Comment: Will Canada’s grain farmers be collateral damage?

The rush to pass Bill C-4 saw a number of under-the-radar changes shoehorned into the legislation

Canada is confronting an unprecedented crisis as we deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 12 Prime Minister Trudeau and at least two other MPs had to self-isolate after being exposed to the virus. The following day, Parliament decided not to carry on business as usual, and moved to recess until April 20.

At the same time, both the House of Commons and the Senate deemed Bill C-4 — the legislation to implement the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade agreement (CUSMA) — passed at third reading before debate in the Senate had even begun.

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Included in Bill C-4 was a series of omnibus-style amendments to the Canada Grain Act (CGA) that affect the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) which were not negotiated in CUSMA and have nothing to do with implementing the trade deal. Because all attention was focused on the CUSMA deal itself, these amendments tucked into Bill C-4 evaded proper scrutiny by the House of Commons.

Canada’s CUSMA negotiators agreed to treat wheat grown in the U.S. the same as Canadian wheat and not identify its country of origin on inspection documents. However, Bill C-4 makes it so Canada must treat all American-grown grain — not just wheat — as if it were Canadian grown. It also enables regulations that would allow inspectors to assign Canadian grades to grain grown outside of Canada or U.S., and it both weakens the CGC’s authority in areas that affect grain transportation and quality control, and increases elevator company power over farmers.

The National Farmers Union informed a number of senators of our concerns, and on March 11 during the Senate International Trade Committee’s pre-study of Bill C-4, Senator Massicotte asked the chief agriculture negotiator and director general from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, whether the NFU’s understanding of the bill was correct. The reply was that we were correct in our analysis of the changes being unnecessary, including the change from U.S. wheat, agreed to in CUSMA, to U.S. grain.

By allowing U.S.-grown grain of all types (barley, corn, soy, oats, etc.) into our grain-handling and export system, we can also expect impacts on our grain transportation system. One can imagine that American shippers would take advantage of Canada’s rail system instead of using more expensive U.S. transport, making capacity issues and bottlenecks worse. Railways would no doubt suggest “solving” the problem by ending the revenue cap and allowing them to raise freight rates to whatever the market could bear.

When Bill C-4 received royal assent on March 12, it ended the possibility of amending Bill C-4 to remove the unnecessary clauses affecting the CGA. All of this was done after the government had given notice of consultations on the CGA, to begin in March (now delayed). It is hard to see Bill C-4’s unnecessary amendments as anything other than an end run designed to avoid public debate.

Now, farmers need to work together. It is imperative to get these harmful parts of the bill removed before the CUSMA goes into effect on June 11. Allowing Bill C-4’s amendments to the Canada Grain Act to stand would be an affront to the decades of work done by farmers and our public institutions and agencies to establish premium markets and customer loyalty based on the quality of Canadian grain.

Cam Goff operates a grain farm with his brothers near Hanley, Saskatchewan and is a member of the National Farmers Union.

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