Saskatchewan, Canada, December 15, 2003: Let's face
it. 2003 was a lousy year for farmers in Canada, especially
western Canada. Many farmers faced a crippling drought. Grain
prices took their customary nosedive after last year's brief
upward fling. And of course, the crowning glory had to be
the case of BSE found in an Alberta cow. It dealt a terrible
blow to the entire ag industry and is far from over yet.
As such a dismal year winds down, it might be hard to understand
the sounds of celebration that reverberated throughout farm
communities this past week. But the cries of joy are genuine
enough, and celebrate the end, hopefully, of an era –
the Vanclief era. I say "hopefully" because, while
the man is clearly gone, it remains to be seen if the era
To dwell on the dislike felt by the farm community for the
former Agriculture Minister, Lyle Vanclief, would be uncharitable
in this festive Season, but forgivable considering the depth
of these feelings. Suffice it to say, the best thing about
the retirement of Jean Chretien from his office as Prime Minister
is that he took some of his cronies with him.
Paul Martin, the new leader of the Liberal party, and hence
the new Prime Minister, comes into office carrying on his
back a raft of hopes placed there by farmers. Martin has promised
that western Canada will be brought back into the fold and
farmers have taken this to mean that the new government will
hear them. It would be a welcome change after the attitude
of Vanclief's department, which was that farmers were to be
told, not listened to.
Bob Speller, the newly appointed Ag Minister, is extremely
lucky in one regard. He will have some awfully small shoes
to fill. If Speller can even pretend to be interested in the
views of western farmers and their farm organizations he will
be a cut above the former Minister.
Farm groups expect Speller will be able to do much more than
that. Farm leaders I spoke to are optimistic about the appointment.
Speller has already gained a reputation as a listener, and
seems well liked. If he is listening, one of his first actions
will be to get rid of his Deputy Minister, Samy Watson. Watson
is widely viewed as the architect of the current attitude
toward farmers and of the Agriculture Policy Framework. The
APF has been shoved down the throats of resisting farmers
and provincial governments. As long as Watson is leading the
civil service in the Ag Department, farmers will view it with
suspicion and apprehension.
The changes wrought by the Martin government do not end with
Agriculture Minister. Also falling was David Collenette, the
long serving Transport Minister. While Collenette was not
viewed with the animosity that fell on Vanclief, farmers have
grown weary of the lack of attention to their transportation
Chief among these has been the failure of the federal government
to deal with the lack of competition between Canada's two
national railways. Though changes to the Canada Transportation
Act that would enhance competition have long been recommended
by government committees and long sought by farm groups and
shipper organizations, Transport Canada has sat stony faced.
Recent proposals to amend the Act were seen as ineffective
at best and more likely to be detrimental to the interests
The stated purpose of the Canada Transportation Act is to
allow competition, wherever possible, to determine the conditions
of price and service for transportation. There are many indications
that competition is not functioning very well, not the least
being the failure by CP this fall to meet the needs of grain
shippers. The new Transport Minister, Tony Valeri, will be
urged by farm groups to re-examine the state of competition
in the rail industry. Many groups support a policy of reverse-onus
open access. The changing of the guard is an opportunity for
them to renew this call.
Paul Martin has made the right noises where it comes to western
Canada. His appointment of two westerners to the two most
senior cabinet positions supports his stated goal of making
the west feel like part of the federation. Much more needs
to be done, however, and the next months will begin to show
us the true face of his government.
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.