Good morning, everyone.
We are resuming our study of the mental health challenges that Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers face.
With us this morning is Andrew Campbell, partner at Bellson Farms.
From Farm Management Canada, we have Heather Watson, executive director.
From the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, we have Keith Currie, president; and Peter Sykanda, farm policy analyst.
Welcome to all of our panellists.
We'll start with an opening statement of six minutes each.
Good morning. It's a great honour and pleasure to sit before you today and beside these three industry leaders to talk about such an important issue that unfortunately has been hanging over farms for decades.
On Sunday night, I was thinking a lot about coming from our farm in southern Ontario as I milked cows with my Dad. The kids worked on the job of moving hay with a pedal tractor. The sunset provided a glorious view outside. We had a good run on the soybean harvest, and I was thinking ahead of this opportunity to have a positive impact.
I was thinking how fortunate I was. But when it comes to mental health, many think that just being fortunate should be good enough. We get to work in and with nature's wonder. We get to work alongside our families, usually from home. We get to be our own boss.
But the same things that bring us those moments of joy can obviously turn. Is nature's wonder going to keep sending so much rain in the spring that planting is delayed enough to put a drag on crop yields? Will the heat wave make cows uncomfortable enough that they'll eat less, which will lead to lower milk production? Are the 90 plus-hour work weeks having an impact on my job as a father and husband? Are the decisions I make this month going to bring severe enough losses that I risk not only my future on the farm but the retirement savings that my parents have which are almost solely tied up in that farm?
Balancing the good with the challenging is no easy feat. It can so often be tied to the finances as well as the risks that are completely out of our control. Any issue with weather and the crop yields are impacted. Less yield equals less income, despite you paying most of the expenses up front. A trade war between two foreign countries means lower grain prices, again impacting income. Add in interest rates, trade deals, growing conditions in Brazil, milk prices in Wisconsin, meat demand in Asia, steel prices for equipment, and on and on and on. Things that we can't control in agriculture lead to those sleepless nights spent worrying about whether or not we'll be able to write all of the cheques by the end of the year. If the stress over finances isn't enough, tie in the guilt over whether the priority of the day should be family, farm or off-farm work. Finally bring in the stigma. It's challenging enough in the general public, but so much more present in rural areas where the culture of the farmer is somehow supposed to be the strong and silent type no matter what.
Those are the problems. What are the solutions?
First, there are quite a few things that are working. The fact that there are programs to help share the costs in business and in financial planning, as well as succession planning, are critical. Without a plan, without someone there to help guide a family through difficult discussions, the stress climbs exponentially. Having lived that first-hand, I know that the ability to share those costs is one step to at least easing one of the many stressors.
Strong risk management programs and insurance programs add to a relief that even if things turn tough, at least there's a backstop to help prevent the loss of the entire farm. That for us and many others includes the home in which we raise our family. That adds to the pressure.
Addressing the stigma and seeing more and more associations and organizations—and obviously this committee—bringing the issue to the forefront lets people know they don't need to live with a facade of the strong and silent type. I hope the move to push that stigma away continues to grow. However, there are things that need work.
In a world where services and communications continue to move online, we need to make sure farmers keep up. I know how beneficial it simply to be able to talk to the kids or a neighbour while spending days in isolation in a tractor cab. But you have to have the connectivity in the most rural of places to help a farmer talk.
Obviously, there can't be a mental health professional in every rural community, especially one that has experience in farming. To be able to have that video chat instead helps farmers keep the discussion within the privacy of their home, something they're concerned about. It helps to save them what could be several hours of travel. It makes it easy for them to accept the help—or at least easier anyway—but they need to have that connectivity.
We all need to be mindful of our words. I've been told online that I'm a murderer. My wife has been asked why she would ever be with someone who rapes animals. There are commercials and marketing labels that brag about their superiority in the market saying the way that I choose to farm is leading to many of the problems that people have with their health.
We even have some who relentlessly push agendas pointing to my family as somehow greedy and selfish for just wanting to break even at the end of the year. When you hear that over and over and over again, you may know it's not true, but it wears on everyone in the business. Negativity breeds negativity.
We can all focus on the words of encouragement and on working to push people up. As one who has been through tough times, I know that a helping handout or simply a “How can I help?” can go so far for an individual.
That being said, at a big picture level, this is an issue that we can't solve in one meeting. It's going to take work; it's going to take investment; it's going to take all of us moving in the same direction if we are going to save lives, save families, and save businesses. All of those are at stake with these discussions
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your questions a little later.
Good morning. My name is Keith Currie. I'm president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and with me today is Peter Sykanda, our lead policy adviser for farmer mental health. On behalf of the OFA and the 38,000 farm families we represent, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about this important topic.
