Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the committee.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Monday, April 28, 2018, the committee is beginning its study on the mental health challenges that Canadian farmers, ranchers, and producers face. We will be hearing from two witnesses today.
First, joining us by video conference from Regina, Saskatchewan, we have Michael Hoffort, the president and CEO of Farm Credit Canada.
Good afternoon, Mr. Hoffort.
Next, we have Tom Rosser, assistant deputy minister of the strategic policy branch at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Good afternoon, Mr. Rosser.
We are pleased to have both of you here. You will each have up to seven minutes for your presentation, and we will start with Mr. Hoffort, in Regina.
Mr. Hoffort, you have the floor for seven minutes.
Good afternoon, everybody. It is a pleasure to appear before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food on behalf of Farm Credit Canada, or FCC as I'll refer to us today.
My name is Michael Hoffort, and I am the president and CEO of FCC.
For those who don't already know, FCC is a self-sustaining commercial crown corporation with more than 100,000 customers, mostly small and medium-sized primary producers. We also have a diverse and growing number of agrifood and agribusiness customers across the country.
FCC has a healthy portfolio of more than $33 billion, and we represent about 30% of the total agriculture lending in Canada. What sets us apart is that we are the only financial institution solely dedicated to Canadian agriculture and agrifood.
We understand the volatility and complexities of agriculture, and we take our responsibilities as an industry partner and corporate citizen very seriously. Without reservation, I can say that FCC, along with our more than 1,800 employees, apply a high degree of energy and commitment to the success and ultimately the well-being of our customers and their farm families.
We know that farming can be unpredictable. The difference between profit and financial loss for producers often depends on several factors, some well beyond their control, be it weather, market conditions, or commodity or input prices. The reality is that things don't always go according to plan, which can have serious impacts on a farmer's operation and perhaps even their emotional and mental well-being. FCC supports our customers with unique loan products that are specifically designed for agriculture, such as our flexi-loan product.
We're also there when the unexpected happens. For example, we recently announced a new customer support program for maple syrup producers in Quebec and New Brunswick, as they were impacted by unfavourable weather that reduced their yields this past spring.
We care about the safety of our customers, as farming can be a hazardous profession. FCC is a long-time partner of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association. We also support STARS air ambulance to provide critical care and transportation for rural residents across the three prairie provinces.
In times of crisis, we support our customers through the FCC ag crisis fund, which helps them through disasters like floods or tornados, barn or house fires, the death of a customer or family member, farm accidents, or critical illnesses. During our last fiscal year, we reached out to 287 customers impacted by crisis.
We do a lot to ensure the financial and physical health of our customers. Can we do more to support their mental health and well-being? Absolutely, and we are.
That said, I don't want to leave you with the impression that FCC has full expertise in the area of mental health. What we can offer is our observations from the many conversations we have with customers day in and day out based on the strong relationships we have developed with them over the years as well as our understanding of the unique circumstances they face.
We sometimes come across situations where people are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and burnout either related to their business or other life circumstances. I began my career some 30 years ago at the peak of the farm debt crisis, and from then until now, I've learned that mental health issues can surface just as easily in strong economic times as they can in difficult times.
Hard work, resilience, strength, and a sense of community have always been the hallmarks of life on the farm, but there are also times when producers feel a sense of frustration and anxiety. Compounded by feelings of hopelessness and isolation, an individual's mental health can understandably spiral into depression. We have seen this scenario play out before, and unfortunately it sometimes results in a customer taking their own life, which in turn impacts the lives of many others.
We are seeing first-hand the need for increased support in this area, as more applications to our ag crisis fund appear to be related to incidents that have suicide as a factor. Rather than hoping the signs of mental distress will simply go away, we want to be part of the solution.
We're equipping our employees with the information they need to identify mental health issues and provide customers with support and advice on where they can turn for professional help. At the same time, FCC is entering a partnership with the Do More Agriculture Foundation to begin creating a network of mental health responders who can identify and support producers who may need help coping in a difficult time.
Through this project, FCC's funding will facilitate mental health first aid training for producers and industry representatives in select communities across Canada. We're also in discussions with 4-H Canada to determine a program for 4-H leaders and members to increase their understanding of mental health.
In these ways, FCC is also working to lift the stigma around mental health by promoting awareness, encouraging dialogue with customers and throughout the industry, and actively referring resources. We have plans to do much more with some initiatives in the early stages of development.
No matter what changes take place, FCC will continue to serve our customers and Canadian agriculture as a strong and stable partner through all business cycles. More importantly, and as I said earlier, our entire focus is on agriculture. We are here for this industry and for our customers and as we celebrate their success, FCC will also be here for them in challenging times.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I look forward to any questions the committee may have.
