No regrets: Gerry Ritz reflects on his time as agriculture minister

Not everyone agrees with them, but Ritz made more changes 
than any minister in recent history

It’s Oct. 20 — the day after the night before — and you’d never know Gerry Ritz’s Conservative Party had lost the election or that he’ll no longer be agriculture minister in a few weeks.

Canada’s 33rd minister of agriculture is his usual chipper, upbeat self, talking a mile a minute and cracking jokes, some at his own expense.

“I think the biggest highlight for me was seeing (most) rural Canada painted blue,” Ritz says in a telephone interview. “So I feel very good about that. That speaks to the quality of the work we have done with the industry from coast to coast to coast.

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Ritz, the member of Parliament for Battlefords-Lloydminster first elected in 1997 as a Reform Party candidate, was re-elected for the sixth time in a landslide with more than 20,000 votes — 61 per cent of the ballots cast.

“I think the biggest thing I am proud of (since becoming agriculture minister, Aug. 4, 2007) is expanding agriculture’s footprint at the government level — both provincial and federal,” Ritz says.

Ritz, 64, a former farmer, contractor and co-owner of a newspaper, kept a gruelling pace, with legislation — some of it controversial — and travelling the world more often than his predecessors promoting Canadian agricultural production. Ritz averaged just three nights at home a month during his last term. His wife didn’t want him to run again, but Ritz says he had unfinished business, including the fight to get the United States to abandon its protectionist country-of-origin labelling (COOL) law and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

“Until you’ve done it you have no concept of the 24-7 on call that you are,” Ritz says. “We went global. We have expanded trade. It’s up some 77 per cent from when I took over a little over eight years ago. We’re tickling $60 billion in ag exports — the third-largest driver of GDP. It’s just a tremendous success story with more to be done.”

Major changes

Arguably no other minister of agriculture has made as many changes. The biggest and most contentious was killing the Canadian Wheat Board’s marketing monopoly over the sale of western Canadian wheat and barley destined for export or domestic human consumption (see sidebar).

Some other changes Ritz and/or his government made include:

  • Amending the Canada Grain Act and the role of the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC). Legislation to make more changes to the CGC, including adding feed mills to its producer payment security plan, died when Parliament was prorogued for the election.
  • Legislation aimed at improving railway grain-shipping services for farmers.
  • Ordering the railways to move a minimum specified volume of grain weekly or face fines to deal with a massive backlog in grain shipments to export in 2013-14.
  • A review of the Canada Transportation Act, including regulations around how grain is shipped by rail. Recommendations will be presented to the government in December.
  • Changes to AgriStability, making it harder for payouts to be triggered.
  • Divesting the federal government of its public pastures and Indian Head Tree Nursery.
  • Ratifying UPOV ‘91, enhancing plant breeders’ rights.
  • Ending kernel visual distinguishability as a requirement to commercialize new wheats in Western Canada.
  • Ordering variety recommending committees to streamline their operating procedures.

Ritz says in opposition he’ll do what the party asks, but his life will be a bit less hectic.

“I won’t miss the BlackBerry going off at one or two in the morning when (international trade minister) Ed Fast is at a meeting and needs an answer on something,” Ritz says.

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photo: File

There should be more time for his grandchildren too. He recently missed his granddaughter’s sixth birthday while quarterbacking the TPP deal from Ottawa.

“I’m not sure my wife (of 40 years) can handle me 24-7,” Ritz quips. “We’ve got to get reintroduced to each other.”

Unlike many of his cabinet colleagues, Ritz was readily available to reporters.

“He (Harper) gave me as much leeway as I needed,” Ritz says. “In some cases it was rope and he’d yank on it.

“He often said to me, ‘whatever you’re doing keep doing it because I’m not getting calls from farmers.’”

Too-quick quips

Ritz’s ‘shoot-from-the-lip’ style and his humour were different from most of his cabinet colleagues. They sometimes landed him in hot water, including when in September 2008 during a staff teleconference on the listeriosis outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods that killed 17 people Ritz was reported to have said: “This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts.” When told of a death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said. “Please tell me it’s (Liberal MP) Wayne Easter.”

Ritz later apologized.

Not everyone understands his humour, Ritz admits.

“I remember in 2008 getting pilloried for something I said that had absolutely nothing to do with listeria and everything to do with chastising CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency).”

Politics is hard work and being a cabinet minister harder yet so you can’t let it drive you, Ritz says.

“I’m not ashamed of anything I have done or how I’ve done it. I certainly will look anybody in the eye and say ‘the greater good prevailed’ and that’s what democracy is all about — having your say but not having your way (necessarily) with the election we just went through.”

And he has some advice for Canada’s 34th agriculture minister: “Get a good pair of orthotics in your shoes. There’s all sorts of work to be done. You’re going to be running hard.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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