by SUSAN MANN
Ontario and Canadian farm leaders say sketchy details are making it hard for them to assess the impact on industry of more than a sixth of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's workforce receiving notification last week that their jobs may no longer be needed.
“This cannot bode well,” says Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett says “we haven’t really gotten to the core of what the impact is going to be.” One of the Canadian federation’s major concerns is the government hasn’t provided “a description of what the plan is for research going forward.”
Bob Kingston, president of the agriculture union at the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says the long-term impact of the cuts on the department will be devastating. “But as far as how individuals are affected it may not be as bad.”
Farm leaders are concerned the government’s ability to conduct research may be impacted by the job cuts. Wales says the cuts will “have some long term effect on getting research done properly.”
Kingston is more blunt, saying the department will “lose capacity to do research.”
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada represents 350 of the workers and says in a May 9 press release the job cuts threaten Canada’s international competitiveness and impact food production – one of Canada’s key economic activities.
Another union representing federal government workers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says in its May 9 press release 235 of its members working at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada received notices they may lose their jobs. Workers in other departments also received notices.
Agriculture workers represented by the Canadian Association of Professional Employees also received notices. Representatives at that union couldn’t be reached for comment.
Patrick Girard, senior media relations officer at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, didn’t give an exact number when asked how many employees received the notices last week. “It is difficult to determine the exact numbers of people to be reduced until all the processes are completed due to retirements, alternations and other options available to impacted employees,” he says by email.
But Kingston says it’s close to 700 workers. There’s a lot of doom and gloom among their members, he notes. The people involved in research at the federal agriculture department are “very personally invested in the portfolio. They strongly believe in what they do and they’re very much supportive of the industry and they’re seeing the whole thing disappear.”
Kingston says much of Canada’s and the world’s innovations in agriculture were based on the basic research done by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “The ability to do that and be that base on which other things build is really in jeopardy.”
Girard also didn’t provide the dollar amount the federal agriculture department is saving from the job cuts but noted, “financial information will be reported through the normal government reporting process.”
According to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s website, the federal agriculture department has more than 4,000 employees. If the approximately 700 jobs identified for cuts are in fact slashed it would be a reduction of about 17.5 per cent of the department’s workforce.
Asked about the job cuts, Girard says the federal agriculture department continues to maintain core activities where it has a unique role and adds value. The government is also working collaboratively with its partners so producers and processors can get maximum returns from the market.
“We continue to find the most effective and least costly ways to deliver service to Canadians so that as much of AAFC’s (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s) budget as possible goes directly to producers and the agricultural industry,” Girard says.
Referring to the 350 professional institute union members, Wales says “we’re not getting any straight answers yet out of the federal government about exactly what did these people do and what will the impacts be.” They also haven’t been told when the cuts take effect.
Gary Corbett, the institute’s president, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The professional institute union’s release says most of the job cuts affecting its members will be from Ontario in the National Capital region around Ottawa, while another 19 jobs are also being cut in Ontario. Other provinces are also being hit with cuts. The job cuts are mainly concentrated in AAFC’s science and technology and market and industry services branches.
Wales says that sounds like some of the cuts will be jobs involved in basic research while some jobs are in market promotion. “Those are both two key things we need here in the long run.”
Girard says the cuts do not disproportionately affect Ontario. “The proportion of staff in the National Capital region and other regions will remain relatively stable.”
Wales explains federal employees received the notices about their jobs being slashed and for some people “because of the union they may be able to apply somewhere else” within the department or the government. The federal government “is serving a whole bunch of notices to people” but they’re not saying their jobs are definitely gone. It’s just that those jobs may be going, he adds.
The professional institute union’s release says last week’s announcement of 350 possible job cuts are in addition to the more than 150 people from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada who got notices last year that their services may no longer be needed.
By job breakdown, the 350 professional institute jobs being cut in the federal agriculture department are:
- 144 commerce officers
- 79 scientists
- 76 information technology specialists
- 29 engineers
- 14 biologists
- Five research managers
- Three procurement officers
For the 235 jobs held by members of the public service alliance, Kingston says more than half are in the science and technology branch, which is the research stations, others are in corporate services, program and administration and the market and industry services branch, which provides information to people looking to get into new markets.
Slightly more than half of the 235 people who got notices are in the National Capital region in the Ottawa area, he says.
Bonnett says they knew cuts were coming but “we would have hoped there would have been a discussion ahead of time about where the priority areas for research were.” In addition, the Canadian federation is surprised by the number of positions earmarked for cuts.
Kingston says considering agriculture is so important for Canada he’s shocked at the amount of the cuts.
Bonnett says it’s hard to get a handle on the overall effect of the job cuts because core research positions have been cut but at the same time more government money is available than in the past for project funding. He says they will be meeting with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz soon to find out what the government’s long-term strategy for research is.
“What we’re seeing is bits a pieces but no overall strategy,” Bonnett notes.
The professional institute union’s release says the employees they represent are involved in several areas, such as crop management strategy development, minimizing the farming industry’s impact on the environment, supporting the industry’s sustainability and profitability, making market data easily available to farmers and supporting Canadian exports around the world.
Wales says “those are all important things” and they will continue to be important into the future. BF