SAGUENAY, Que. — Roaring truck engines, honking horns, and angry dairy farmers greeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he arrived at the Liberals' summer caucus meetings Thursday.
About 100 dairy farmers from the Saguenay region drove their trucks to the Delta hotel where Trudeau and his 181 MPs are holding two days of meetings, hoping the prime minister would come out and speak with them about a costly dispute on diafiltered milk.
The Quebec dairy farmers, many of whom have small farms, are upset that U.S. producers are selling a cheaper milk protein product, allowed in Canada with no duties, to yogurt and cheese producers, who use it instead of locally sourced milk. They say the practice is costing them thousands of dollars a month.
Dairy farmer Michel Frigon wonders if the PM asks where his food comes from. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost)
The Canadian Border Services Agency considers diafiltered milk a protein ingredient rather than milk and allows it to enter Canada duty free. But many cheese and yogurt producers use the liquid milk protein to replace milk, which is more costly, in their products.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the minimum milk requirement in cheese, isn't stopping the practice because it considers diafiltered milk to be milk.
The issue has plagued the new government for months and no solution seems to be on the horizon, further frustrating the farmers.
'Things have to change'
"To ensure there is a next generation of farmers, to ensure that my kids can make a living, things have to change," said Sonia Lapointe, a dairy farmer from Saint-Bruno–Lac-Saint-Jean.
Lapointe, whose herd includes about 60 cows, said diafiltered milk from the United States is personally costing her about $2,500 a month because she can't sell her higher priced milk to the cheese and yogurt producers.
"This is really difficult. It's not easy. The stress, the lack of income, it's hard on families," Lapointe said. "With all the indebtedness and all the farming costs, people are just going to give up."
Michel Frigon, a larger producer from Albanel, Que., about a two-hour drive from where the Liberals are meeting, said he came to "denounce the government's inaction."
Farmer Sonia Lapointe says things have to change. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost)
"During the election," he said, "the Liberal party promised to settle the issue of diafiltered milk but nothing happened," Frigon said.
Dairy farmers met with government officials but still nothing happened. This spring the Liberals voted down an NDP motion calling on the federal government to enforce Canadian cheese standards and stop the import of the U.S. milk protein. The Liberals said they would meet with the dairy sector and present a plan in 30 days.
"And nothing happened again," Frigon said. "The agriculture minister met with farmers this summer, but no announcement was made, and all the while diafiltered milk continues to pass through the border."
"If Mr. Trudeau has any respect for producers, all we're asking is for him to at least come talk to us. Come tell us what's happening with the file, and explain to us why things are dragging on," Frigon said.
"Trudeau, this morning, he probably had some eggs, some cereal with milk. Did he never ask himself where this stuff comes from?"
"Trudeau, this morning, he probably had some eggs, some cereal with milk. Did he never ask himself where this stuff comes from? We are small percentage of the population that has the responsibility to feed the rest of the population and we are treated with contempt by the Liberal government."
Frigon, whose farm has 125 cows, said the dispute has cost him $35,000 to $40,000 in the last year. He said he and his wife only have three employees and that's a significant dent in their bottom line.
"It's the difference between making ends meet and nothing making them."
Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay talks with media in Ottawa on May 3, 2016. (Photo: Matthew Usherwood/CP)
Six Quebec Liberal MPs, including International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, left the hotel to meet the dairy farmers and bring them some hot coffee.
But Trudeau and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay avoided the protesters.
MacAulay, a retired P.E.I. dairy farmer, told The Huffington Post Canada that he had skipped part of caucus Thursday afternoon to meet Daniel Côté, the president of the local union of milk producers, at his farm about 45 minutes away.
MacAulay declined to say what he thought the obstacle was in solving the diafiltered milk dispute.
'There are a number of issues that we inherited'
"Being minister of agriculture and not responsible for the border services agency, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say how they [the Canadian Border Services Agency] should operate," MacAulay said.
Of course, MacAulay acknowledged, he could talk to his colleague, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, whose domain includes the border services agency, but what the Liberals hope to accomplish is one package for dairy farmers to deal with a number of trade irritants flowing from the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the possible Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
"All I can tell you is there are a number of issues that we inherited as a government, and we are working with the dairy industry in consultation, and we hope and we expect to have an even stronger dairy industry in this country, and most farmers understand that."
Goodale told HuffPost that he feels for the farmers but that the issue is more complicated than it looks like on the surface. “There is an active process, involving a number of different government agencies that have to reconcile the problem.
“I’m encouraging them to come to a conclusion that is logical and factual as fast as they can.”
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