Sharing Gaming Revenues

I see former Ontario Premier David Peterson has got himself a nice gig. The current Liberal government has just appointed him to spearhead negotiations with First Nations for a new agreement on sharing gaming revenues. First Nations already receive gaming proceeds from Casino Rama in Orillia, and have begun preliminary talks with the province about getting revenues from other sites. 

“I believe that, as a former premier, a lawyer with extensive experience in corporate and commercial law, and a track record of leading complex government discussions, he brings to the table the right skills to get the job done,” Finance Minister Greg Sorbara said about Peterson in a recent Canadian Press story. The former Liberal premier will be paid $1,000 for his efforts. That’s a nice chunk of change, which could add up considerably. First Nations have learned the hard way to be tough negotiators. The McGuinty government could well be out of office in two or three years before a deal is worked out.

Meanwhile, thousands of Ontario farmers in dire financial straits are planning to converge on Queen’s Park on March 2 in hopes of waking up the government to their plight, including a need for emergency money just to get their seed in the ground this year.

Canadians know cattle and sheep farmers are hurting big time because the U.S. border has been closed to exports of Canadian beef since the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Alberta in May, 2003. But a lot of other farmers are also in bad shape. Far from making $1,000 per day, they’re lucky to make anything to justify getting up in the morning for a day’s work on the farm, let alone stay in farming. Many farm husbands and wives have off-farm jobs to feed, clothe and otherwise care for their families, and keep the farm going.

“Much of Ontario’s picturesque countryside may take on a new appearance this year,” Paul Mistele, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the province’s largest general farm organization, said earlier this month in an OFA commentary about the current farm income “crisis.”

Mistele said “the usually orderly-looking fields with rows of corn and other crops may become barren or weed-infested because farmers have no money to plant crops and no desire to keep losing money when they do plant crops. Grains and soybean producers have been devastated by prices well below their cost of production – prices below the 25-year lows for those commodities. Current government safety net programs were not developed to protect against such situations … We need our government to invest an estimated $300 million so farmers can plant a crop this spring.”

Farmers have been under financial stress for so long many have “used up all their equity and have little left to plant the 2005 crop,” he added.

OFA president Ron Bonnett underlined the urgency of the farm income problem. “We’re not just talking survival of farmers and their families. The survival of Ontario’s rural communities is in jeopardy because agriculture is what gives life and breath to the business and institutions that make up rural Ontario,” he said in another recent commentary published on the OFA Website.

Bonnett noted an Ontario farmer gets less for a tonne of his corn than Toronto spends to ship a tonne of garbage out of the city. “Knowing your product is worth less than garbage can be demoralizing.

“We know the provincial government is proud of its many investments, most recently providing 400 million dollars for a gambling facility with the hope of maintaining 4,300 jobs,“ he said, referring to the planned facelift for Casino Windsor with just a hint of sarcasm. “Ontario’s agri-food industry provides jobs for about 650,000 people, so we believe the province can justify a wise investment in agriculture.”

Bonnett’s point is well taken. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s faltering government needs to get its priorities straight and take the problems of rural/small town Ontario seriously if it hopes to be re-elected to a second term. Meanwhile, Conservative premier-in-waiting John Tory has been busily staking out the rural constituency since he became party leader last year. And now as he runs for election as an MPP in the Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey riding he’s saying all the right things about “standing out for the rural way of life.” How or if that ever translates into action remains to be seen. But lately the Premier and his Agriculture Minister Steve Peters seem to have been giving farmers the cold shoulder.

The One Voice March, as the Queen’s Park farmers’ protest is called, is a direct result of the government’s failure to respond to a letter they sent the Premier and the Minister On Feb. 3. “Farm business is in serious trouble . . . Farm incomes have been devastated by the BSE (mad cow) crisis, poor crop conditions, a strengthening (Cdn) dollar, U.S. trade action on hogs, grain and oilseed prices at 25 year lows, rising costs for energy and other inputs and a crushing regulatory and legislative burden.

“Ontario’s Agricultural leaders demand a meeting with you to deal head on with the immediate issues and to agree on solutions to sustain the industry in the short term. Premier and Minister, this crisis cannot be ignored and must be addressed within days,” Bonnett said in the letter, sent “on behalf of Ontario farmers and farm organizations.”

The OFA is in charge of organizing the protest. Buses are being arranged to take farmers to Toronto from all over rural Ontario, including locations in Grey-Bruce.

Despite it’s hopeful “One Voice” title, Ontario farmers are not united in the protest. Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) president John Clement confirmed his organization is not actively supporting it. In an interview he explained that’s in keeping with the “historical position” of the membership, which opposes acts of civil disobedience, based on strict adherence to biblical scriptures, like Romans, Chapter 13.

The CFFO’s absence from the One Voice March protest might not have been missed 10 years ago when it had just 640 members. But it’s growth since then has been remarkable. The CFFO now has 4,250 members.

Irregardless of the number of farmers who actually show up in Toronto on March 2, the effectiveness of such tactics as blocking major highways with tractors or even marching on Queen’s Park waving placards and shouting slogans is questionable.

They grab a certain amount of public and political attention for a while, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. Local beef farmers didn’t do themselves or their industry any favours when they forced the cancellation of a k.d. lang concert in Owen Sound a few years back under threat of protest because of the singer’s animal activist stance. Blocking the 401 highway gets you on the evening news but doesn’t make you any friends in the non-farm community. A few thousand farmers making some noise in downtown Toronto will no doubt attract some attention inside and outside the Queen’s Park traffic circle. But it will barely make a ripple in a city of 3 million people. And after the buses are gone and the sun rises the next day over the city hardly anyone will give it a second thought.

There has to be a better way of getting the message across. But so far the farm community hasn’t found it; otherwise, farmers wouldn’t be still be trying to push that same old rock up that same old mountain.

There was a time when Canada was a largely agricultural country and most Canadians had a family connection to the farm. They knew where their food came from, and they knew how hard farmers worked to produce it, and how little they got paid. Those days are gone, except farmers are still underpaid, if they’re paid at all. Somewhere along the line the bond that joined urban and rural Canada was broken. And that’s maybe where most of the current problems farmers are facing began.

The sky may really be falling this time over the Ontario family farm. It’s maybe been falling for the past 25 years, just taking a little longer than most people who care thought it might – farmers are, after all, a tough breed; and hope does spring eternal in farm country. But there’s only so much people can take. I know some farmers who are just about ready to give up. Enough is enough already. What’s the sense of breaking your back for nothing? One old friend, a former beef farmer, finally decided to retire after making next to nothing on his last batch of grass cattle. Now he’s trying to live on the old age pension and low-income supplement. He thinks he can manage. He lives a frugal life, always has, unlike most other people nowadays, he told me.

His income is now just over $1,000 per month. Come to think of it, that’s about what David Peterson is going to get per day from the Ontario government, on top of whatever resources he has. I understand they’re not meagre. I trust the former Premier will be able to make ends meet, at least until the next election.

Originally published in The Sun Times in February 2005.

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