Welcome, everyone, to our committee as we pursue our study on mental health challenges in the agricultural community.
With us this morning we have Rebecca Lee, executive director of the Canadian Horticultural Council. Welcome again, Rebecca. Thank you for being here with us today. We also have Beth Connery, chair of the labour committee. Welcome, Beth, to our committee.
Also, from the Ontario Sheep Farmers, we have Ms. Jennifer MacTavish, general manager. Welcome to our committee, Ms. MacTavish.
We will start with a six-minute opening statement.
Do you want to start, Ms. MacTavish, for six minutes? Thank you.
I'm here this morning on behalf of the Ontario Sheep Farmers. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to talk about farmer mental health.
Ontario Sheep Farmers represents 3,000 farmers, who contribute over $465 million to Ontario's economy. Ontario is home to the country's largest sheep flock. We process over 50% of all the sheep and lambs born in Canada. Together with our partners Alberta and Quebec, we have formed the “national sheep network”, which leverages the provincial resources we have in order to work collaboratively on topics of mutual interest.
Perhaps more importantly, though, I'm here today as someone who has worked for and with farmers for almost 17 years, and has grown increasingly concerned about their mental health. While much of my career has focused on promoting agriculture and business risk management—when it comes to livestock, that often means animal health—farmer mental health was never top of mind.
A few years ago, I took a mental health first aid course offered by the Canadian Mental Health Association. Sitting in a room full of first responders and social workers, I found myself thinking about the farmers in Wellington County, who at that time were dealing with an outbreak of avian influenza. Prior to taking the course, I had been reading accounts from farmers who had spoken of the social isolation that comes from having an infected flock. One account that stays with me was a farmer's painful recollection of no one wanting to sit beside his family in church.
Leaving that course, I recalled the times when farmers had called me, distressed about how low land prices were or frustrated by the new regulations that were coming into effect. One time a farmer sat across the table from me and tearfully recounted how a coyote had maimed his daughter's 4-H lamb. I couldn't help but wonder if I had done enough for them. Did I offer them enough support, or had I been sighing in frustration because there was nothing I could do about low land prices? Was I perhaps trying to get off the phone as quickly as possible so that I could get on with my “real work”?
I started to talk to anyone who would listen about my concerns around farmer mental health. To be honest, at the time the audience was small. It is heartening to see that since then, the audience has grown and the agricultural community has come together around this issue. Thankfully, Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton at the University of Guelph not only listened to me but grabbed hold and threw herself into researching farmer mental health. Her research has been instrumental in not only encouraging a dialogue around farmer mental health but also shaping the way in which we understand it.
We know that farming is a high-risk industry that requires an incredible capacity to deal with volatility and uncertainty. Over the course of this last year alone, Canadian farmers have endured drought, porcine epidemic diarrhea, and the financial impacts of the negotiation and subsequent signing of NAFTA 2.0, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. While we can acknowledge that all of these examples may impact a farmer's business, it's not often that the conversation delves into how these challenges are both out of the farmer's control and have the capacity to impact their mental health, which in turn impacts their productivity and farm viability.
Add to this that as farms grow larger, farmers are becoming more physically isolated and are growing increasingly socially isolated. The public understands less and less about farming, and in some cases it is vilifying agriculture as a whole, and farmers as individuals.
Historically, farmers have been dealing with these burdens quietly and stoically on their own. We need to change this. A failure to address farmer mental health poses a serious threat to the sustainability and viability of Canadian agriculture. Dr. Jones-Bitton's research confirms that farmers face high stress, anxiety and depression. They are also reporting low levels of resilience and a high risk of burnout. In addition, there have been many media reports citing that farming is one of the most stressful occupations worldwide. In occupations in the U.S., death by suicide is highest amongst farmers.
Not widely understood are the impacts that poor mental health and low resilience have on farming. Based on research about the impacts of mental health in other occupations, we can surmise that poor mental health in farming threatens farm productivity, is a barrier to growth and innovation, and may contribute to the ongoing attrition of farmers. As a representative of the livestock industry, I cannot ignore the fact that farmers' mental health most likely impacts their ability to provide adequate care for their animals. While I appreciate that we cannot eliminate all of the stresses of farming, we need to support our farmers so that they not only survive but also thrive.
We also need to make sure that programs and support for farmers are designed by farmers. One cannot simply adapt programs designed for the general population; they will fail in the agricultural context. For example, recommending vacations or spending more time in nature does not resonate well with farmers, nor is it really applicable in a farming context.
