Canadian nationalism, tariffs dead end for working farmers

By John Steele
December 17, 2018
Farmers march in Montreal Nov. 18 to press government to impose protectionist measures to keep out farm imports. Reliance on the propertied rulers and tariffs benefits big capitalist farmers, leaving working farmers to be chewed up by the capitalist rents and mortgages system.
Militant/John SteeleFarmers march in Montreal Nov. 18 to press government to impose protectionist measures to keep out farm imports. Reliance on the propertied rulers and tariffs benefits big capitalist farmers, leaving working farmers to be chewed up by the capitalist rents and mortgages system.

MONTREAL — Should working farmers rely on the capitalist government to enact protectionist tariffs to defend their class interests? 

This question was posed by the nationalist and protectionist political framework of the demonstration of 5,000 farmers and their supporters from all over Quebec who marched through downtown Montreal Nov. 18. The march took place in the context of sharpening competition between Ottawa, Washington and other capitalist powers, as the crisis of capitalist production and trade continues.  

The farmers came to protest the recently signed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact, which they say threatens the Canadian government-run Supply Management System. Combined with high tariffs against foreign — especially U.S. — farmers, this system sets production quotas for dairy, egg and poultry farmers. It was set up in the late 1960s. U.S. President Donald Trump has sharply criticized this setup as unfair to U.S. dairy-industry trade.  

The mobilization was organized by the capitalist-dominated Union des Producteurs Agricoles (Quebec farmers’ union), along with employers’ organizations from the food-processing industry, and supported by Quebec’s labor unions. The march was presented as a farmers’ appeal for solidarity from urban “consumers,” asking them to defend Quebec agriculture, under the slogan “Garde-manger en danger (Your food pantry is threatened).”  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “sold out to Trump and the Americans” in signing the trade pact, Bruno Letendre, president of the Federation of Dairy Farmers of Quebec, told the Militant. The trade agreement opens up 3.9 percent of the dairy market to farmers in the U.S.  

The Communist League took the opportunity provided by the action to talk to farmers about conditions they face on the land, and to discuss the trap of looking to the bosses and the capitalist government as an ally. We posed instead the need to build a fighting alliance of workers and working farmers. We distributed a statement on this released in August by Róger Calero, then Socialist Workers Party candidate for New York governor. 

League members raised that the rulers and their government are only interested in profits for their class. They always talk about how they work for “us,” all Canadians, but it’s a lie. Their protectionist moves and regulations reflect their class interests, not ours. Our allies are fellow workers and farmers internationally.

Tens of thousands of farmers are concerned about their future. For decades, the workings of the capitalist rent and mortgages system in the countryside have forced tens of thousands of working farmers off the land and thousands of others to get part-time jobs to try to cover their costs of production and feed their families.

Since 1961 the number of farms across Canada has dropped from 500,000 to under 200,000. There are 29,000 farms in Quebec, including 5,473 dairy farms. The average age of farmers has risen to 55. Farmer suicides in Quebec have risen dramatically.  

This underscores the fact that farmers are class-divided. At the top, “farmers” are really big businesses, taking profit at the expense of working family farmers. Reliance on capitalist market controls like the Supply Management System is not a long- or even short-term solution for small farmers, who are the majority of dairy farmers.

In Quebec, to sell their products a farmer has to pay 25,000-30,000 Canadian dollars per cow for a Supply Management System quota. That’s over CA$3 million for an average herd of 70. Well-off capitalist farmers buy and sell the quotas as commodities.  

Because of the political weight of the capitalist-dominated farmers’ union tops, for now most bourgeois politicians are publicly committed to maintaining this system.

Farmers we talked to expressed some of the challenges they face.

“To survive we need better prices for our products,” said Karl Botts, a vegetable farmer in the Montreal region. He condemned the big multi-national agribusiness companies that are increasing the price of farm machinery, seed and other inputs, making farming more and more difficult.  

Vincent Chaumont, who runs a small dairy farm with his father, believes you have to look to the government. “The markets for our products need to be protected,” he said. “In Switzerland foreign-grown apples cannot be sold there until the supply of home-grown apples has run out.” 

Alternative revolutionary course

The SWP statement puts forward an independent, fighting course for small farmers against the agribusiness monopolies, banks and their government.

“With more working farmers facing ruin, the labor movement must demand the government guarantee they receive their costs of production, including adequate living expenses,” the statement said.  

“Workers and farmers who produce all the wealth are exploited in different ways, but by the same capitalist families and their government. We have a shared interest in forging an alliance that can mobilize millions, overturn their rule and establish our own government.  

“There is much U.S. workers and farmers can learn from the revolutionary program and course followed by Cuban workers and peasants in overthrowing the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. With leadership like they had, we can take our destiny into our own hands.”  

Paul Kouri contributed to this article.