By Ian Cumming
MONTREAL — A busload of Eastern Ontario dairy producers joined about 1,400 Quebec farmers marching down Rene Levesque Avenue in downtown Montreal, chanting slogans and waving signs, just before noon on Sept. 24.
Their destination was the CBC/Radio-Canada building, where the federal leaders’ debate was to be held that evening. No politicians addressed the crowd but several Quebec farm leaders did, including the head of the province’s farm lobby Union des Producteurs d’Agricoles, Marcel Groleau.
The demonstrators were protesting the inaction or the inability of the federal government to keep dairy imports out of Canada. Dairy imports were over $1 billion in 2014. Imported milk protein substances are increasing so much that this year’s imports surpassed last year’s by the end of August this year, Eastern Ontario dairy producer Marc Raynaud told producers on the trip down.
Raynaud’s detailed research has shown that about 20 per cent of the Canadian dairy market is being taken over by imports. “They are hurting us every day and its the reason our milk price is down by nine cents a litre,” he said.
“DFO board members say imports are not hurting us,” said Raynaud to mocking laughter from the largely francophone group on the bus. No other Dairy Farmers of Ontario board members were on the bus and Raynaud said they told him he was crazy for joining the protest in Montreal.
Said Raynaud: “Everybody needs to phone your board member. We need to push them.”
In the few days leading up to the demonstration Raynaud said that he and other organizers faced intense pressure from the DFO board members and the president of the Glengarry Milk Committee not to take part in the event, he said.
In the two days prior at the International Plowing Match at Finch, all Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry dairy producers that this reporter talked to were not informed of the Montreal protest by their milk committees.
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rules mean that new dairy products cannot be hit with a tariff and that includes the newly-invented liquid milk protein isolates at 85 per cent protein.
A lesser issue, but also important, is that the CETA agreement with Europe called for dropping tariffs on imported milk protein concentrates. The CETA agreement also allows in more European cheese. The federal government is hampered by these international trade treaties and cannot stop the U.S imports without U.S. companies seeking compensation under the NAFTA rules, Raynaud argued.
However the Canadian dairy industry has known about this, “and has been talking about developing an ingredient strategy for 10 years to keep out imports, but have done nothing,” said Raynaud. “It’s time. Every day we are losing money.”
Nova Scotia’s Ralph Ballam, a dairy producer and guest director on Agropur, joined the demonstration along with the co-operative’s president and other Agropur directors. Ballam was president and CEO of Farmers Co-operative Dairy in Halifax for seven years before the co-operative joined Agropur in 2013. Ballam now is in charge of the Nova Scotia Agropur division.
Agropur, owned by Quebec and Maritime licensed producers, as well as three Ontario dairy producers, all receive about a month’s milk cheque in a dividend payment every year. They even have their own American-based ingredient plant and are major importers of these ingredients, made with American milk. So, if you can’t beat them, join them.
Officials at the St. Albans Dairy Cooperative in Vermont also note how they sell Agropur truckloads of milk that has a bit of sugar thrown in to cross the border as food grade and, therefore, not be subject to dairy tariffs.
The importation issue “is dirty grey, not black and white,” said Ballam. “You have to be price competitive. If you don’t provide cheaper cheese, they will get it elsewhere.”
The federal government has set out the importation rules that they legally follow, and, if changed, Agropur will follow them as well, said Ballam. “We’re here to support the farmers.”
Quebec dairy farmer Real Briere, who has watched his milk cheque drop, joined 11 other Quebec producers who arrived uninvited at an Ottawa Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) monthly meeting in mid-September to protest the imports.
They were invited in to voice their concerns and present a letter, said Briere. On a provincial basis Manitoba producers are facing a potential 15 per cent quota cut, due to the increased volume of imports, Briere said.
Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) chairman Wally Smith said that DFC’s pleas to the government were falling on deaf ears, Briere added. “Wally Smith told us the problem has to be solved before the election date or it will be too late. Smith told us to use orthodox or unorthodox methods.”
Getting out 1,500 dairy producers from across Quebec on a week’s notice was gratifying to see, Briere said.