I see the sign, so I'm going to skip down to my last paragraph.
It is difficult to reconcile how we will be able to have a sustainable food system in Canada if we do not have healthy farmers. Canadian farmers are telling us that their mental health is a serious issue, and they are demonstrating that they need help. This needs to be addressed.
It is time for us to step up and start taking better care of the people who are feeding us.
Thank you very much for having us here.
Good morning, everybody. We are very pleased to provide input into your study on mental health challenges in agriculture.
The Canadian Horticultural Council is an Ottawa-based, voluntary, not-for-profit national association that represents fruit and vegetable growers across Canada involved in the production of more than 120 different types of crops, with farm cash receipts of $5.4 billion in 2017. This is the foundation for an estimated produce value chain of nearly $14 billion of real GDP and 181,600 Canadian jobs.
For almost a century, CHC has advocated issues that impact Canada's horticultural sector. We promote healthy, safe and sustainable food while ensuring the continued success and growth of our industry.
To achieve such growth and success requires affirmative support and the existence of business conditions that will motivate farmers to continue with their lifestyle.
My name is Beth Connery. I'm chair of the Canadian Horticultural Council's labour committee, and I would like to share with you some of my experience.
These people operate under incredible stressors. Financial pressures, labour shortages, reduced competitiveness, and weather challenges are all being faced on a daily basis. Labour, in particular, is an ongoing issue for horticultural producers. We rely heavily on the seasonal agricultural worker program to provide needed employees for planting, harvesting and packing our produce. This past year, many employers had difficulty sourcing their employees in a timely fashion. This meant that there were crops not sown or transplanted, and other crops that were ready out in the field with no one to harvest them. We work with very thin margins, and starting a crop year with a loss makes it very hard to work long hours for the rest of the year in the hopes of covering that loss and making even a marginal profit.
Farmers, like most people, have a variety of coping mechanisms and reactions to stress, anxiety and depression. They run the gamut from keeping busy—at anything—to avoidance and procrastination. Many tasks are done alone, increasing a sense of isolation. Even those who have dealt with depression in the past can be caught unawares by this insidious disease.
This past spring and summer saw drought-like conditions in Manitoba. A friend thought they were dealing with the stress fairly well—talking with friends, exercising, practising self-care—all the usual recommendations they had learned when dealing with depression previously. Then came the first significant rainfall of the season, and they realized that a load had been lifted off their shoulders. The smiles came more readily, and they felt better.
Farming organizations are becoming more concerned with the mental health issues their members are facing, and most, if not all, are providing links to resources in their communications. Social media campaigns are actively promoting the information and resources. The Do More Agriculture Foundation has been formed, and the University of Guelph is developing resources as a result of the mental health survey many of us participated in.
As a farming family, we are very cognizant of the pressures and results of anxiety and depression. In June 2012, we became suicide-loss survivors when my husband died of depression. His brother and business partner had died of a heart attack six months previously, and he was under increased pressure to do both jobs. We had dealt with his depression before, but the added pressure was finally too much for my husband.
In my opinion, these people are not choosing to leave their families, nor are they avoiding the problems they are facing. They are choosing to end the pain they are living with. This is not something I can understand, because I have never had the feelings they obviously do, but we are left to pick up the pieces and move forward as well as we can.
We have had many family and one-on-one conversations about the importance of mental health. We have had access to and used counsellors on various occasions, both as a family and individually. One of us has called the rural help line to talk when they needed it. It was considered to be a positive experience because they felt forward motion when counselling sessions were set up for them.
The downfall of some of these systems is their lack of familiarity with the farming community when we finally see a counsellor. For most farmers, farmer is what they are; it is not what they do. The distinction can be very important when dealing with emotions and a new path forward.
There are immense pressures on farm families today, and we want to rise to the challenge, but we need help in dealing with the issues that are within the control of regulators. Things like weather we have no control over. For me personally, right now, it's been raining in Manitoba—finally—for the last month, but that means that I have a million dollars' worth of carrots sitting out in the field and no way of getting them in. That is going to crater anybody's business plan.
Government needs to enable us, not hobble us. We are proud to produce safe and nutritious food for our families and consumers to eat. We believe we are good stewards of our lands and plan to pass our farm businesses down to succeeding generations as they were passed on to us. However, the current pressures can make us look at our children and wonder if we really want to put them through what we are experiencing.
