Ottawa Farm Rally Tests Chuck Strahl’s Mettle

It’s been a very busy week, full of highs and lows. Last Tuesday when I finished my speech in front of the Sir John Carling building in Ottawa that was clearly a high. 2000 farmers in front of me churned in a cold wintry wave, which I will never forget. When the end came, the roar for a new agricultural safety net sent shivers through my spine.

So when the new Conservative agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl followed me onto the stage, the venom had reached a fever pitch. Strahl, two weeks into his job as agriculture minister was aggressively heckled as he tried to reach out to the crowd. However, Ontario farmers tired from rally after rally gave it right back. Conservative agriculture ministers talking like their Liberal counterparts of the past gave no solace to the farmers. Our house is on fire. Strahl looked like a deer in the headlights. 2000 farmers clearly had “Agriculture Ottawa” walking on eggshells that day.

That didn’t come from me. I was told that by the police who were keeping everyone safe. Farmers present reacted with surprise. We told the police these guys are the salt of the earth, representing farm businesses from Eastern Ontario and beyond. They had nothing to worry about. However, it is what it is. With 2000 farmers gathered in front of Sir John Carling it was a seminal moment in Canadian agricultural history.

I almost didn’t get there. I had turned down some of the organizers after the Guelph rally because I had a previous speaking engagement at the University of Windsor the night before the rally. However, North Gower farmer Dwight Foster was very convincing, so I gave him my word I would be there Tuesday morning. The question is, how would I get from Windsor to Ottawa in less than 12 hours plus catch some sleep?

As the plane landed in Ottawa, it was a very different world. Snow was everywhere, while back in Southwestern Ontario the snow was all gone. When I got to the rally my cell phone started lighting up like a Christmas tree. The CBC and my own radio station were asking for feedback. I did the best I could. At the end of the day, I was hoping I’d had nothing left.

After Chuck Strahl had finished he took in several of the farm rally organizers into a private meeting. It was there where he admitted the grains and oilseeds sector has a $4 billion shortfall. He also said he would continue to work through the WTO. This was after I had publicly said that was a dead end. He also said he would go forward and try to make something happen. He needed time. Clearly he’d been moved. However, at the end of the day nothing had changed.

It’s a hard call to give a hard opinion. He did make some mistakes in front of the microphone. He said “come on guys, I’ve only been in the job two weeks”. Another mistake he made was telling guys “to keep it up.” Farmers roared back that they didn’t have time for that, with many clearly exhausted from rallying first against the Liberals and now the Conservatives.

How much energy does anybody have left? I’ll let you answer that question. In my own case, I’ll answer any call my readers and listeners give me. I’ll stand up for farmers any time they need me. I’ll shout from my radio and print pulpit. The cause is just. Growing food in this country needs to be valued.

For my readers in the western provinces, don’t get too unhinged from anything you might hear from some rogue University of Saskatchewan agricultural economics professor. Our Canadian food system is all about choices just like Japan’s, the US and Europe’s. The problem is our government hasn’t made that commitment like the other G8 countries have.

On a cold December morning in 2005 I traveled to a farm near Chatham Ontario to witness a campaign stop by then opposition leader Stephen Harper. While the snow blew, he said he was going to “scrap CAIS” and bring in a new agricultural safety net based on some type of production revenue insurance. Two months later his agriculture minister Chuck Strahl follows me on stage in Ottawa and conveniently ignores that.

Many of you have called, emailed and stopped me this week, asking what happens now? I don’t know. However, when 2000 farmers swayed in front of me last Tuesday in the cold snow, I could feel their energy. There is something in their soul this winter of 2006 that tells me it’s going to be different this time. With March and April in the wind, it better come soon.

Philip Shaw Farms Inc.
President: Philip Shaw Farms Inc.
RR#2 Dresden, Ontario, Canada
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