Interest in providing awareness and support for mental health challenges to our farming community is at a record high. We are very pleased that the agriculture committee is taking the time to study this very critical issue.
The OFA strongly supports developing initiatives and taking action to tackle mental health issues in our community. Ultimately, our goal is to collaborate in breaking down the barriers that exist for farmers in need—and from there, to foster the development of long-term mental health resiliency.
You have already heard a great deal about these barriers over the last few weeks, so I know you will appreciate that the barriers are complex, multi-faceted and interconnected.
While things are better than they used to be, the barrier of stigma is still very much prevalent in rural communities. The perception remains that mental health challenges are one's own and not to be discussed openly. We can begin to break down this barrier with greater communication and awareness about mental health challenges within the farm community—starting the conversation and allowing individuals to comfortably seek help without fear of judgment.
There is the barrier of accessing resources. We hear from our members and from current research that farmers need and appreciate resources that are tailored to the realities of farming, staffed with people who speak their language and understand the unique culture of farming. We need research, training and mental health advocacy throughout the whole agricultural system, which would include but not be limited to farm input suppliers, farm advisers and government inspection agents, just to name a few. These are the people who are most frequently in contact with farmers and ranchers and who farmers most often reach out to.
We strongly support the work being done by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and the University of Guelph, and we know from Andria's research that women farmers are experiencing higher levels of mental distress than are male farmers. Continued research, development and distribution of materials focused on specific challenges of women farmers are also urgently needed.
There are limited mental health services and practitioners in rural areas. While crisis telephone lines are important, continued research and innovation are needed with regard to mental health services that provide timely and evidence-based services for farmers and rural residents.
Finally, a critical barrier is that of sustainability. In the past, mental health programming and services have been made available for farmers during various crises due to market collapses and other tragic events. However, these interventions don't last, and support withers once the problem has subsided or the temporary funding has ended. We need a strategic, long-term, sustainable approach to tackling ongoing mental health issues. Addressing mental health cannot be limited to crisis events. It is a real issue in the day-to-day lives of farm families.
A great first step in addressing many of these barriers is to establish a Canadian network for farmers' mental health, with a central hub located at the University of Guelph. Properly supported, this network would provide a long-term, sustainable approach to coordinating academic and practitioner expertise from across the country; conducting participatory action research and knowledge transfer from those who know farmers best; and extending evidence-based, peer-to-peer awareness training programs tailored to the needs of Canadian agricultural communities. This network would create a strategic approach to addressing existing and emerging issues, providing a path toward long-term mental wellness and resilience among Canadian farmers.
The opioid crisis: we would be negligent if we did not take the opportunity today to highlight the relationship between mental illness and the use of addictive substances. Recent research sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation highlights the severe impact opioids and substance abuse are having on rural areas in the United States. We have no reason to think the potential outcomes in Canada could end up different.
There are, of course, different causal pathways explaining the relation between mental health and substance abuse problems, including using substances to self-medicate diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illnesses. Unfortunately, access to effective, affordable treatment for substance abuse problems is often limited for our rural communities.
Treatment for concurrent mental health and substance abuse disorders will require a great deal of support and a collaborative approach to research, training and empirically supported interventions by specialists. Given the connection between substance abuse and mental health disorders, we urge the committee to respond to these two issues jointly.
I would like to close by thanking those in our agricultural community, like Andrew, who have bravely stood up to have their voices heard and to help break the stigma. We hope their inspiring message will allow many others—who are stressed, depressed, isolated, struggling or afraid—to seek the support they need.
We thank the committee members for their time and look forward to any questions that they may have.
Mr. Chairman and honourable members, thank you for inviting Farm Management Canada to speak before you today on matters concerning mental health in the Canadian agricultural community.
We are the only national non-profit organization devoted to cultivating farm businesses management excellence for all farmers across Canada. We do this by developing, delivering and connecting farmers with business skills development programming and learning opportunities. We are very pleased to speak to today's topic as we see an inherent symbiotic connection between mental health and farm business management.
Farming is unique. It is unlike any other business. The family home and memories are rooted, literally, on the farm and in the business. Farmers cannot simply pick up and start over when times are tough. Farmers are facing risk and uncertainty like never before from Mother Nature to changing markets and regulations, many of which are outside of their control. Public trust and social licence are now putting more pressure on the farmers.