Again, thank you very much for this opportunity. I would welcome any questions for follow-up.
Thank you very much, Ms. Connery.
We will now start with our questions. I want to welcome Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Motz, who are also on our committee today. In replacement, I think we have Mr. Tabbara and my colleague at Fisheries and Oceans, Colin Fraser, here with us today.
We welcome everyone today, including the rest of our regular members.
We will start with Mr. Dreeshen for six minutes.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
To all of our witnesses today, thank you for being here.
Ms. Connery, certainly our hearts go out to you, understanding just how difficult it is to be in that type of situation. Then, of course, it falls to people such as you to carry on, and with the difficulties that are there.
One of the things you mentioned was that government needs “to enable, not hobble”. I think that's a critical aspect, because I don't think we look at it from the three levels of government...and the things that happen.
We are talking about federal issues here, because we have some capacity to help in that regard. There are also provincial regulations that you have to deal with, with labour standards and that type of thing. Even municipally, there are acreage owners who are coming in, wondering why every once in a while it smells—because manure is put on the land—and why it's dusty. The odd time they say you should be shutting it down so they can get some sleep. These are things that we never had to worry about.
I wonder, Ms. Connery, if you could speak to the labour side of it and whether there are issues there. In Alberta, we're at a stage now where they're saying that if there's a certain number of people, they have the right to unionize. There's just no relationship to the investment that one has in the operation versus those people who will come and go on a day-to-day basis.
We understand the security of person and so on, and why there has to be safety, but are those issues that you feel are creeping into your industry as well?
In vegetable and fruit growing, and many of the other horticulture industries, labour is an incredibly key issue. We cannot operate without enough labour. We cannot get enough labour from the Canadian market, and that is why many of us use SAWP or the Ag stream from the temporary foreign worker program. Without those people, we cannot operate. It comes down to that.
Also, it appears that the system has become more complicated as we go along. Certainly, 25 years ago the paperwork was not nearly at this level. We have no objection to playing within the rules, and to there being clear and defined rules, but we need to have access to those people.
On our farm, we have about 56 foreign workers who come in during the year. They start in May, when we start our crops. We start with asparagus. We actually have a six-month harvest period. For those of you who know how busy a harvest is, ours is for six months. We have those guys—and mostly we have guys—stay for the full length of our term, right through the end of September and into October, depending on when we're done with our broccoli and carrots—which I hope we'll finish sometime.
Without those people, we can't operate, and this is true for almost all horticulture operations. It's a necessity.
I know people think that we should be able to find workers here, or that people who come up should have a pathway to permanent residence. That is something we would be happy about for some of our employees. However, we do not have work for them for the other four or six months of the year, so how is the Canadian population going to support them for that time?
When we talk about that.... I know people who are involved in the business that you are. With the other stressors, it comes down to having to buy a $250,000 piece of machinery to take out five or six people who would be working on the line, because you just can't afford it.
Of course, the other thing, sadly—not so much with the foreign workers but with other workers—is that if they're supposed to be there on a certain day, maybe you're going to get a phone call saying they're not coming—or maybe you're not. These are the other issues. How do you run a business that way?
Ms. MacTavish, one of the things you mentioned was the vilification of the industry and attacks that come from what I would suggest are vested interests. Whatever they are trying to do just ends up doing damage to the farms.
Could you explain that in the short time I have left?
There are a couple of different examples.
One is that specifically when we are dealing with ruminant agriculture, people think that grazing cows and sheep is ruining the environment. They'll say that they don't want to be grazing animals anymore. Really, when we're grazing pasture land, we're renewing soil health and providing habitats for pollinators and birds.
There are always.... I shouldn't say that so emphatically. There are oftentimes these black and white stances: “We shouldn't eat meat. We shouldn't be raising animals. We shouldn't be grazing animals.”
For people who are farming livestock, that can be very hard to hear sometimes.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here.
I'd like to ask Ms. MacTavish and maybe the CHC about this. In terms of the way you're bringing that conversation on mental health to your membership, is that conversation happening?
In Ontario, for instance, I know that the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has started to have those discussions. But, as you know, unless there's a major issue, sometimes attendance can be somewhat sparse. If there's a major issue, people show up. If there isn't a major issue, attendance is usually at a lower level.
How do you communicate that message, and what have you been doing in terms of providing that message to farmers and saying, “Hey, it's okay to reach out”?
