Throne speech short on agriculture specifics

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Senator Marc Gold, and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki listen as Canada's Governor General Julie Payette delivers the throne speech in the Senate chamber in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada September 23. Adrian Wyld/Pool via REUTERS. ORG XMIT: SKP130

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Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Alex Ruff had it pretty much right in his criticism of the federal government’s recent throne speech for its lack of attention to agricultural policy matters.

“Really there was no connection whatsoever to rural Canada,” Ruff was quoted to say by Sun Times reporter Rob Gowan. Certainly, the government has a large agenda for the current session of Parliament, what with re-emergent coronavirus illness and its consequences.

But it’s odd that those responsible for the contents of Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette’s speech didn’t find something more cogent to say about the enormous uncertainties facing Canadian farmers and food processors. The coronavirus pandemic is part of those uncertainties. Agriculture has had to cope with pandemic disruptions as much as any economic sector.

It’s not as if last week’s speech made no mention of agriculture. It did, but it did so in ways that showed little progress on the government side regarding agriculture policy. The most fulsome reference concerned the “outstanding job” done by agricultural workers – Canadian and migrants alike — “getting good food on people’s plates.”

Those workers “deserve the government’s full support and protection,” the governor-general said without adding much detail. The speech reiterated long-standing federal promises to provide “full and fair compensation for recent trade agreements” to farmers operating within Canada’s supply management systems for milk and poultry products. But nothing was said about pending changes to agricultural business risk management programs under active discussion for at least two years.

The speech also resurrected past promises from this government to “ensure that all Canadians, no matter where they are, have access to high-speed Internet.” That point about broadband utilities appears to have received a boost from pandemic influences which have caused many urban Canadians to rely on the Internet while working from home. It’s a point that rural Canadians have made for years, particularly those with farm businesses where work from home is a way of life.

Farmers will have a role to play as “key partners” in helping Canada adapt to climate change, the speech said, while not really providing much indication about how that might work. There are vague references to a new Canada Water Agency to help manage “irrigation infrastructure” and a promise that the government will “continue to fight for free trade, including by leading the Ottawa Group to reform the World Trade Organization.”

So, yes, the throne speech made reference to a variety of agricultural issues among a rather daunting set of other considerations: homelessness and pharmacare, racism and public health. Perhaps most telling was a reference in the speech to the uncertainties we all face.

The governor-general described the government’s current agenda as “an ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality” in which: “The course of events will determine what needs to be done, when.”

Not least of these uncertain, but determinative, events are policies of the current U.S. government. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office as recently as this week has reignited a 40-year-long dispute between Canada and the U.S. over softwood lumber, a subject litigated three times already.

The U.S. has appealed a World Trade Organization ruling in August that $3 billion in U.S. duties on softwood imports from Canada were collected as a result of American government errors. The appeal comes at a time when the U.S. has essentially disabled WTO’s appeals by declining to appoint new appellate judges.

Canada’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng in a statement said U.S. behaviour is “impeding economic recovery on both sides of the border.”