Stress is the human response to change, especially changes that cause worry, frustration, confusion and a sense of losing control. Our farmers are incredibly stressed. Stress can burden us to the point where it threatens our physical and mental health. Physical signs include an increased heart rate, headaches and trouble sleeping. Mental signs include difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Emotional signs include feeling anxious, agitated or depressed. Behavioural signs include restlessness, compulsive behaviours and cutting corners. Cutting corners increases risk, including in terms of farm safety, labour management, animal health and welfare, etc.
When it comes to farming, the effects of mental health go beyond the individual. The business must keep going. The team must be led. The animals must be fed, crops managed, and the cows milked. We must consider not only the mental health of the farm manager but also that of the farm team as well as how the manager and team are equipped to support positive mental health. Hence, there is an inherent connection between mental health and managing the farm.
We recently completed a study with colleagues at Agri-Food Management Excellence, looking at the impact of CTEAM, which is a national farm business training program. Participants come away with a strategic business plan for their farm. We asked the alumni to report on the impacts of the program: financial impacts including profit and debt management; business impacts including a process for decision-making, performance measurement and network of experts; and personal impacts including confidence in management decisions, the ability to prioritize and provide clear direction and to understand personal dynamics to better manage people and communicate. Interestingly, results revealed that in the eyes of the participants, personal impacts far outweighed business and financial impacts.
Farm business management practices help reduce risk, increase certainty and increase confidence. Through the business planning process, farmers create a vision and learn to set realistic goals. They also learn how to say “no.” They assess the risks and opportunities they may encounter along the way and put measures in place to mitigate and manage what is within and what is outside of their control. Planning solidifies the farm team, creating a support network including family, business partners and advisers. The plan provides a guiding light to weather any storm.
It is in this way that farm business management facilitates mental preparedness, reducing stress and the physical, mental, emotional and behavioural consequences thereof.
We're excited to explore the connection between mental health and business management further. As a first step, we're hosting “Healthy Farmer Healthy Farm”, a panel discussion at our upcoming Agricultural Excellence Conference to focus on the importance of personal capacity and growth to achieve business success. We also plan to commission a national study within the next year. We will be seeking partners to provide the necessary matching funds to secure support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
We're pleased to see mental health in the spotlight. We were part of a national initiative in 2005 to focus on mental health in agriculture. The initiative included forming a Canadian farm stress network. Activities included a dedicated website and informational brochures. Proposed activities included a national stress summit, a national strategy, and a national farm stress line along with agriculturally sensitive, peer-to-peer and professional support services for farmers and their families. The work of Au Coeur des Familles Agricoles in Quebec was being considered as a model for national expansion. ACFA, who I think you'll be hearing from on Thursday, provides house calls to check in on farmers before they reach crisis and a safe house for farmers and their families overcome by stress.
Unfortunately, sufficient funding could not be secured to continue the work of the network. Perhaps some of the ideas could be reconsidered.
Our recommendations in summary are as follows.
One, we recommend forming a national community of practice; establishing a national network to guide and monitor efforts; supporting the development of national endeavours including a mental health summit, farm stress line and resource centre; and supporting the collection and analysis of data relating to mental health incidents in rural areas.
Two, we recommend increasing access to relevant help. Allocate more resources to establish rural mental health workers in the field; equip mental health professionals with a better understanding of farming; and train and educate regarding positive mental health for farmers for themselves and employees they manage. The mental health first aid training is a great initiative.
Third is the recognition of youth. Half of all mental illness begins by age 14. We should support initiatives geared at improving mental health support for young people.
We're not afraid to say it: We believe that farmers deserve special treatment. Farmers are not only feeding you, me, and the world, farmers are the heart of our economy, environmental stewardship, public health, and community development. They need our help, and we must act.
In an ever-changing and increasingly complex global marketplace, the business-savvy farmer is positioned to confront change with confidence and seize opportunity, carving out a steady path for sustainable growth and prosperity while maintaining positive mental health. Albeit a lofty goal, business skills development and training must be recognized as a catalyst for positive mental health and an essential complement to risk management.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members and guests.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I want to thank the witnesses appearing before the committee today. It is a very thought-provoking subject. Every witness provides a bit more food for thought.
If I may, Mr. Chair, I would like to point out that, Ms. Fayah Najeeb is with us; she is a participant in the University of Toronto's Women in House program.
She's with us today. I hope that all of our discussions will help her, so she can go back to Toronto with good ideas about agriculture.
Mr. Campbell, I think you have put your finger on something quite important: all the factors that farmers have to deal with in their work. These are realities that the average person is unaware of.
Could you elaborate on this and tell us why global markets and the weather impact farmers more than they do on people who work for a company and collect a regular paycheque every week? Tell us exactly how you feel as a farmer when you hear the weather forecast, for instance.
