‘Make them feel the suffering’

Brian Bergman November 29 1999

‘Make them feel the suffering’

Brian Bergman November 29 1999

‘Make them feel the suffering’


Brian Bergman

Day after day, the torrential spring rain bore down on Ed Arndts grain and cattle farm in southwestern Manitoba. By the time it finally abated, most of Arndt’s land sat flooded and useless. Normally Arndt seeds 1,500 acres; this year he managed one-tenth of that. And what little wheat and oats he harvested this fall were diseased, hardened and unmarketable. But even if the 40-year-old farmer had enjoyed a bumper crop, it wouldn’t have mattered. With grain prices at near-record lows, Arndt, like thousands of other Prairie farmers, is also awash in red ink. “In mortgages and operating loans, I owe between $300,000 and $400,000,” he says. “Every year, it gets tougher and tougher to make the payments. After a while, these creditors don’t want to talk to you anymore.” Western grain growers had been hop-

ing for some relief when Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and his Saskatchewan counterpart, Roy Romanow, trooped to Ottawa last month to demand $1.3 billion in emergency farm aid for their provinces above and beyond the twoyear, $900-million infusion of cash the federal government had earmarked for all Canadian farmers in December, 1998. But during a meeting with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief, the premiers were told that new federal numbers—hotly disputed by the provinces—showed the farm income crisis was not as severe as once feared. Ottawa followed up by offering a relatively modest $170 million in new aid for Canadian farmers. Asked later to explain his actions, Vanclief inflamed matters when he stated that the federal government was practising “tough love” by weeding out farmers who would not

survive no matter how much financial assistance they received.

A political maelstrom has been swirling on the Prairies ever since. “I’d challenge Vanclief to come here and do what I do for a month,” says Michel Cayer, who farms near Willow Bunch, Sask. “If he had to walk in my shoes, he’d put a gun to his head.” To make ends meet, Cayer spends his off-farm hours hauling other people’s hay and grain— and even at that, he finds himself besieged with registered letters from anxious creditors. “I haven’t had a day off since May,” he says. “I leave home at 5:30 in the morning and I don’t get home until 8 at night. I really don’t know how much longer I can keep going like this.”

Cayer says the talk among his neighbours is turning ugly. “Most of them are getting radical,” he notes. “They want to start dumping manure in the streets just to get some attention.” Arndt re-

ports similar conversations in his corner of rural Manitoba. “People think it’s time to take off the kid gloves,” he says. “There’s talk of trying to shut down the food supply to the East and make them feel a bit of the suffering.” Both men say that Ottawa’s response to the farmers’ plight is reviving a lot of loose talk of western separatism. “When you get mad, that’s what you think: to hell with them all, we’ll separate,” says Cayer. “The Liberals get their votes in Ontario and points eastward, and don’t give a damn about the West.”

The anger is not confined to the fields. In the region’s newsrooms, anti-Ottawa, anti-Liberal sentiment is spilling into ink in a way that hasn’t been seen since the bad old days of the National Energy Program. Typical was a recent editorial in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, which argued that the Chrétien government would never treat Ontario and Quebec

Anger towards Ottawa is boiling over among beleaguered western farmers. Some are even talking about shutting down the food supply.

dairy and poultry farmers as cavalierly as it has western grain growers. “If Ottawa wants to bail out on family farmers and let the West blow in the global trade winds, it should clearly say so,” the paper declared. “At least then, the West can decide what it must do to further its economic interests and whether the current political system and Confederation itself meet its needs.”

Behind the outrage is a growing sense that Prairie grain farmers have been left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile marketplace. Critics point out that the generous government subsidies American and European farmers enjoy—up to five times higher than what their Canadian counterparts receive—is one of the factors helping to depress international grain prices. Yet at the same time, Ottawa has slashed historic sup-

port programs like the Crow benefit, which, until 1995, had reduced the cost to farmers of moving their grain to port for export by as much as $600 million annually.

Vanclief argues that Canada simply cannot afford to engage in a subsidy war with the Americans and Europeans. Instead, the focus is on convincing other countries to lower their agricultural subsidies—the message Canadian negotiators will be taking to the new round of World Trade Organization talks opening in Seatde next week (page 34). Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Dwain Lingenfelter counters that those negotiations, while laudatory, will also be long and laborious—and carry no guarantee of success. In the meantime, he says, many Prairie grain producers risk losing their livelihood. “Asking our farmers to compete on their own against the national treasuries of Europe and the United States isn’t tough love,”

Lingenfelter told Macleans last week. “It’s economic madness.”

Ottawa’s $900-million Agriculture Income Disaster Assistance program—augmented by about $600 million from provincial governments—was intended as a one-time measure to deal with a precipitous drop in commodity prices. But the AIDA initiative has been mired in controversy. The original funding criteria stated that farmers only qualified if their 1998 income was less than 70 per cent of their average income over the previous three years. That ruled out many grain farmers who had already suffered steep income losses in the years leading up to 1998 due to drought, floods or other severe weather conditions. Changes to the program unveiled by Vanclief earlier this month relaxed the criteria, though many farmers say they

will still be hard-pressed to qualify.

In fact, farmers regularly swap horror stories about filling out multi-page AIDA application forms and then never hearing back on whether they have been accepted—or, in some cases, receiving claim cheques for as little as $18, which would have cost many times that to administer. To date, only about one-third of the AIDA money has been dispensed. In a speech last week at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool’s annual meeting, Vanclief admitted that AIDA had been an “administrative nightmare.” He promised to get payments to farmers by Christmas—but once again held out little hope for any new money.

In resisting a bigger bailout package, Ottawa continues to cite recently compiled Agriculture Canada statistics that suggest the farmincome crisis is on the wane. The preliminary numbers state that net farm income in Saskatchewan will be $362 million this year—instead of the negative $48 million Ottawa had projected as recently as July. In Manitoba, the net income forecast jumped to $197 million from $64 million. Many farmers and provincial politicians are skeptical about the new figures. But even if the statistics are correct, net farm income in the two provinces this year will be roughly half of what it was just two years ago. “We’ve got to stop playing the numbers game,” says Sharon Nicholson, a farmer from Big Beaver, Sask., and founding member of a farm lobby known as the Pro-West Rally Group. “While that goes on, people are really hurting.”

Manitoba’s Arndt counts himself among the afflicted. After more than 20 years tending the land he inherited from his grandfather, Arndt laments that it is unlikely any of his five children will carry on the family business. “I’ve been working away at this, thinking there would be something for future generations,” he says. “Now, you sit back and wonder if you’ve wasted your life.” And that may be the most bitter harvest of all. E3