While many Canadians were lining up to buy legal cannabis across the country last Wednesday, dairy farmers in Eastern Ontario were lining up for a meeting with Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MP Francis Drouin.
About 250 local farmers packed into a meeting hall at the St-Isidore Recreation Centre to voice their concerns and questions surrounding the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA).
Media were told to stay outside as the meeting opened with two presentations: the first from Drouin and the second from Graham Lloyd, general manager and CEO of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO).
The Review was told the two presentations wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes but the presentations only concluded 45 minutes later before journalists were allowed back in to listen to questions from the crowd.
Four major themes bubbled to the surface throughout the discussion: the elimination of Class 7 (and subsequent re-classification of those products), the ongoing review of the nation food guide, stricter border control, and compensation for the market loss.
No more Class 7
As a result of the end of Class 7, milk protein concentrate, skim milk powder and infant formula will all now be priced based on their end use and at the U.S. price.
Upon its creation in March of last year, Class 7 products used world prices as a reference; now the U.S. will get to dictate prices.
This was a major sticking point for Bart Rijke, the local board representative with DFO, and Jean-Pierre Lavigne, a farmer from Ste-Anne-de-Prescott. The Review spoke with Rijke and Lavigne in the week leading up to the meeting with Drouin.
“That will hurt us the most,” said Lavigne. “Class 7 helped us avoid throwing out (protein concentrate) or selling it for very cheap.”
During the meeting in St-Isidore, Lloyd said the subsequent re-classification of the above products is a priority for DFO but wouldn’t go into detail for fear of tipping off the U.S. to its new regulations.
“We’re not going to share until we know exactly what we’re doing,” he said.
Lloyd mentioned the food guide during his presentation. He called the review a government program that had “no sound reasoning” behind it.
“We should be up in arms about that,” he said.
Later in the discussion he told farmers in the room they shouldn’t want to “lose (the food guide) to the vegans.”
Drouin followed up by blaming government bureaucrats involved in the process, saying “clearly they don’t have dairy in their hearts.”
Linda Overvest, from L’Orignal, asked Drouin plainly: “Why is the food guide our problem?”
“I’m voicing your concerns, trust me,” he said, “but I’m a lot more powerful when I have 500 more people behind me.”
In a follow-up interview, Drouin said he didn’t know when the feds would unveil the updated guide. Asked if he supported a plant-based diet, he said the guide should show what nutrients are important for a healthy diet, but how people get those nutrients should be left up to them.
This was one of the muddiest discussions during the meeting, mainly because the scope of the problem isn’t quite understood.
Drouin acknowledged there needs to be tighter control at the border and more stringent checks to prevent foreign illegal dairy products making their way into the country.
One way to do so is to re-evaluate the Import to Re-export program, which allows processors to bring in supply-managed products (including dairy) for processing as long as those products are then re-exported so as to not disrupt Canadian products. Eastern Ontario’s Skotidakis, for example, is one of many companies doing this.
In a follow-up interview, Drouin said some processors are “abusing” the program but said that there were more audits being done to “clamp down” on processors who weren’t following the rules.
During the meeting, farmers called for more invasive strategies from making drivers go through scanners to having border agents check every dairy truck coming over. Drouin pushed back saying the solution needs to be one that wouldn’t grind the $2 billion-flow of goods across the border to a halt.
How much market access dairy farmers have lost in the past few years depends on who you ask.
Raymond Bachand, Québec’s chief negotiator, was quoted as saying farmers have lost eight to 10 per cent over the three recent trade deals: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and now the USMCA. The DFO put that figure closer to 18 per cent based on previous World Trader Organization obligations, according to Rijke.
Regardless, loss is inevitable and the federal government has pledged another round of compensation.
After CETA, the feds put together two programs totalling $350 million as a compensation package, mostly to help farmers upgrade their farms.
At Wednesday’s meeting, farmers criticized the programs and many called on the feds to simplify compensation to make it based on quota.
During the interview after the meeting, Drouin said he understood farmers weren’t happy but that the next 10 years should be calmer for the industry.
He added that he didn’t have a timeline for the unveiling of the compensation package. He said a working group will soon be announced to start consultation on a compensation package.
“I know how these things work, I know there won’t be a perfect model that will satisfy 100 per cent of the people but if we can get a passing grade I think we’ll be successful,” he said.
The finishing touches
Lawyers are currently combing over the USMCA to ensure the deals match one another. There were still a few discrepancies when the two countries announced the agreement at the end of September.
Drouin said the discrepancies are minor and wouldn’t result in any significant changes.
Once that’s done, every country must approve the deal. For Canada, that’s likely to happen in the spring or summer next year. The USMCA takes effect three months after the last signatory approves it.
At the meeting, Drouin was asked if he would personally vote in favour of the deal. His answer was non-committal; he said it could’ve been worse.
Wendy MacPherson from North Glengarry summed up the sentiment of many farmers towards the end of the night.
“I had really hoped this meeting was going to be very different,” she said. “I hoped that it would be you coming to us and saying, “This deal wasn’t good for Canada and we need you guys to stand with us, to hold tight and we’re going to go up against this bully.’ That’s what I was prepared for and I think a lot of us may have been prepared for that.”
With that, applause cracked across the room.