Federal Minister of Agriculture Marie Claude Bibeau told members of a parliamentary committee March 12, that clarity for temporary foreign workers is coming soon.
Previously, temporary foreign workers arriving in Canada had been told they could do their mandatory, government-required quarantine at or near their place of employment prior to March 15.
Conservative party agricultural critic Lianne Rood said there is still concern from producers over what happens to those workers after March 15.
Bibeau had previously said she was working to determine next steps with industry stakeholders — but as the deadline approaches, no further information has been provided.
“I would like to reassure our producers that we’re working extremely hard to make sure all the temporary foreign workers we need arrive in Canada timely and safely,” she said, noting the pace has increased compared to last year and efforts to streamline the process are underway.
She said the consultations with farm groups and provinces to find the best procedures are ongoing, but “we are finalizing the process with provinces and the producers.”
A program introduced last year that offered $1,500 for each international farm worker brought into Canada to cover additional expenses for producers has also been extended, and Bibeau said she wants to make sure additional mitigation measures don’t bring added costs to producers or employees.
Bibeau recognized the labour shortage continues to be a challenge for producers.
“The labour shortage was there before COVID-19 and it will be there after COVID-19,” she said, adding her government wants to make the temporary foreign worker program more efficient, while also investing in automation and encouraging more Canadians to become involved in the sector.
“(The pandemic) has made Canadians realize how food workers are, in the large way, from farmers to food processors, to scientists, they are essential workers. I think we value them,” she said.
Bibeau said she was “always open to collaboration” when asked if she would be open to participating in a working group with various stakeholders to address the labour shortage.
Processing capacity was also a focus of debate throughout the meeting. It was a point of concern for many people before the pandemic, but COVID-19 stretched the limits of Canada’s processors, raising questions about government intervention.
Bibeau said her government is committed to improving regional supply chains, but didn’t highlight specifics.
“This is something that we have noted, that we depend on big, big processing facilities,” she said.
Bibeau also holds out hope that support from at least two of the three prairie provinces required to enact changes to the AgriStability program is coming.
“I continue to hope that we will find a consensus that will make it possible for us to improve the AgriStability program,” she said, adding Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Atlantic provinces are already signed on.
Earlier this year, Bibeau proposed dropping AgriStability’s maximum reference margin and increasing the compensation rate from 70 to 80 percent retroactively this year and for calendar 2021 and 2022.
That would mean the program offers producers a better chance of receiving support and more money when they do; but it would come at an added cost to provincial and federal governments, who jointly pay for it.
Western provinces have been reluctant to accept the offer, citing the high cost of changes and ongoing issues with the program’s overall effectiveness.