I am pleased to be before the committee once again and, especially, to discuss an issue as important as mental health.
As you noted at the outset, Mr. Chair, my name is Tom Rosser. I'm the assistant deputy minister of strategic policy at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
I'm happy to be here today to speak of growing concerns around mental health issues faced by Canadian farmers, ranchers, and producers. I promise to keep my remarks very brief.
Mental health of course is a societal issue that touches all people. As Mike noted in his remarks, the situation in the agriculture sector is unique in that producers face many risks well beyond their control, whether from commodity prices, animal health issues, labour, trade, or other challenges. Mental health in this sector has become a key topic raised by stakeholders such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, and it is increasingly being recognized by industry as a major area of concern.
A 2016 University of Guelph survey showed that farmers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health. Of the 1,000 Canadian farmers contacted for a survey, 45% were experiencing high stress levels, 58% reported symptoms of anxiety, and 35% were dealing with depression. All those figures are much higher than the average found in the general population. Similarly, a 2010 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry suggested that farming is among the professions with the greatest risk of suicidal death in Canada.
Promoting dialogue about mental health challenges faced by farmers, ranchers, and producers is essential for creating an environment where these issues can be discussed openly and with compassion. In that regard, I would like to acknowledge the for the courage he has shown in talking publicly about his personal experience during National Suicide Prevention Week in February 2018.
Although health is a provincial jurisdiction, the federal government is committed to working with the provinces, as well as industry partners, to support the mental health of farmers, ranchers, and producers. For example, budget 2017 confirmed $5 billion over 10 years directly to provinces and territories to improve mental health and addiction services.
For its part, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada supports action through federal/provincial cost-shared funding under the Canadian agricultural partnership, which can be used by provincial governments to tackle issues that are creating challenges and stress for the producers in their jurisdictions. This funding can also be used by provinces to directly support mental health initiatives in the sector, including farm stress lines and crisis counselling for individuals, youth, and families living on the farm.
In addition, business risk management programs are in place to help producers manage significant risks that threaten the viability of a farm and are beyond their capacity to manage.
The department is also continuing to explore ways that its policies, programs, and services can further support initiatives to address the mental health challenges faced by those in the sector. The department is committed to working with its federal, provincial, and industry partners to support the mental health of those in the agriculture and agrifood sector.
Other national resources are available to Canadian farmers, ranchers, and producers, such as through Crisis Services Canada—a series of non-profit distress and crisis service centres across Canada that offer service to anyone thinking about or affected by suicide.
As you heard a short while ago from Mike, Farm Credit Canada is also working actively to lift the stigma around mental health by promoting awareness of resources available to its stakeholders.
Mike also noted the industry is taking the lead in this area. For example, The Do More Agriculture Foundation officially launched in January 2018 with the aim of creating awareness of mental health issues in agriculture, building a community of belonging, and driving further research in this area.
In addition, organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Canola Growers Association are working actively to create awareness on mental health issues through their conferences and annual general meetings and the like.
Farmers, ranchers, and producers are the backbone of the Canadian agriculture and agrifood sector, ensuring its continued growth, success, and sustainability.
We all need to work together to take further action on this important issue. By increasing awareness, reducing risk factors, improving access to quality mental health services, and eliminating the stigma often associated with mental illness, we can support a compassionate approach to mental well-being in the sector.
I thank the committee for making mental health a priority in your work and look forward to your report on this issue. I would like to thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for providing us with an opportunity to speak with you today.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I want to thank our witnesses for being here and participating in what I think is going to be a very interesting process. Before I get started, I want to thank my colleagues Mr. Dreeshen and Mr. Poissant for bringing this forward. I think it's a very important issue that has come to the forefront, certainly over the last several months. I know we can all work together and put together a very worthwhile study on this issue.
I think many of us have been dealing with this long before these last few months. This hits particularly close to home for me. Growing up we went to several funerals, and we were never allowed to say the death was due to a suicide; this happened on the farm and was never talked about with anyone else. We were supposed to keep this to ourselves. It was a family issue. We didn't want anybody else to know. I think we can all relate to the phrase “cowboy up”. It's very frustrating that it has taken this long for us to come forward and be able to have a conversation about it.
Mr. Hoffort, can you go into a little more detail for me, please, on the ag crisis fund? You brought that up initially, that it helped in times of funerals, accidental deaths, things like that. How is that funded? What money is set aside for that? Is there a lot of awareness about it? We're starting to talk about this issue. Do people know it's there? Can they access that when they have mental health issues or they think a family member needs some help?
Thank you very much, Chair.
Mr. Rosser, I think I'll start my questions with you.