One of the issues where we're trying to come up with a recommendation is the issue of fighting that stigma in terms of mental health. It's ever-present for farmers and within the farming community, but it's also present within the general population.
Ms. Connery, you've touched on an important point. Often, when you go to your doctor, they will prescribe for you what they prescribe for the general population, as opposed to having, say, a customized kit for farmers. If there were a few recommendations that you would propose to this committee, understanding that health care delivery is provincial, is there something that the Canadian Mental Health Association could be doing, for instance, to better target farmers?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'll start with Ms. MacTavish. We had a conversation before committee about our love of sheep. Sheep are amazing animals. I have a very tiny flock. I've had wool from my flock spun and knitted into a Cowichan sweater. I'm from Vancouver Island, so I had Cowichan Tribes knit my sweater.
There are a lot of misconceptions about animal husbandry and the critical role it plays, not only on the farm but in our economy. I know that in some cases the concerns out there are justified. However, as you said, I don't think there's a really clear understanding of how animals are raised. It is in the farmers' best interests to make sure their animals are healthy. This is the source of their income.
I'm interested in how we go forward. Rather than having the two sides talk at each other, in what ways can we have a conversation, a respectful dialogue where we start fermenting the value of farmers? Do you have any suggestions on that?
Ms. Connery, we had a conversation before about the labour troubles. I know this is an ongoing issue. I speak for the farmers in my region. Yes, absolutely, if they could hire local people, they would, but no one is stepping up to the plate to take those jobs, so they often have to rely on seasonal, temporary foreign workers.
In the context of this study, there are a lot of variables that farmers can't control. You mentioned the weather. However, there are some that we can, and I think labour is one of them. I wonder if you could go into a little more detail. Are there any specific recommendations that you want this committee to make with respect to the seasonal worker program so that we could help alleviate the mental health stresses that many people in your profession face?
We've had an ag labour-front round table this year that has been working hard on this issue. From our perspective, one of the government's issues—and they are working at breaking it down—is the different silos that people who deal with our program appear to be in. We go through various departments, such as ESDC and IRCC, and things have to be handed from one side to the other. Sometimes there is not enough communication about what's going on there.
New things come up. This year there's biometrics; it's going to be a new issue for us. ESDC did not find out until about spring, so it couldn't start letting IRCC know the implications of the change. We're going to have to deal with that this year. So, communication between departments would certainly help.
From a farmer's perspective, one of the things we would like to see is some clarity on where we are in the process. We send in our applications, and then we sit and wait. We don't know how far things have moved along, whether they have or haven't. It's about having some kind of tracking system to know when the LMIA has been approved, whether the information has been sent down to the sending country, whether that information has been forwarded to IRCC, and whether IRCC has received it. If we know that things are in progress or that they've stalled somewhere, we could ask questions or answer questions that need to be answered so that things can proceed. Those kinds of things would certainly help us and give us a much better time frame and frame of mind. Many of us were sitting there last spring wondering when we were going to have people show up. We were sitting with crops in the field and we were losing those crops. It was very difficult.
Witnesses, thank you for coming here today.
I would like to follow up on Mr. Dreeshen's points. He made two good points, I think. One was the comment on enabling, not hobbling, and the second was about the fact that it's not just one area. There's the federal government, the provincial government, and local organizations that deal with the challenges that farmers have.
Can you elaborate a little on how we can deal with these challenges? What's working there? What do you think that we as a society—not as a federal government but as a society—could focus on that's actually a good thing?
One of the things we're working on at the Canadian Horticultural Council, and through ESDC, is coming up with a national housing standard for the employees we're bringing in through SAWP and through some of the other programs. The difficulty is that every province and municipality has a different standard. How do you find one that is common to everyone across the country that enables you to create a national standard?
I believe that in Ontario, it's the health departments that are setting those standards. In Manitoba, it's the Office of the Fire Commissioner, so fire extinguishers and those kinds of things are very important. Depending on where you are, there are very different standards. Trying to create a national standard is very difficult.
Communication across all levels of government is critical for us, but to try to ask all the municipalities in the country to get on board with one particular thing would be very difficult. Just continuing with ongoing communication is crucial for us.