Well, I can actually speak from practical experience because not only do I represent the organization, I also farm. Andrew is correct that we tend to bottle it up.
I'll expand a bit on what he said. He's working with three generations on his farm. I'm of the eighth generation on my farm. There's a sense of disappointment that we also experience. We don't want to be failures. We have to get past that stigma first to understand that it's okay; that yes, weather plays a factor; that as farmers we're price-takers, not price-setters, so we are affected by markets that we have no control over; and that we are affected by governments that do things that affect our market—things we have no control over.
I know that Andria Jones-Bitton presented to you a couple of weeks ago. We've been working extensively with her. She represents a group of people. She's a veterinarian by trade. The veterinarians, the feed dealers, the people who come onto our farms on a regular basis tend to be folks who our members talk to, so we're starting to reach out to those associations to ask how we can work together to let our members know that it's okay to be not well, that it's not their fault and not their problem.
I have personal experience, with my own daughter suffering from anxiety for years, and she's been dealing with that. You know, there aren't a lot of places to go.
Heather, welcome to the committee. I know the training and the sessions you provide through your organization. Especially recently for me, I'm in dairy country, so I get farmers who will call me every day or month saying, ”The price of milk went down.” But then I also have farmers who will call me and say, “Well, over five years we're doing pretty good.” It's like the stock market, and my financial planner says, “If you're too stressed, don't look at the stock market every day. Look at it long term.”
Knowing that, different farmers will absorb the stress levels and impacts differently, and I think financial stress is a major cause. How does your organization deal with that? Do you talk about mental health when you give sessions?
Thank you, witnesses, for your testimony today.
Mr. Campbell, I'd like to start with you. In your opening statement you were talking about the organized campaigns of negativity that go after farmers. Social media has been both a blessing and a curse. It allows you to make that connection with many people who are in your profession. We as politicians certainly understand the campaigns of negativity, but I think the difference is that we in some ways expect them. We know that when we take a political position there will be people out there who disagree with this. The difference with farmers is that this is not just your job, this is who you are. It's your identity. I think what we've heard in testimony in previous days is that there's not enough understanding of the worth that farmers bring. There's a disconnect between the work that farmers do and the end product that ends up on store shelves.
In the context of government being able to do collectively what we can't do individually, do you think there's something that we can recommend to the federal government in trying to promote the value of farmers to bring that understanding to the general public, to help you out, to give you that worth?
That's perfect. Thank you.
Mr. Currie, I'd like to move to you. As a representative of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, from Canada's most populous province, you certainly have far more farms than I have in British Columbia. One constant we have heard about is the variables that are beyond farmers' control, and among them is the weather.
Last week the IPCC released a report that shows that under our current trend, we are heading towards pretty catastrophic climate change and will see the effects in droughts and floods and an increased frequency of storms. Going forward, this means that a child born today who inherits the family farm in 20 to 30 years is going to be right in the centre of that.
In the context of how those increasingly uncontrollable variables are going to affect farmers' mental health, are there any comments you want to offer?
We've always had to deal with the weather. Farmers look at it as just part of doing business. To go back to Andrew's comments during his presentation, it's what happens right now that really stresses us out. We know that weather's coming, but until it actually hits us head-on, we don't assess it as being part of a problem.
We've been very good at adapting over time to whatever we need to adapt to, but as Andrew pointed out, it's a compilation of many factors, weather being one. It certainly puts the most immediate pressure and stress on us, but it's just a turning point from all the other stresses combined.
We're going to have to continue to work with farmers to make them understand that the weather is changing and is going to keep changing and that they need to be prepared and, through their farm practices, as ready as they can be for those changes.
That's about as far as we can go, because we honestly don't know what Mother Nature is doing. She doesn't give us a direct line to her to let us know what's going on, so we have to try to get people to be ready for the fact that changes are coming and mentally prepared to handle them.
Thank you very much. That's a great question.
In terms of measuring whether or not we're successful in this area, as we mentioned in our opening statement, this is a very multi-faceted and complex issue, and no two farms are the same. To know what success looks like in measuring how we're impacting mental health will require continued research.
We're hoping that in working with Andria and other folks, we can build a network that will coordinate the expertise across the country. Many people are doing great work across the country, and we'd love to see it come together in a strategic, coordinated, and, particularly, long-term way. We want to see that happen.
In the past, as we mentioned, there has been crisis intervention, but we want this to be a long-term effort and not a shotgun approach in which people are doing different things all over the country.
That's great. Thank you.
