by BARRY WILSON
Alberta rural MP and the new Conservative parliamentary agriculture critic Chris Warkentin is a rookie in opposition and a rookie in Parliament Hill agricultural politics but a veteran on the Hill and deeply rooted in agriculture.
As a kid in the mid-1980s on the family grain farm in northwest Alberta near Grande Prairie, he watched his parents struggle with double-digit interest rates, low commodity prices and debt angst.
Since then, beef farmers in his province have been ravaged by the BSE crisis and hog producers have been hit by disease issues and low prices.
“Growing up on the farm taught me by example that farming is a tough business, that every year can be a struggle and with my own family, that everything was on the line,” Warkentin said in an interview in his Parliament Hill office. “The life of a farmer, wherever you are, is high stress and uncertain. It also is rewarding.”
In the 10 years since being elected an MP from the northwest Alberta Grande Prairie constituency (now Grand Prairie – Mackenzie) in 2006, most of his years have been spent as a backbench MP except for a four-year stint as aboriginal affairs and northern development committee chair.
Now, the 37-year-old, with a background running a building contractor business but with a family still deeply involved in the Alberta grain and livestock industry, finds himself the lead Opposition critic on agricultural issues.
Warkentin said he plans to be a strong advocate for farm interests in the face of a new Liberal government that has shown little early enthusiasm for an activist agricultural agenda.
Agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay, a 25-year House of Commons veteran from a rural Prince Edward Island constituency, has shown little instinct for the issues in the first months of his tenure as Canada’s 33rd agriculture minister.
His public statements or answers to questions have been tightly scripted, often reading from texts written by Agriculture Canada staff.
The new activist Liberal government has yet to articulate a detailed agricultural agenda, whether it is taking a position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement signed by the previous Conservative government and enthusiastically supported by export sectors or the shape of the next five year agreement on a national agricultural business risk management deal due to be negotiated with the provinces over the next 18 months.
In the face of farmer complaints that the sector was not properly consulted before Agricultural Policy Framework deal was struck between federal and provincial ministers in 2011-12, the Conservative agriculture critic said he will insist that “farmers need to be at the table” as the next APF is negotiated.
The Liberal government also has not indicated if it will support or honor a commitment by the former Conservative government to provide more than $4 billion in support to supply managed sectors if trade deals undermine their system.
“I think there is a real question,” said Warkentin. “Does this government have a real agriculture policy? I’m hopeful that the minister will stand up for farmers when issues of trade or finances come up. At least I hope he has the intention to do no harm.”
The Conservative agriculture critic said he will push in Parliament to force a government commitment to support the TPP and to honor the compensation commitment made to supply managed sectors. “We support the deal that was struck and the commitment that was made.”
Still, the Alberta MP said that while he sees the farmer work ethic, market dependence and vulnerability are similar across the country, he has a lot to learn about agriculture outside of the Prairies.
“It’s always dangerous to inherit a file you think you know a lot about and you soon find otherwise,” he said.
This summer once Parliament recesses, he will be spending time travelling across the county, meeting farmers and their leaders and getting up to speed on their issues.
“I have some relatives who farm in the Toronto area and I have already accepted invitations to meet farmers across Ontario and the country,” said Warkentin. “I have my summer work cut out for me.” BF