Yes, I would say there are a lot of shared stressors. They're in our industry as well. If you go to the grocery store, you have no idea that we're not growing broccoli in Canada in February. It's always there. All of those crops are there. The Canadian public really doesn't have a concept of the seasonality of our crops and how industrious we have to be during the time period they're there. There are also crops we grow that we store during the winter and that we pack out all winter as well. So in term of buying Canadian stuff, taking that message out is good.
If we're talking about specific stressors and the reactions of people.... I don't sleep well right now, for instance, with all that crop out in the field. When you are short on sleep, you are possibly not dealing with other people in as kind a way as you hope you would. You try to catch yourself as best you can, but you may not make the best decisions in the moment because you're tired and overextended.
These kinds of things happen on an ongoing basis for a lot of growers. It's very difficult when your input prices are dictated and you have to buy. We operate in a worldwide market for many of our crops. We're not dictating the price either. We're taking the best price we can negotiate in the marketplace. We are trying to find that thin margin in between and make a profit that will enable us to move forward into the future.
Certainly, with all the decisions we make on a daily basis.... In my case, it affects the lives and livelihood of 80 families. That is a pressure. These are all pressures that we are under on an ongoing basis.
Unfortunately, this is all the time we have. We have a shortened committee this morning.
Ms. MacTavish, I really appreciate your talking about maybe getting some training for some of the people who go on the farm. I thought that was a neat idea. It's not to become psychologists, but at least to be able to engage in a conversation on that subject.
Ms. Connery, please accept all our condolences for your loss, and thank you for being here with us today.
Ms. Lee, thank you for all the hard work that you and your organization do. Thank you for being here.
We shall break quickly and get the next panel.
Thank you. We'll get under way with our second hour.
I want to welcome Marcel Hacault.
Monsieur Hacault is the executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.
From the Ag Women's Network, we have Mary Ann Doré, team leader, online services.
Welcome, both of you, to our study on mental health for Canadian farmers.
We will start with a six-minute opening statement.
Mr. Hacault, you have the floor.
I'd like to thank the committee for allowing me to speak here today.
I will give a bit of background on who Marcel Hacault is. I'm starting to feel long in the tooth now. I was a hog farmer until 2004, so I've experienced all the ups and downs in the industry. I was also involved with Keystone Ag Producers in 1996 during the flood. They had tasked me to work with some of the groups there. I've had some personal, one-on-one experience with stressors in agriculture, in terms of both how they impact people and how they impact me and my family.
I'm currently the executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association. CASA's vision is to have a Canada where no one is hurt farming. Our mission is to make agriculture a safe and healthy environment to work and live in by helping producers and community partners see and manage risk. The mission is very much acknowledging that farmers work and live in the same place, and also that agriculture is more than just the producers. There's the community around them and all the people they interact with.
CASA has been around for a while. When I first came on in 2004, we commissioned a survey that was one of the first ones out there. At that time, it was a stress survey just to try to understand what the levels were, what the primary causes were, and whom farmers would turn to in times of stress. I have the link to it in the notes.
At that time, one in five described themselves as very stressed, and half said they were somewhat stressed. It almost mirrors what Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton has reported. In 2004, the primary causes were poor harvest and production, government policies and farm finances. Fourteen years later, I think those three are still pretty well at the top of the list. The farmers preferred to meet one-on-one, as opposed to group sessions or using telephone help.
In 2006, La Coop fédérée had a survey among its members. It showed that 50% of ag producers had a high level of stress. Again, that was very similar. The highest levels were for the pork producers, at 66%, with 48% for dairy and 36% for poultry. That's in comparison to 20% of Quebeckers who felt stress in general, so the ag population was definitely feeling higher levels of stress in 2006.
Just last year, we commissioned a study about the types of insurance, because employees often have access to employee assistance programs where they can access specialists and stuff. We thought, wouldn't it be nice if farmers had the same level of support through some type of insurance plan? We found that most farmers have access, if they want, to the health portion. Where there's a real deficiency is in terms of proper disability coverage, and there is an almost non-existent ability to access mental health insurance.
Having said all that, what has changed from 2004 to 2018? I think we've always known that farmers.... It's different from other industries. Most farmers see it as a vocation. There are long hours and unpredictable weather and crops, but they've always believed that the general public acknowledged and respected the industry. I think that has changed. The farmers feel scrutinized and attacked by the public—in essence, devaluing the profession.
