Statement made on 24 April 2012 by Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette
Hon. Céline Hervieux-Payette:
Honourable senators, after a very short season this year, it is almost maple syrup production time; but before this becomes a touchy subject for my colleague, the champion skier, I decided to start my speech by telling you about my personal experience in this regard.
My grandfather had a sugar shack on his land. When we were young, we made the rounds of the sugar bush with a magnificent Percheron. We did not have many modern conveniences. We went to an old cabin with a leaky roof and we boiled the sap 24 hours a day. The men did the rounds while the women worked in the kitchen. I remember well that a flask was passed around every time to help people get through the harvest.
It was much less complicated than what is being proposed today, namely, a project to standardize grades of maple syrup, which was developed and proposed by the International Maple Syrup Institute. Everything seems to be in order. The motion is quite well developed, and I do not intend to comment on it in any detail.
However, what I did notice is that we have two types of producers in Quebec. We have craft producers, such as my grandfather, my uncles and my cousin, who is still producing maple syrup: these are small operations. They are a little more sophisticated today, since they have a pipeline system, whereas, in the good old days, we went around the sugar bush with the horse and emptied each bucket into a giant barrel and then brought the sap back so that it could be boiled.
We are talking about large sums, thousands of jobs, real, commercial operations. To read the file that the Fédération des producteurs acéricole du Québec gave me, I realize this is the direction they are being asked to take, but that there has not been a general consultation, certainly not among the small producers. We are talking about rather elaborate concepts such as appellation control, for which, as with wine, all sorts of standards apply. The documents also talk about the colour, the level of sweetness, and so on. The fact remains that if tomorrow the small craft producers were faced with all these approved international standards, I would like them to be happy or exempt.
In the present case, the only person equipped to exempt them is the Minister of Agriculture whose departmental budget has just been cut by $300 million under the recent federal budget.
I guess that is the cause for the delay, because it seems to me that if the funds were available, the Senate would not be asked to deal with this type of issue. I have no problem with there being a study. I think it is important.
When it comes to small and large producers, there may also be a conflict of interest because we must realize that the large producers want to export. In future, standards might be imposed on the small producers that will affect their commercial operations and even make them unable to see the process through.
Even though this motion is motivated by good intentions, I think it is unnecessary. We could simply tell the minister, who has received the briefs and is aware of the issue, that there needs to be a consultation process in place for small and large producers alike and that he should go see for himself how things operate in the sugar bushes.
There have been all kinds of recommendations. The agriculture committee studied the issue, and now we have a motion to tell the minister to do his job. I have been in politics for several years now, and I do not think that we should have to tell the Minister of Agriculture to take care of producers. That is what he should be doing.
With respect to the motion and the amendment, what worries me is that, even though 80 per cent of the production is exported, we have to remember to put Quebecers first. We also have to remember that Quebec accounts for nearly 90 per cent of production. Of course this is important to us.
Even now it seems that we are not the priority when Quebec issues come up. Just look at the number of MPs, which I think is fairly representative of reality. Personally, even though I commend my colleague's good intentions, I have neither the skills nor the expertise to evaluate this kind of thing. I will do that when we get the report.
There is currently a proposal from an organization made up of large-scale producers, but small-scale producers were not consulted. In my opinion, honourable senators, this is not a bad motion, but there should be no need for it because the minister should do his job.
In conclusion, I cannot support this motion as written. I understand that people who are part of the organization of large-scale producers support it, but they have not considered all aspects of the motion, such as how to evaluate syrup colour and viscosity and how to grade it correctly.
There are dishonest competitors who make imitation syrup. The honourable senators who come from other provinces may never have seen imitation syrup but, in Quebec, we see it regularly. Imitation syrup generally has a lot of water added to it and it is often of very poor quality.
Quebec will certainly benefit from always having a high quality product. I believe that the way to implement the system is to have the 750 small producers — that is a lot of people — agree to a process and make them aware of the effects on their business. If that were to happen, I would agree. The problem must be resolved.
And so, I simply send this motion back to the government and ask it to examine it, to redo its homework. Then, we can take comfort in knowing that we have a standard that eliminates unfair competition, that maple syrup will not be confused with corn syrup, and that the maple syrup industry will prosper both now and in the future. It is important that people at the local level are satisfied. I cannot support this motion as it stands.