Dairy cows. Image credit: CallyL/pixabay.com

Private member’s bills are not often successfully passed in the House of Commons. They usually fall off the roster at one stage or another — no matter how important the topic or the legislation.

One thing that private member’s bills can accomplish is the promotion of important issues across party lines.

One bill that advanced to second reading on January 25 is Bill C-216 — a private member’s bill on supply management — put forward by Bloc Québecois MP for Bécancour-Nicolet-Saurel, Louis Plamondon.

Bill C-216, An Act to amend the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Act (supply management), is a private member’s bill which would bar trade negotiators from being able to make concessions on Canada’s supply management programs.

Bill C-216 would hopefully ensure that in all future trade agreement negotiations the government of Canada would not commit to any further foreign access to Canadian supply-managed markets and would not lower or eliminate tariffs on supply managed goods that are imported over and above existing Tariff Rate Quota (TRQ) levels. In other words, the bill aims to prevent the removal of tariffs on imports to the detriment of supply managed products.

Last week the House of Commons standing committee on international trade heard testimony and accepted briefs on Bill C-216. Motions and private member’s bills on this issue have been presented with persistence and patience since 2005. This one’s progress is encouraging.

Finally, last week the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade adopted the bill without amendment in a nine-two vote, sending it off for its third and final reading. This is the last week that Parliament sits before recess, meaning it is likely the bill could die on the order paper.

When you consider what has happened in the past 20 years to key pillars of Canada’s orderly marketing system, it might be easier to understand why protecting supply management programs is crucial, and why this private members bill is so important.

Supply management is a unique Canadian institution that provides stability in five perishable food sectors — dairy, broiler chickens, laying hens, turkeys and hatching eggs. Through supply management, the amount of product produced in each sector is controlled and stabilized so as to prevent shortages and keep imports from flooding the Canadian market.

Supply management was created in the 1960s and 1970s in an effort to try to deal with inconsistent production and prices. Regulating production has provided Canadian farmers in these sectors a steadier income, and in turn consumers in Canada have received a steadier domestic supply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of supply management and how it has actually helped secure domestic supply and lessen food waste compared to the situation in many other countries. As well, because of the pandemic, Canadian consumers have realized the importance of a secure domestic supply of food 

Over the years, free-trade agreements have chipped away at Canada’s supply-management system, further eroding the ability to ensure that product in supply-managed sectors is stable. But with each passing trade agreement, increased access to the supply management sector has been on the table, leading trade negotiators to negotiate growing access to the domestic market and costing Canadian producers income, impacting rural economies, and affecting consumers supply of Canadian product.

Most recently, clauses in Canada’s trade agreements with Europe (CETA), Asia-Pacific countries (CPTPP), and the United States and Mexico (CUSMA) have frustrated egg, dairy and poultry producers. Those sectors are now staring down eroded incomes. Combine the erosion of supply managed sectors with the loss of the prairie wheat pools and the Canadian Wheat Board, as noted in previous columns, and we are witnessing the destruction of the Canadian farm sector through the aggressiveness of international agribusiness.

Last week the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade heard testimony from witnesses and accepted briefs on Bill C-216…

In his presentation before the international trade committee last week, Plamondon had this to say about his private member’s bill:

“…From what do we ultimately want to protect our products? First of all, we want to protect them from unfair competition. Our main partner, the United States, violates many international trade rules while demanding more access from us.”

Plamondon went on to describe how the U.S. illegally subsidizes their farmers to the tune of several billions of dollars a year, lowering production costs and enabling lower prices, a practice that is strictly prohibited by the [World Trade Organization (WTO)].

“It constantly challenges aspects of our agricultural and forestry policies, as we recently saw in the softwood lumber and milk quotas cases, despite previous decisions by the WTO’s dispute settlement body. It is one of the most protectionist countries in the G20, but one of those most demanding of market access,” Plamondon said of Canada’s largest trade partner.

The committee also accepted briefs and heard from a handful of witnesses regarding the proposed legislation. Among the best and most well-researched briefs were those from the Egg Farmers of Canada, the Dairy Farmers of Canada, the Turkey Farmers of Canada, and the National Farmers Union.

There were also briefs presented by grain organizations whose allegiances are largely with export markets as opposed to ensuring stable domestic supply. Some sent in one-page letters simply stating their opposition with little substantiation.

Several of the briefs, including the one prepared by the Egg Farmers of Canada, noted that excluding supply-managed sectors from trade agreements is not a barrier to trade in other sectors. The brief states:

“Under [current trade agreements], a total of 51.4 million dozen eggs will come into our country from the U.S. and other parts of the world. The combined impact granted in…recent trade deals (the combination of CPTPP, CUSMA and WTO), is the equivalent of a total of seven per cent of current domestic production. This represents the entire annual egg production from the Atlantic provinces (NB, PEI, NS and NL), forever. This outcome will affect generations of Canadians.”

In its brief, the Dairy Farmers of Canada noted the potential losses to the Canadian economy and rural communities when supply management is steadily eroded in free trade agreements:

“The sector supports more than 178,000 full-time equivalent jobs, contributes $16.1 billion to Canada’s GDP, and generates $2.9 billion in tax revenue annually. As one of the most important agricultural sectors in Canada, the dairy sector is a key driver of economic activity, especially in rural communities where it is needed most.”

The coming days will tell how Bill C-216 fares in the House of Commons — but one thing is certain — farmers and consumers need to understand the important pillars that have allowed Canada’s family farmers to continue, even in difficult political environments.

We need to understand that these pillars have been seriously chipped away at and eroded over time. It is often private member’s bills and other such actions that help us to remember, and hopefully to understand. Even if they die on the order paper at the end of a session.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column “At the farm gate” discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image credit: CallyL/pixabay.com

BW Lois Ross - Version 4 (1)

Lois Ross

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute. Born into a farm family in southern Saskatchewan,...