We always talk about those bad apples. One of the things that have come up is that sometimes we see in the news husbandry issues where farmers are mistreating their animals. Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton would probably make a link there because it's often stress-related. As an industry—and I may be guilty of this, too—we often say that it's just a bad apple, when we should be saying that this farmer needs help. Where are we helping him through this time? The symptom is what everybody sees, but I think the underlying cause is probably that he needed help.
What's changed? Compared to 15 years ago, farmers today seem to be much more willing to talk about stressors and discuss the impact of those stressors on their mental health. That's why I'm pleased to be here today.
In 2005, we made some recommendations to the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology regarding mental health. As a result of that, the Mental Health Commission of Canada was formed. The first mandate focused on how best to help people who are homeless and living with mental problems. I would suggest that there might be room to expand that mandate so they could focus a little on rural, remote and farmers.
One thing we would like to see is the development of a national strategy that would focus on farmer and rancher mental health so that we could coordinate and share resources and know what's happening across Canada.
There should be support for a national stress and suicide prevention service. We used to talk about a stress line, but I think we should have a service.
There should be mental health research support, trying to get research linking mental health and wellness to human health and safety, and animal welfare outcomes. There are some technicalities there with ICD-10 codes that could be mandated so we could track some of them more easily.
There should also be evidence-based mental health resources tailored to meet the needs of farmers in terms of both content and delivery.
I think the Government of Canada has a critical role in supporting farmers and ranchers with its messaging. I often hear the message that farmers grow so much and that we're going to be exporting, exporting, exporting. Very seldom do you hear that we value the work that farmers, their families and their workers do every day.
My name is Mary Ann Doré. I'm a seventh-generation dairy farmer, originally from Brampton, just outside Toronto. Because of urban encroachment, my husband and I moved to New Dundee in 2010. We moved the cows and joined a partnership with my brother and my parents. I met my husband when I was in high school, and he lived in Montreal. He had never seen a cow before we started dating.
I wrote an article with my husband about our story, with his anxiety and depression in 2017. That was the first time we spoke publicly about it. Looking back now, we're better educated on mental health, and we can see a lot of early signs and symptoms that we were not equipped to notice or discuss at the time.
Things that cause me stress are animal health, working with family—that can be the best and the worst part of my job—trying to find time for my daughter when we work from 5:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and trying to find time for ourselves as we keep waiting for things to slow down. We have a hard time scheduling time for ourselves. Financial stress, changes in the market, social media attacks on our industry and the weather are all things out of my control, but they affect me directly.
All of these things also affect my husband, but he also has a history of mental health problems in his family, and his parents divorced when he was young. He moved around a lot and had a lot of financial stress on him as a young person. He did not grow up in agriculture, so he has had a steep learning curve. All of these additional pressures affect his resilience in ways that we did not understand until after we went through a crisis.
After our article was put on the Ag Women's Network website, many people approached us with their own stories about their own struggles. This led to us being invited to speak on a panel with Andria Jones-Bitton about mental health. After that, we joined her working group, which is a workshop of different farmers, industry people and mental health workers, to work on her program. I have been blown away by the number of people who are willing to talk about this once taboo subject and the thirst there is in this industry to finally do something about it.
I am here today on behalf of the Ag Women's Network, which is a five-year-old volunteer-run program that I have been involved with for the past four years. The group is mostly online, with topics including mental health, industry advancement, personal development, unconscious bias, balancing work and family, rural day care and producer profiles. We're starting our second year of a mentorship program.
Our motto is “Cultivating and connecting leaders for a strong agricultural sector”. We have a website with blogs. Our closed Facebook group has over 2,200 members, and our open group for men and women has over 2,400 members. Anytime the topic of mental health comes up, we are always blown away by the positive outpouring of support. It is something that has touched everyone's lives.
From all of our conversations with AWN, conversations with Andria Jones-Bitton's working group through the University of Guelph, and conversations with industry friends and strangers alike, we know there is a strong need for a farmer-specific mental health outreach program. Farmers need something specific to farmers to feel comfortable reaching out. Being understood is very important when you finally make that big step to contact someone when you are in crisis.
There is a strong desire for a national resource that all members of agriculture and their support network can easily access. Having one national resource would avoid duplication and maximize resources. It needs to be simple, and it needs to be readily accessible if you have any hope of people knowing about it and feeling comfortable using the service. A national service would need to be open to everyone involved in agriculture and their support networks as well.
