EDMONTON – The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says the federal government isn’t paying enough attention to concerns from farmers about a report that calls for major changes to grain rail transportation.
President Ron Bonnett says another bumper crop is on the way and farmers are worried about a repeat of a rail bottleneck in 2013-2014 that cost the economy billions of dollars.
The federation says it wants Transport Minister Marc Garneau to consider the input of farmers as he reviews the report that calls for overhauling the Canada Transportation Act.
Bonnett says he has been asking for a meeting with Garneau since April that would include farm leaders from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, but nothing is in the works.
“We are just getting ‘not available.’ Frustration would be the mild word,” Bonnett said in an interview.
“He met with some grain companies, but the reality is, it is the farmers who pay the freight on that grain.”
In an emailed statement, Garneau said his officials have met with “numerous stakeholders over the past nine months on this important topic.” He said he will personally meet with other groups Oct. 20 in Saskatoon.
“We want to take the best possible approach to moving grain, and other commodities effectively,” the statement read.
Bonnett said farmers are worried about a recommendation in the report to eliminate a policy within seven years that limits the amount of money that can be earned by Canadian National (TSX:CNR) and Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) for shipping western grain.
The federation wants the Liberal government to keep the program and update it, including the way that freight rates are calculated. The current rates were set almost 25 years ago.
Bonnett said western farmers who ship up to 40 million tonnes of grain a year rely on what is essentially a rail monopoly and last year paid $1.4 billion in freight charges to export their crops.
The federation would like Garneau to review the system to ensure that railways are not abusing their position — a promise the Liberals made during the 2015 election campaign.
Bonnett said he has met with Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, but decisions on the Transportation Act rest with Garneau.
Norm Hall, president of the Agriculture Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said his organization wrote Garneau’s office last winter asking for a meeting.
“It took until July to get a reply just saying, ‘Yes, we received your letter. Sorry we are too busy,'” Hall said.
“Our membership is concerned. What I’ve heard from them is, ‘Here we go again. Another review and they are not listening to agriculture.’ We know that he has met with the railroads a number of times. Are they going to get their way again?”
Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said the railways have the ear of Transport Canada. Farm groups want to meet with Garneau to ensure their concerns aren’t being filtered by officials.
“We want to have a face-to-face so we can clarify our position quite strongly,” he said.
“It is troubling. We thought we would have better access with this government and to the minister. It isn’t turning out that way at all.”
Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers in Manitoba, also said a direct meeting with Garneau is a must.