What could an NDP government bring Ontario farmers — a look back to 1995

Ontario’s New Democratic Party with leader Bob Rae last governed the province from 1990-1995. Photo: Getty Images

As election day in Ontario draws near, the popularity of Andrea Horwath’s New Democratic Party is surging. What if the NDP were to win Ontario on June 7? What would the New Democrats mean for farmers?

To get some perspective, we sent RealAgriculture Ontario Field Editor Bernard Tobin on a trip to his attic where he uncovered a feature story he authored back in early May 1995 for Farm & Country magazine looking at the track record of Elmer Buchanan, who served as agriculture minister for Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government from 1990-1995.

Tobin covered the trials and tribulations of the Rae government for four years: a period that encompassed a difficult financial recession, an inexperienced government, and an agriculture minister who may have been the best of a bunch of incredibly green orange politicians. Buchanan was criticized for ‘unionizing’ the family farm but won respect from farm leaders for supporting the fledgling ethanol industry and ushering in an era of stable funding for general farm organizations.

Let’s go back 23 years…

Behind the wheel with Buchanan

By Bernard Tobin

He has as few more grey hairs in his beard, a new prescription for blood pressure pills in his pocket, and a cane neatly tucked beside his chair to assist an ailing hip.

For almost five years, Elmer Buchanan has sat atop agriculture’s political hayloft, overlooking a $6-billion industry. As Ontario Minister of Agriculture, he has had the task of reaching consensus in a farming industry divided along geographic, commodity, and marketing lines; a farming industry whose independent nature naturally resists consensus.

He’s been called a straight-shooter, a broker, a man who delivers on his promises, and – the greatest compliment ever afforded a politician – a minister with common sense. His popularity has crossed party lines; even Conservative agriculture critic Noble Villeneuve calls him “a friend.”

There have been many trying times, some physical, many political, for the former North Hastings High School vice principal, but as agriculture minister, Buchanan has managed to avoid the political minefield that claimed the Cabinet careers of nine members of Premier Bob Rae’s inner circle – Evelyn Gigantes was actually asked to leave twice.

The stress of political life has taken a physical toll as well. “It hasn’t been easy,” says Buchanan. For the last five years he’s averaged 2,000 km per week catapulting around Ontario to meet farmers. In February 1994, the minister underwent emergency hip surgery after the car he was travelling in skidded on a patch of ice on Highway 401 near Belleville.

His limp has diminished throughout the year, but he still carries a cane. And a return to his beloved ice hockey may have aggravated the injury. Doctors now tell him the joint may have to be replaced after the election campaign.

The NDP was defeated on June 8, 1995 by Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government. Elmer Buchanan was also defeated in his own riding and never again ran for elected office.

Today, with less than a month to go before a provincial election, Buchanan will emerge as a key ally for Rae in rural Ontario. Hungry for rural votes, Rae may even promise to bring Buchanan back as agriculture minister to get some of them.

For all the respect he has won in the farm community, Buchanan still wears the NDP collar, a harness that squeezed 14 per cent out of the agriculture budget, reducing it from $576 million in 1991 to $487 million in the 1994 budget. During the same period, the government raised the minimum wage, opened the door to farm labour unions, took up casino gambling and pushed the provincial deficit to $9.6 billion, all unpopular moves with Buchanan’s farm clientele.

Critics say Buchanan, a party member since 1972 who was elected after his fifth kick at the election can, may have survived the revolving cabinet door, but had little clout with the inner circle. “I don’t think his voice was heard around the cabinet table,” says Noble Villeneuve, a front runner for the agriculture minister’s job should the Conservatives win on June 8.

He and Liberal agriculture co-critic Joan Fawcett are promising to scrap NDP wetland, planning and labour legislation. Originally, the NDP had planned to scrap agriculture’s exemption from Bill 40, labour legislation, but relented and later offered a separate agriculture labour law – Bill 91 – giving farm workers the right to organize, but not to strike.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have accused Buchanan of unionizing the family farm; “Agriculture is a different kind of business… it can’t tolerate slowdowns,” Fawcett says.

“Bill 91 is administered by the Ministry of Labour,” Villeneuve says. “Everybody is encroaching on the (agriculture) ministry.”

While opposition politicians have jousted with the government over its labour policy, fruit and vegetable farmers, whose labour-intensive business stands to lose the most, offer surprising support for Buchanan.

“I don’t like his party, but he has done his job well,” says Blenheim fruit and vegetable grower Hector Delanghe.

Delanghe, a key negotiator for offshore labour, says increases to the minimum wage, which has climbed to $6.85 per hour, make it tough to complete. But he doesn’t believe the NDP has unionized the family farm.

“I still say it is not practical for (unions) to organize family farms because there is no money in it for them.”

Delanghe says Bill 91 is an example of Buchanan “doing what he could do within the realm of the NDP government.”

“Bill 91 is a hell of a lot better” than Bill 40, which eliminated the agriculture exemption, says Hamilton-Wentworth grower Ken Forth, who was Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association president when the legislation was being hammered out in 1992.

“He was always a guy who tried to understand the industry… was always willing to ask the question and willing to listen to the answer… When Elmer told you something, you knew that’s the way it was going to be.

“With his help we were able to come up with something else for farmers.”

Ontario got its first farm union last month when the Ontario Labour Relations Board certified a 200-employee mushroom farm in Leamington.

While cool on Buchanan’s labour politics, the horticulture industry has applauded him in other areas, notably Niagara, where after years of farmer lobbying, he introduced and financed the ‘conservation easement’ concept to help farmers keep the land in agriculture.

