When the then newly elected Liberal government promised further consultation on changes to the Canada Transportation Act, farm groups reacted with relief.
Now that relief is turning to frustration and worry.
Neither the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), Manitoba’s general farm organization, nor the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, have met with Transport Minister Marc Garneau, even though he pledged to consult farmers.
Even worse, says APAS head Norm Hall, it appears officials advising Garneau don’t even realize farmers are being overlooked.
“We spoke to someone at Transport Canada and she said, ‘oh, we thought the elevator association spoke for producers,’” Hall said. “At that point I lost it.
“I think regardless (of whether we meet with Garneau or not) we will be a little bit nervous (about the outcome) because Transport Canada seems to be — how should we say it? — unduly influenced by the railroads. The railroads have a pile of money and one of them happens to be in the minister’s home riding.”
To cite just one example of how consultation has played out, Garneau held a Trade Corridors to Global Markets meeting in Toronto May 24 attended by 12 officials. No farmer or grain company representatives attended.
The grain sector knew there would be meetings, but it wasn’t widely known where or when. Both Hall and KAP president Dan Mazier were surprised to learn about the final meeting the day before it took place and taken aback they weren’t invited.
More recently Garneau held his last consultation meeting in Winnipeg July 21 and the formal consultation process wraps up Sept. 16.
Submission can be made before then via email ([email protected]), online through Transport Canada’s feedback forum or on Twitter and Facebook.
Farmers and grain companies have claimed for years the railways are essentially regional monopolies. Grain shippers say due to a lack of competition, railways don’t invest in surge capacity, often resulting in poor service. The poster child for that dynamic is the 2013-14 crop year, when a record crop backed up on farms. University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Richard Gray estimates it cost farmers as much as $6.5 billion in lost economic opportunities. Others point out the situation was a black eye for Canada’s international reputation as a reliable supplier of high-quality grain exports.
KAP, APAS and other grain industry officials, including the Western Grain Elevators Association (WGEA), met with Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay in Winnipeg July 18. APAS met with MacAulay and senior Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale in Regina Aug. 18.
KAP, APAS and WGEA stressed the maximum revenue entitlement (MRE), which protects grain farmers from excessive rail freight rates, must remain. KAP and APAS said railway grain-shipping costs, which are part of the MRE formula, needs updating. All three want grain-shipping data collection to continue, and funding runs out next year. And they all also want the railways subject to penalties when they fail to meet service agreements and the power for the Canadian Transportation Agency to step in when grain shipping goes awry, rather than waiting for a shipper to file a complaint.
KAP and APAS also want to deliver that message directly to Garneau, their respective presidents, Dan Mazier and Norm Hall, said in interviews last week.
“No disrespect to Ralph (Goodale) and MacAulay,” Hall said. “I am sure they will be great advocates for agriculture, but I think the (Transport) minister needs to hear from producers themselves.
“In his (Garneau) mandate letter he is told to work with ag and consult with producers.”
The theme for Garneau’s final meeting July 21 was “Trade Corridors to Global Markets.” Sixteen people from varying industries attended, including a CP Rail offical and four from the grain sector. Two were grain company officials — Curt Vossen, president and CEO of Richardson International (representing the WGEA) and G3 CEO Karl Gerrand. The other two were Greg Cherewyk, COO of Pulse Canada, which represents the pulse exporters, processors and farmers and Art Enns, president of the Prairie Oat Growers Association.
“It was those specific commodities, it wasn’t agricultural producers’ views (represented), and that is why we are so strongly advocating to get in front of the minister to tell him ‘here is how this is going to impact farmers… here are the things that we need changed,’” Mazier said.
A Transport Canada official didn’t answer when asked in an email if Garneau will meet with KAP and APAS, and if not, why not?
KAP and APAS haven’t given up. Transport Canada officials will meet with officials from Canadian Federation of Agriculture, KAP and APAS in Winnipeg Sept. 6, Mazier said. It looks as if officials want to ensure KAP and APAS warrant a meeting with Garneau, Hall said.
Harper government appointee David Emerson consulted with Canadians for almost a year on how the transportation act should be amended. The “Emerson Report” was released by the Trudeau government in February. One recommendation is to modernize and then phase out the MRE — something most farm groups and the WGEA oppose.
Transport Canada officials will summarize the consultations and Garneau will share it with his provincial and territorial counterparts this fall when they discuss Canada’s transportation system.
According to one industry official the department will prepare a report on amendments to the act for cabinet in December. Presumably the government will respond to the Emerson report in the new year and announce legislation.
At committee stage Canadians will get another crack at influencing the process. However, since the act is so broad, agriculture’s access again could be limited.
The stakes are high for farmers, grain companies and the railways. Other than the MRE, it’s likely any regulations to force market discipline on the railways will be available to all rail users, not just grain shippers.
After Sept. 16, Canadians can still express their views on transportation reforms to Garneau or Transport Canada in writing or at meetings, a department official said.