to 1976 when I was a young, 30-year-old reporter on the Hill and seeing the face of former minister of agriculture Eugene Whelan when milk was being poured over the top of his head. He seemed to enjoy the taste of it. That was a big story about the angry Quebec dairy farmers. It’s a tough job, but you have to have the personality and, I guess, a commitment to get through it.

(1240)

The question about dumping raw milk was alluded to. No one likes to see that, but you seem to be stressing the fact that you don’t expect to ever see that again during the time of this pandemic.

You also talked about money for distribution through food banks. There are half a million children in this country in poverty. Can you tell us in specific terms about how milk, butter, cheese — the simple things that we take for granted in our lives — will be distributed to people in poverty, besides food banks?

Ms. Bibeau: Thank you, senator. I want to thank the milk and dairy producers and processors because they have made significant donations to food banks when they were facing the obligation to dump milk. So a big thank you to them.

Our food banks are limited in terms of the capacity they can take, and I think they benefited from it very much. We have put in place two different funds to support our food banks. The first one was the $100 million that has been distributed mainly through five important partners: Food Banks Canada, the Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Breakfast Club of Canada and the Federation of Community Organizations. We have worked very closely with them to make sure they were able to reach every part of the country, and we have put aside an amount of $30 million to have this flexibility to fill the gaps.

Then we added $50 million to buy surplus. It’s not only to buy surplus, but we want to be sure that the connection is made, so if there are challenges in terms of transportation or packaging, it’s being taken care of and we find the right partners; that what we are buying is really meeting the needs of the people we want to support in the different areas. We are also working closely with the northern communities.

Senator Munson: Thank you for that. If I could pivot to temporary foreign workers, we had our first Social Affairs Committee meeting yesterday, and we had people speaking to us from Agriculture Canada. It is stuck in my head that the New Brunswick premier said foreign workers are not coming and they’re not going to come. We had gone through this and I have seen this over and over again where there is always a shortage of foreign workers.

I noticed when your deputy was here, Mr. Forbes, he talked about this. Also at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Committee on May 5, just a few days ago, he talked about foreign workers coming here. Is there any guarantee that this country can fill that void? Is there any guarantee during this particular time, with the money that has been distributed to young people across the country, of others replacing those foreign workers temporarily to get a taste of working in their own country, and giving them that motivation with sort of an on-the-ground program? The United States had the Peace Corps doing things all around the world, but doing something within your country to give value to who you are as a young Canadian, to sit and work, albeit temporarily, because I don’t know how that void is going to be filled.

Ms. Bibeau: Labour shortage is definitely a huge challenge. It was already a challenge before the COVID-19 crisis. We normally welcome 60,000 temporary foreign workers, and even with all of them, we used to have 15,000 or so vacant jobs. So this is definitely a challenge.

That is why we are working very hard with the Minister of Immigration and with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to try to simplify the process as much as we can, so we can get as many temporary workers as we can. In April it actually went well; better than what we expected. We were able to receive 11,200 workers, while last year it was 13,000. So we are hopeful that we will be better than we thought a month ago.

Maybe just to complement this part, we are offering $1,500 to employers — mainly farmers but also food processors — who have temporary foreign workers. So $1,500 per worker to help them support the extra costs related to the 14-day isolation period.

We have also put in place the initiative Step Up to the Plate, which is a portal where you can find all the agriculture jobs offered across the country. We are trying to promote these jobs differently with all the stakeholders.

Through the Canada Summer Jobs program, we have also made the agriculture and food sector essential. Now farmers can get workers through this program — not necessarily students, but young people — and have 100% of their salaries paid.

Maybe I can also remind everyone that we have agreed to transfer $3 billion to the provinces so they can top up the wage of essential workers, including agriculture and food workers.

Senator Munson: What would you say to young people today to encourage them to go to work on a farm or in the dairy industry, to get their hands a bit dirty at this particular time, pick up a reasonable paycheque and be part of their country in the rebuilding process? What would you say to young Canadians?

Ms. Bibeau: I have three at home, not all mine but still, three young people at home, and this is a conversation we are having. I think it’s a conversation many parents are having.

I’ve heard a lot about the emergency benefit for students, that people are afraid students might prefer to stay home rather than go to work. They will have to prove they have looked for a job, but I think this is really the time to teach our young people our values; the importance of supporting our communities, especially in times of need like this.

Talking about what the experience would be like working on a farm, they would learn something that many of them would probably never learn in a regular summer. What do they want to be able to tell their kids when their kids ask, “How was it?” Do they want to say, “I took advantage of the system” or “I learned to garden”? Then when they talk about 2020, they can say, “It’s because of COVID-19 that I now know how to grow food.” I think it’s a matter of education in each family.

Senator Munson: Minister, I appreciate those comments very much. We do have these questions, with figures, stats, deadlines and so on, but I think there has to be a sense of humanity put in place when we’re dealing with this and we see all of these announcements. Behind every statistic, there is a human being or somebody who has passed on. I think in terms of families and how we’re dealing with this thing, there is an opportunity for regrowth in this country. I really believe that we can learn so much, and that’s why I was emphasizing that there is no better place than working on a farm. Thank you very much.

(1250)

Ms. Bibeau: Thank you.

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