In time Gerry Ritz will receive his due for his accomplishments as federal agriculture minister, an eight-year stint that marked the agri-food sector’s emergence from obscurity to growing recognition as a powerhouse of the Canadian economy.
Although Ritz handily held his riding in the 2015 election and switched to being international trade critic, being in opposition after a long run as a cabinet minister is not easy. Especially when your party could be out of power for at least two more years and, judging by the polls, even longer. So like a number of other members of the former Conservative cabinet, Ritz has moved on — but it’s not likely we’ve heard the last of him.
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His retirement as MP for the Saskatchewan riding of Battlefords-Lloydminster came after 20 busy years in politics including serving as the Opposition agriculture critic and chairman of the Commons agriculture committee, culminating in his 2007 appointment as agriculture minister. It was in early 2008 that international food agencies warned of a looming global grain shortage triggering a rise in international grain prices that brought long-overdue prosperity to the agriculture sector.
In his time he introduced legislation that wound up the Canadian Wheat Board, played a leading role in encouraging Europe to negotiate a free trade deal with Canada, worked hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and led the protracted fight against the American COOL legislation. He travelled extensively promoting Canadian agri-food exports, the equivalent of circling the globe numerous times. He played a major role in legislation to improve rail transportation of grain and undertaking a serious review of the Canada Transportation Act, which led to the Emerson Report that provided the blueprint for the Liberal government’s Transport 2030 plans
When Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced in the spring budget the government’s goal of boosting agri-food exports to $75 billion by 2025, Ritz deserved no small credit for helping the stage.
Ritz noted in an interview that Canada’s agri-food trade grew 77 per cent to the current $55 billion during his time in the portfolio. “It’s just a tremendous success story with more to be done.”
Unlike most of his cabinet colleagues, Ritz always remained approachable to members of the media and the public. He has a marvellous sense of humour including his controversial quip during a conference of government officials during the 2008 listeriosis crisis, which he said was “like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts.” When told someone had died in Prince Edward Island, he asked if it was Liberal MP and farm spokesman Wayne Easter, a persistent critic of Conservative policies. Even Easter laughed when asked about the comment.
Jeff Neilsen, president of Grain Growers of Canada, said Ritz has had a lasting impact on Canadian agriculture. “From his tireless efforts to expand markets for our products around the world, to fulfilling his promise to western Canadian farmers, marketing freedom for their wheat and barley by ending the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, he is one of the most respected and effective ministers of my time. As a farmer himself, Gerry was always available because he truly understood the needs of our industry.”
Chris Kyte, president of Food Processors of Canada, said, “Ritz was one of the most capable and articulate agriculture ministers this country has ever produced. He was a tough task master and demanded much from the bureaucracy — I am sure that the bureaucracy was happy to see him go after the last election.”
Carla Ventin, vice-president of Food and Consumer Products of Canada, said Ritz “was dedicated to growing the agriculture industry and recognized the important role that food manufacturers play for thousands of Canadian farmers and communities across the country.”
Conservative MP Randy Hoback from Prince Albert said Ritz “made the lives of Canadian farmers better and brought about the structural change needed to make agriculture a profitable and lucrative career for Canadians young and old. The marketing freedom that he secured for wheat and barley, in addition to the many trade agreements that he helped negotiate, have enabled young entrepreneurs to embrace agriculture again.
Fellow Conservative MP David Anderson from Grasslands said Ritz’s successes as agriculture minister “have changed Canadian agriculture for the better and will be long lasting… He led more than 30 trade missions, which resulted in dozens of free trade agreements with various countries.”
With a legacy like that, Ritz’s mark will remain in Ottawa and across the country for many years.