by SUSAN MANN
A former coordinator of the National Farmers Union Ontario branch is so frustrated with the organization he’s leaving and joining other farmers to form a new provincial farm group.
At first Sean McGivern says he tried working to change the organization but after realizing that wasn’t possible he began organizing a new group. McGivern says he and three other former Ontario directors who had concerns about the group don’t think the branch should be reaccredited as part of the Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act “under the current circumstances. If they were willing to conform to and follow their own bylaws and regulations then we felt the NFU could be reaccredited.”
Ann Slater, Ontario branch coordinator, says the Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal, which conducts the accreditation hearings of the farm groups, asked them to address four points raised by the people with concerns. One of these was if funds collected in Ontario are used to represent farmers in the province. Slater says they definitely are.
Another question raised during two days of hearings earlier this year was if the Ontario NFU has a provincial executive body elected by its members. Slater says it does. “It is the same process we’ve used since 2002 when we were first accredited.”
The Ontario branch contributes more than the required 25 per cent of the membership fee to its local affiliates and the local affiliate executives are elected by the affiliate members, she says, noting those were the other two points they had to address.
Slater says she doesn’t want to jinx the branch’s reaccreditation but “I’m confident we meet the requirements of the act.”
McGivern, who is leaving the NFU when his membership expires in March, says the matters the new farm group wants to work on aren’t being addressed or talked about by other provincial general farm organizations.
“There’s a difference between a lobby group and an action group,” he explains. The new group wants to definitely be seen as an action group that plans be very vocal about the long-term structural changes it wants to achieve for farmers.
For example, reforms are needed in the supply management system including installing caps on the amount of quota any one farm can have and removing the price of quota. “That way there’s more opportunity to have more people to become involved in those segments of agriculture,” he explains.
McGivern says he’s working with a group of 50 other farmers to start the new organization, which doesn’t yet have a name. It’s planning to apply for accreditation as general farm group in 2013. “We hope to have everything formalized by the end of January.”
McGivern hasn’t decided yet if he’ll lead the group, which is currently writing its constitution and bylaws.
Another matter the new group wants to address is the need for a prohibition on farm lot severances across the entire province. The severances aren’t allowed in southern Ontario but they’re still prevalent in some places, such as Grey and Bruce counties and in eastern Ontario, he says.
For farm programs, the group is opposed to the current business Risk Management Program introduced in Ontario this year for livestock, grains and oilseeds and edible horticulture producers. They want government to invest money in rural infrastructure, such as the Rural Economic Development program, rather than the business risk management programs.
The farm registration act makes it mandatory for all farm businesses with gross incomes of $7,000 or more to register with Agricorp and select one of three general farm organizations in Ontario to receive their annual $195 plus tax registration fee. After registering and paying the fee, the farm business can ask the group it selected for a refund.
The three groups accredited under the act to receive farm businesses’ registration fees are: the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, and NFU Ontario branch. A French farm group, L’Union Des Cultivateurs Franco-Ontariens, has an agreement with the other three groups to receive a portion of their funding for its operational costs.
McGivern, who served one term as Ontario coordinator, and the three other former Ontario branch directors who resigned their positions presented a number of concerns to the NFU Ontario board and then to the tribunal during the branch’s reaccreditation hearing. It was held on two days, June 22 and Sept. 15.
One concern they had was the branch isn’t following its own policies. For example, there’s supposed to be a president and vice-president but the organization doesn’t have those roles. The Ontario coordinator is appointed by the NFU’s national office in Saskatoon and not the province’s membership.
“We have national board members from across Canada deciding who the coordinator will be in Ontario,” he says, noting it was designed that way to give the national group control over the organization and not the Ontario elected directors. Seventy per cent of the NFU’s membership lives in Ontario.
A big concern the four former directors who resigned had was that more than 50 per cent of the Ontario branch membership money is sent to NFU national headquarters in Saskatchewan. “The (Ontario) organization doesn’t have enough money to properly fund itself,” he says.
The Ontario branch held a special meeting in London during the NFU national convention to discuss various matters, such as updating its bylaws. McGivern didn’t attend that meeting.
Grant Robertson, who was Ontario coordinator for five years, says it was the best attended NFU meeting he’s ever experienced. He described the meeting as positive.
“To say the NFU is in some kind of crisis would be really overstating it,” he says.
The NFU Ontario branch, OFA and CFFO are all waiting to hear from the tribunal about the status of reaccreditation. The groups have to go through the reaccreditation process every three years. BF