In its April 2012, budget, Harper announced a $250 million cut to Agriculture, which quickly filtered down to the rural constituencies that, for the most part, voted for Harper. The town of Indian Head woke up to find that the Prairie Shelterbelt Program, operating since 1901, was eliminated. This cut was made without any rural consultation, similar to the cutting of the Canadian Wheat Board, also done without any consultation or the farmer vote required by existing legislation.
The elimination of the shelterbelt program directly affects the income of 80 families, but thousands more will be affected across the prairies. According to the government’s own figures, in spring 2011 the shelterbelt program shipped nearly 3 million seedlings to 7,500 rural people to create an additional 1,200 km of field shelterbelts, 2,218 km of yard and 134 km of riparian shelterbelts. The 28 different deciduous and coniferous species went to 37 distribution points in Saskatchewan, 40 in Manitoba, 67 in Alberta and 2 in BC. These will protect nearly 16,000 hectares of fields, over 200 hectares of wildlife areas and nearly 700 farm yards.
This is in just one year of operation. Since its founding over a century ago the program has had an enormous impact on rural life, land conservation and biodiversity on the prairies. Since 1901 it has shipped over 600 million seedlings to nearly 700,000 persons. I am one of them. Our family planted caragana shelterbelts around a field we were taking out of chemical farming. The hardy shelterbelt now holds snow, reduces wind erosion and provides bird habitat in our field overlooking the Qu’Appelle Valley.
On May 16, 2012 several hundred people crowded into Indian Head’s Memorial Hall for an information session on the cuts. No one from the Harper government turned up to explain their actions. Agriculture Minister Ritz sent his regrets without explanation. MP Andrew Scheer sent his Assistant, Joan Baylis, to read a short letter saying he couldn’t attend because Parliament was in session.
This was a lame excuse; other MP’s regularly return to their ridings when parliament is sitting to discuss government decisions which have major ramifications for the area they represent. The elimination of the shelterbelt program has severe implications for people in the riding that Scheer represents, and also for the Prairie Provinces in general. In his short message Scheer simply said he’d “stay active on this file” as if that would excuse him from not showing up at this important public meeting.
Rather than sending Minister Ritz or MP Scheer the Harper government sent bureaucrats. Mr. Jamshed Merchant, ADM for Agriculture and Agri-Food and Mr. Henry de Gooijer, Manager of the Agro-forestry Development Centre, spoke briefly and then took prepared questions from a small panel. This included Scott Wright, Director, Agriculture’s Applied Technology Division; Bruce Neill, retired Centre Manager and Lorne Sccott, Reeve for RM 156.
I listened closely to their justifications and, put frankly, they went in circles, continually contradicting themselves. The ADM talked of how Harper was “transforming the way we do business”, was “reducing the footprint” of government, and was initiating “new priorities”. He made no specific mention of the shelterbelt program; it was all bureaucratic lingo. While admitting the program had helped pioneers and tackled soil erosion in the dirty thirties, Mr. Merchant claimed “the time is right for the federal government to step out” of the program.
Canadians should be able to expect public servants to deal more objectively with such decisions and to avoid the babble that is often used when politicians feel the heat. But the ADM didn’t even refer to the government’s own facts, available as you came into the meeting, about the continuing demand for the program. These facts contradicted most of what he said. If the shelterbelt program has met its objectives then why, in 2011, did the front-desk answer 5,400 inquiries and mail out 12,000 brochures?
There was no response when past Manager Bruce Neill noted the massive carbon sequestering resulting from the program. The government’s own figures suggest that by 2061, the 2011 seedlings alone will have sequestered 1.06 mega-tonnes of C02; that’s a lot of carbon. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the economic contribution that shelterbelts make. According to the government figures, the crop benefits for the 1,200 km from the 2011 seedlings is estimated at $1.9 million and the value placed on the conservation of topsoil over the next 30 years is $14.2 million.
We must put agriculture in its real, natural context and honestly cost the positive contributions that ecological preservation makes to food production. Water and soil conservation and biodiversity have real, measureable benefits for farmers. Just how do you justify cutting a $2.2 million program when the environmentally-induced benefits from just one year are eight times greater?
If anything, the shelterbelt program has growing value in the face of the challenges of climate change and the importance that bio-mass can play in sequestering carbon and producing renewable energy. But, fixated on oil exports, Harper can’t see the forest for the trees. Nor are his political underlings going to learn anything by boycotting public meetings such as the recent one at Indian Head.
This decision doesn’t just reflect bad economics; it reflects Harper’s ideological objective of removing government from vital public services. De-regulation and privatization go hand in hand with Harper. The preference of the Harper government is for a private for-profit firm to take over the shelterbelt program, gaining public assets at bargain-basement prices. If no viable business plan is forthcoming then the program will go. That Harper is only allowing a 5 month horizon for an alternative plan shows the low priority and lack of foresight given to this decision.
Those at the Indian Head program were never given the option of cost-cutting to help reduce the federal deficit. And there were other practical alternatives. Harper didn’t touch the $1.4 billion a year subsidy going to the oil and gas industry. Just a 10% cut in this, to match the 10% cuts demanded from departments, would have provided $140 million to enable Harper to preserve unquestionably beneficial programs such as this one. But Harper does not like facts and doesn’t listen to scientists. He’s now also announced eliminating Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area, one of the most important fresh water research locations in the world.
While Harper tries to justify every cut as being necessary to reduce the deficit, this is a smokescreen for his agenda. The public would have had a lot to say about this at the Indian Head meeting, but, for some unexplained reason, the organizers wouldn’t take any questions or comments from the floor. Regardless of the highly controlled format the public’s sentiments were forthcoming. There was loud applause three times: first, when local Reeve Lorne Scott laid out the economic and environmental benefits of the program and asked the ADM just how much was really going to be saved; second, when the retired Centre manager, Bruce Neill, asked why the Centre wasn’t given any option to contribute to cost-cutting; and third, when Lorne Scott asked why Minister Ritz and MP Andrew Scheer weren’t present to explain themselves.
If future meetings are publicized as “public”, the public must be free to participate. We can’t allow the contempt for parliamentary democracy being shown by Harper to filter down to erode grass-roots democracy. Canadians at large need to defend their right to fully participate in the political process and to hold politicians to account when they make such ill-conceived, ideologically-motivated decisions. Otherwise, Harper cuts doubly: he cuts valued programs and he cuts public criticism in one fell swoop. We can’t allow this to happen.