Following closely behind the need to help people in crisis is the need to support their support person. I speak from experience, and I have heard many personal stories of support people feeling overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted from trying to shield the person in crisis from anything that would upset them. In a farm setting, that means taking on more work and more duties around the farm and family to relieve the person in crisis from more stress. It is exhausting, especially when you are stressed yourself.
My hope is that the national service will be so commonplace and available—like telehealth—that they would feel comfortable reaching out before they're in crisis, and their support network could use the resources as well.
Farming is often a solitary job. It could be a nutritionist or a veterinarian who would be your first point of contact to discuss your mental health. They need to know what to do. Groups like 4-H Canada would benefit from teaching leaders the signs and symptoms of mental health crises, and training industry sales teams and veterinarians would go a long way toward sharing information and increasing awareness of those in need. The industry needs to have knowledge of the signs and symptoms of a person struggling and the next steps that should be taken to link that person to the resources they need.
The time has come for us to address mental health as a health concern. Everyone knows someone who has cancer and wouldn't dream of belittling them for reaching out for help, counselling or medicine. The same needs to be said for mental health.
Thank you so much for your interest in agriculture and mental health. This is a topic very dear to my heart.
Thank you so much for coming today. I'm always interested to hear stories. I represent a very agriculture-intensive riding. I had some cousins who were in the dairy industry. Unfortunately, we have only a couple of hog operations left outside of Edmonton.
You said there are a lot of things you can't control. You can't control the weather or prices. There's a lot of volatility in the industry. However, at this committee today, and in our capacity as federal members of Parliament, we do have some things we can control.
The area I would like to focus my questions on is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the problems that sometimes arise with CFIA and create unnecessary stress for our farmers. I can think of some particular cases in my area regarding sometimes negligent activity by CFIA.
I guess I'll direct this to Mr. Hacault. Should the CFIA be able to use, as a shield against any remediation for its negligence, the fact that crop insurance has been paid out?
One thing, especially with you, Madam Doré, is the importance of family and family farms. We're seeing a lot of tax changes with estate planning and things like that. Also, a previous witness said that her husband was dealing with depression and died of depression because a brother had passed away six months earlier. Having family who are in the farm industry myself, it just seems to me that in some cases having your children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters involved with the operation seems to help a lot with mental health on the farm.
Could you comment on what you think some of the positives and then maybe some of the negatives of the family farm model are for the mental health of farmers?
I'd say it's very helpful, as long as you have a helpful family.
One of the biggest topics that come up that needs to be looked at alongside mental health is succession planning. There are so many different models of farm businesses, whether they're a joint venture or incorporated. There are lots of different tax implications with those things.
Yes, I think it's good to have family around, because you have someone else watching who knows you and might notice if you're acting differently. I think it's helpful that way, but because you can't leave your family, you can't avoid them sometimes when you're—
Madam Doré and Mr. Hacault, thank you for your presentations. I must say they were very thorough. You brought up many points, and I would like to highlight a few of them.
Mr. Hacault, you started by talking about the different degrees of mental health challenges in the various industries: hogs, poultry, dairy. Can you talk a little about that and maybe explain why you believe there are differences, and what we can do to be helpful, as a federal government and as a society?
That's an interesting question. I was listening to a previous meeting, and I think the same question was asked: whether supply-managed commodities seem to have less stress than open-market commodities. When I was farming, I had hogs and my neighbours all had supply management. I don't know if we were less stressed or not. I know that, because I was a hog farmer, I had to deal with much more volatility in my pricing. But there were also some pretty good years that my supply management neighbours didn't have.
As a general rule, I would say that, if you're a top performer, supply management offers a bit of income stability that the other, more open markets wouldn't have. One of the stressors is always price volatility, so I would assume that it would have less stress. Part of the challenge is that if you're looking to grow the farm, it is much more difficult within a supply-managed industry than in another industry where, if you have the capital and the business plan, you just make it happen.
I can't really answer your question as well as I would like to.
Yes. A fact we talk about often is that no matter how well your day starts, nothing instantly deflates the group like a down cow. A down cow is a cow that is either sick or has fallen and hurt itself.
On Monday, for example, I came back after a weekend off. We came in at five in the morning, and a cow that my brother thought was getting better had passed away overnight. You're thinking, “That's awful. Okay, move on.” Then, my brother and husband went into the barn to get the cows ready for me to milk, and one of my dad's favourite cows had fallen and was stuck. We needed to lift her and put her into the thing. That was two big things in the first 10 minutes in the morning. It's really hard. We're building a new barn and it's all very exciting and things are going well, but it just sort of deflates us.