When asked to to write his own report card, however, Buchanan highlights his agricultural investment strategy, which he says improves lending opportunities for farmers.

A close second on his list is his support for the fledgling ethanol alternative fuel industry.

“I was skeptical (about ethanol) at first, but the corn growers did their homework and showed me it was positive,” Buchanan says.

Terry Daynard, Ontario Corn Producers Association executive vice-president, says corn growers weren’t thrilled when the NDP government came to power. Fears of environmental and organic agenda in the NDP camp were heightened when Tony McQuail, a long-time ecological proponent, joined Buchanan’s staff.

But Daynard says the corn producers quickly realized Buchanan is “a good listener and trusted the advice he got from farm groups.” That advice included encouragement to push ahead on ethanol.

Buchanan “laid his cards on the table,” Daynard says, and promised to help “if we could prove it (would work) and could counter the negative things being said….Once he had the proof of it he won over Cabinet.”

On the property tax issue, however, a long-time thorn in the sides of the farmers, Buchanan’s powers of convincing fell short in the Cabinet. The Fair Tax Commission, which was set up to suggest tax changes, vanished into oblivion.

While not on the top of his own list, the issue on the tip of farmers’ tongues for most of the term was the funding arrangement for General Farm Organizations (GFOs) know as stable funding – asking farmers to pay an annual fee to support a GFO.

Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) president Roger George remembers when Buchanan first came to an OFA annual meeting in 1990: “I’d been in the job for about three hours…and he said he was committed to stable funding and was using the word ‘mandatory’….There was a little trepidation there when I heard that.”

“There was a certain naïveté on my part,” Buchanan recalls. “I thought every farmer should belong and the lawyers at the ministry put in a penalty” for farmers who refused to join one of the three organizations then considered GFOs.

The wheels almost came off the stable funding when Buchanan showed Bill 105 (the previous incarnation of Bill 42) to the opposition before bringing it into the legislature. “When I brought it into the House I really got pummelled,” he says. Membership in farm organizations was later made voluntary and the penalties removed before the legislation passed.

“He’s the only minister who had the guts to do it….He really believed that the general and local organizations needed the resources to do the job,” George says.

When the final legislation was passed, the OFA and the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario were installed as the two GFOs that would collect the refundable $150 fee from farmers. The 350-member Ontario chapter of the National Farmers Union (NFU) was originally at the bargaining table, but the NFU’s Perry Pearce says his group pulled out when “its input was ignored.”

He says the legislation is undemocratic and infringes on farmers’ freedom. The NFU is currently proceeding with a court challenge. “We’re looking for a clear ruling by the courts of Canada that it’s [Bill 42] an infringement on our rights.”

Listowel beef farmer Joe Daunt, a grassroots opponent of stable funding, says Buchanan “has been party to one of the largest spending sprees we’ve ever seen….The implications are a lot higher taxes and a lot less services and benefits for ordinary people.”

Buchanan wasn’t willing to listen to the grassroots when it voiced its opposition to Bill 42, he says.

Despite his opposition to stable funding, even Daunt has a few good words for Buchanan. He says the minister made the correct decision to sell the Toronto Stockyards early last year. The behemoth was an enormous drain on the provincial treasury, and farmers weren’t using it, says Daunt. A replacement yard in Cookstown has been a tremendous success.

For independent, free-enterprising Ontario cattlemen, Buchanan and the New Democrats aroused suspicion. Ontario Cattleman’s Association president Harvey Graham says “we were very concerned about his attitude towards us…. We thought we were at opposite ends of the pole.

“It took us a while before we realized our capitalism was not going to be compromised.”

That suspicion turned into support at the cattlemen’s recent annual meeting where directors applauded Buchanan for backing them in their fight against Western provinces, which want no part of an Ontario-supported ‘whole farm’ approach to safety nets.

“Most people would say Elmer was the bright spot in that government,” Graham says.

Terry Daynard says Buchanan “rates an A,” but not when it comes to safety nets. Corn producers have been looking for Gross Revenue Insurance Program (GRIP) coverage to be increased to 85 per cent of the 15-year average. But Buchanan has balked at the proposal, opting to stay at 80 per cent and funnel more money into the Net Income Stabilization Program (NISA).

“We’ve agreed to disagree,” says Daynard who points out that both the Liberals and Conservatives have pledged to go 85 per cent should they be elected.

If Buchanan has known when to wade into a producer debate, he has also known when to stay on the shore. “Elmer’s always allowed us to control our own destiny,” says Ontario Chicken Producers Marketing Board Chairman John Maskaant, who led Ontario producers against their Quebec counterparts in what threatened to be a return to the fabled chicken war of the 1970s.

Maskaant says Buchanan supported Ontario producers’ wish to respond to the marketplace, and meet the demand for chicken. “He made it obvious to the rest of the industry that they had to deal with us.” Eventually, producers and processors agreed to a 20-percent production increase for Ontario.

Reprinted from Farm & Country magazine. May 9, 1995.

Buchanan says he doesn’t fancy himself as a diplomat, but he’s attempted to tear down some of the barriers between farmers and processors.

His Vision 2020 program, designed to build a strategy for Ontario agriculture, has brought the industry together, he says.

“Before, farmers would talk about the evil capitalists who had taken all the money….But now farmers are talking to vice presidents of food companies.”

They’re even going into business together, he says. “That wasn’t happening when I arrived.”

Today, five years later, Buchanan says there’s still work to be done. And he has every intention of returning to his 801 Bay St. office after June 8.

“See ya next term,” an aide says confidently.

The NDP was defeated on June 8, 1995 by Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government. Elmer Buchanan was also defeated in his own riding and never again ran for elected office.

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