We've seen references to the farming community being quite a tough lot of individuals, and there's that stigma about talking about these things, but there are other professions in which this kind of condition has existed—in the military, for example, and in our first responders. Now the military has a culture where PTSD and mental health are openly talked about, and people are encouraged to seek help. It's the same with our first responders, the paramedics, the fire and police services.
Maybe one main difference is that those environments depend on teams where colleagues need to have the full support of each other, whereas farmers are often out by themselves, working long hours, with no one really to talk to. We can't change the variables that are inducing the stress. Are there any lessons your department could be learning from the Department of National Defence or Public Safety Canada? Are there any best practices for how they have dealt with the problem in their respective fields that might be applicable to agriculture?
Thank you, Mr. Hoffort and Mr. Rosser. It's great to see you again. I'd like to echo the comments of my colleagues that this is a very important study, and also thank Mr. Dreeshen for his focus and commitment to this.
I don't recall who it was, perhaps Mr. Barlow or Mr. MacGregor, who was talking about other sectors of society and what we can learn from them. In Vancouver there is a stigma within certain ethnic communities with regard to depression or suicide, as I think there is within the farming community. Farmers are tough, so no one wants to be weak. In what way can we quantify the problem? I don't think we have a full grasp of the extent of the situation, and before you can fix something, you have to figure out exactly where you are.
I'd like to ask both of you, Farm Credit and the ministry, what we can do to quantify things but in a fairly quick and accurate fashion.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you so much to the witnesses who are here today.
When I first came on the committee, it was at the end of January and it happened to be Bell Let's Talk day. I felt it was extremely important that we have this discussion and we recognize just what is taking place in the farming community. One of the things I haven't heard so far that I want to put on the table, and perhaps we can all then frame our thoughts and discussions around this, is the recognition that our jobs as farmers are our homes, and our homes are our jobs.
That's the key part of this. We never get away from the stress that is there, and that stress also goes through all members of the family. That is the critical part of this, that particular recognition.
I've seen the great work that some, especially farm wives, have done to help bring this discussion to the forefront. There are some great young producers from Saskatchewan who have done some amazing work in this regard, and I applaud them.
International events such as hog prices going down, BSE disease outbreaks, or barn fires, all of these kinds of things are part of your home and part of what you do. As we look at this, I know we've talked about other sectors and the problems that exist there, and there's a study out of the U.S., done not that long ago, that says the suicide rate on farms is three times the national average. I heard us discussing here that it was close to two times the national average.
Those are some of the facts of the relationship that exists. As Mr. Barlow indicated earlier, growing up we just didn't talk about that. We would go to the funerals and that type of thing, but that discussion was not part of what we were dealing with.
That's the key part. As a farmer, you are responsible for the labour. You're responsible for the marketing of goods. You have to deal with the whims of government, as well as the weather, and so on. Those are the kinds of things that are there every day, and that's really one of the key components of what we are trying to do.
What can be done? As a former 4-H member, I know that is one of the keys. Your head, your heart, and your hands are part of what we speak to in 4-H.
That's a critical part, to be able to expand that and to bring it, as some of my colleagues mentioned, to fairs and exhibitions and point it out, but to have a strategy that recognizes that it is different from the general public. Yes, you bring home the stresses that you have from the job that you went to, but they don't surround you.
Mr. Hoffort, you mentioned that you were looking for a strategy in these challenging times and that you have some plans. Can you explain what some of those strategies are and whether you are actually working with not just clinical psychologists who can talk about the issues, and so on, but people who are on the farms, so that we can perhaps set up some types of guidelines that actually come from people who feel it every day in their community?
Our first strategy is to work with the Do More Agriculture Foundation. The individuals behind that are farmers and they recognize some of the challenges that are out there and have really taken a leadership role. It would be our sponsorship of the first aid programs, with professionals in the room who understand agriculture, who will provide that training.
The second one would be on the youth and that 4-H investment in terms of their programming, making sure that it is meeting the needs of its members and meeting the needs of its leaders, so that it can work with its membership to make sure they understand the importance of mental health and break down any stigmas, but also where do they turn.
Another initiative we're considering is the mental health tool kit, a document put together with individuals who are professionals in this area but understand agriculture, be it Dr. Sabongui at the University of Guelph or some of the Do More Agriculture folks, to make sure we have a document that people would want to maintain and be able to reference back and create conversation within their families.
It just grows out from there in terms of speaker opportunities and awareness opportunities that we can sponsor. Recognizing that as an organization our expertise is somewhat limited, but to have the impact we can have and to bring others along, industry partnerships to make these initiatives bigger than they would be otherwise would be one of our tactics, for sure.