We're very proud of and base a lot of our success on the success of our animals. We take it very personally that we've let them down when they're hurt. That's also why we get so upset about social media attacks. I recently left Twitter. I'd talk about NAFTA and things, and I just needed to step away from the Twitter world because we weren't accomplishing anything arguing about it online.
I think that, while we need to have a dialogue with the people who aren't from farms, it's a lot of responsibility for me, on top of all the other things I do, to have to be an “agvocate”, as they call it, and defend myself. That's very tiring.
Ms. Doré, you come from a supply-managed farming operation—seventh generation, I believe you said. I've toured dairy farms within my own riding, and it's been a fantastic experience.
I think one of the strengths of our supply-managed system is that every farmer says there's a level of certainty. They generally know what their income is going to be, and that allows them to do some long-term planning. Some of the capital investments they've made in their operations.... They are quite slick. It's quite amazing. They've opened up their farms to the public so we can all see how they're run, and it's really quite enlightening.
You talked about some of the stressors for farmers. When you look at it in the context of some of the recent trade agreements we've signed—CETA, CPTPP, and now the USMCA—supply-managed farmers have constantly been told that the government is there to support supply management. However, every time we're hiving off a certain percentage, you're losing that kind of certainty.
I'm wondering, because we heard from witnesses on Tuesday on this subject, how that relates to mental health. What does that do to the level of certainty within the industry?
I decided, with my husband, that if this trade agreement resulted in the loss of supply management, I was going to exit the industry. I was not interested in working that hard for consumers who didn't care to support us. I was ready to leave.
The reason I found supply management industry so attractive to join is that there's a stabilization and we can make investments. There's a joke that bankers really like dairy farmers and chicken farmers because they know that we can pay back that loan. My pig farmer friend complains about us, because he cannot get as big a loan as I can for the same project. The banks understand that I have a steady paycheque. Sometimes it's not as big as his paycheques, but it's always the same. I really like the attraction of one steady thing in all of the other crazy crops. We do a lot of crops as well, and it's nice to have the support of supply management.
I'm glad it's still there, but I feel like every time we grow as an industry, we give away a percentage with every trade agreement.
I can't blame this government for its trade deal, because that was an impossible situation to be put in. I don't begrudge that, but at the same time it's very disheartening to have all of your advancements given away.
Well, for example, one of our salespeople sells fencing and dairy equipment. My husband Joe and I were at a panel speaking at a farm trade show. The sales guy came up to us and said that farmers have been talking about this in the last year. It's very interesting that this is becoming more of a mainstay conversation. He's had eight farmers approach him to talk about their struggles. He said he didn't know if he was the only person they've ever talked to about that. He didn't really know where to send them, and didn't feel confident with his knowledge to get them to a counsellor or a doctor. That's a lot of pressure to put on people.
We've talked to our veterinarian about this a lot. Veterinarians also struggle with mental health pressures, They're often the ones who are there on your worst day when you're dealing with sick animals. I think it's about being able to train everyone in the industry to notice changes in people.
Looking back, I know that when my husband was in a crisis, he didn't want to go to trade shows and meetings that he used to go to. There were all of these signs of things that were very subtle. You just think, well, he's kind of grumpy sometimes, and that's fine. Looking back, you think, oh, that's a thing.
A couple of months ago, I didn't want to go to a meeting. I was kind of sullen and didn't want to do things. I realized something was going on with me, and I was able to sort of check myself and try to improve the situation.
With all of this extra knowledge and training of people to look out and notice if someone is.... If you walk into a barn and notice that it's not as clean as it usually is, that's an easy way to ask how they really are and to start those conversations...as well as knowing what to do with the answer once you get an answer.
I believe that, generally, we are better at discussing our emotions than men are, but as society moves forward, it's becoming an easier thing to talk about.
When I first talked to my dad about mental health issues on the rise, he sounded like no one had mental health struggles when he was younger, but a lot of people were alcoholics. It's about becoming more aware of what the problem is and having a name for it, rather than just glossing over it and saying things like, "He didn't commit suicide; it was a farm accident." No, it was suicide.
I think the conversations are changing. Having more voices at the table is always welcome. I find that women have always been involved in agriculture, but it's only recently that they are taking the credit for being a farmer rather than a farm wife. I think it's a very important change for people to take that position.