Andrew and Heather, I have a joint question. I was thinking about when I started my business in 1986, and I can barely remember 1987. It was a very stressful year as I tried to get things going. I was thinking of my grandfather coming to Canada in 1920 as a blacksmith and starting up in rural Manitoba, going to all the farms to try to get his business going, and then the 1930s hit. He ended up in the Brandon sanatorium for six months. My grandmother had five kids. She was alone on the farm, and there was no income coming in. There was no social support, so they were eating squirrels and whatever they could get by with.
Heather, in your presentation you mentioned the impact on women. Women are as much a part of the farm as are the men on the field. Could you comment on the impact on family?
Andrew, we'll get to business start-up if we have time.
That's a very good question. Why aren't farmers consulting more than others are?
Perhaps it goes back to what Andrew was saying earlier. There's this stigma about the strong and silent type. Agriculture just keeps going. Also, we're 2% of the population. When you're looking at priorities and you're looking at where the major issues in the population are, often agriculture gets overlooked because it has always been there, and hopefully it always will be there, because we need to eat.
I think now is the time to stand up and say.... As I said in my speech, agriculture is different. Farming is different. We say that all the time, and we're not shy to say it because we do think it's completely different. As Alistair was saying before, the risks space and the compounding risks are things no other sector would ever see.
I'm not sure why it hasn't been looked at before, but I'm really excited that we are looking at it now. I think we can make some huge, positive waves by addressing agriculture specifically, and women in farming specifically and just unpacking all the bits and pieces.
Probably the number of hours in a day is one. Certainly you talk about taking that break, taking that vacation time, or even taking the time to go out to visit with somebody else. Certainly there are times of the year when there is no way I can leave the farm because all I would do is sit there and shake with the stress of talking about my stress with somebody else.
Certainly that creates one pretty enormous challenge: Where is that priority, and what should I be doing in a day?
I think the biggest one, though, remains the financial aspect. So many of the problems that we have—whether they be weather, crop prices, the price of equipment, or whatever—always go back to, at least in the back of my mind, that it's going to mean less income. Where am I going to find more income somewhere else this late in the year? That really probably is the biggest factor for most, and that financial aspect probably is tied to most of the issues. Can you make it to the end of the year and into the next?
Third—at least around our place— is probably still that succession, that family dynamic. It's really easy to say we'll separate the business side and the personal side, so whatever you say on the business side, we won't take it personally at suppertime. Well, that doesn't always work very well. The ability to manage the family relationship at the same time as the business relationship with exactly the same people can certainly create stress.
Thank you to the witnesses. I just want to say thank you to Andrew Campbell for stepping out—he's a neighbour. With regard to that #farm365, I can only imagine the stress that comes when it's not just you but your family receiving those comments, many of them from animal rights organizations or those who think we're poisoning the world by growing good crops. I just thank you for doing it. Now you're out helping us advocate as farmers and talking about Fresh Air Media. That's what yours is, I guess.
I just want to say thank you to all of you for coming out.
I really do want to touch on, though, the impacts that are happening. We've had individuals here who have talked about the situations. It isn't just the individuals. A few of us can remember back to the eighties. We know very much the stress that goes on, not just for the farmer but for those in the whole family. I agree with my colleague that our wives, our spouses, carry that same load.
Heather, you talked about the stress on women. They do carry it differently. They really do. I can't speak for everyone, but we tend to take things up here a little higher and they tend to dig in, because the kids are closer and they feel that responsibility.
How do we reach out? Do we know organizations?
Keith, you have the OFA. How do we reach out for professionals who are not just academic professionals but actually professionals who have some life experience on the ground and actually understand what some of those situations are? Maybe they've walked through them, or maybe they have had family who have walked through them. Are those people available?
Welcome to the second hour of our study on mental health for farmers and agriculture.
In this second hour, we have with us Mr. Murray Porteous, past national labour chair of the Canadian Horticultural Council and vice-president of Lingwood Farms Limited. Welcome to our meeting.
We have the president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Ms. Louise Bradley. Thanks for being here, Ms. Bradley.
Also, by telephone, we have the president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, Mr. Ray Orb.
We will start the opening statements.
Ms. Bradley, do you want to get us going on the opening statements? Thank you. You have six minutes.
I'm delighted to be here this morning to talk about a topic that I, along with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, am quite impassioned about.
We have long understood that to get to the heart of addressing mental health and wellness of Canadians, we absolutely have to look beyond the health care sector. We need to understand that when we say “mental health”, it cuts across all jurisdictions—and I mean all jurisdictions. I would be happy to give you an example of what another country is doing in that regard. That's why the Mental Health Commission of Canada has prioritized working with unconventional partners, and chief among those are the workplaces.
When we first began to champion the national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace about four or five years ago, we had to get employers to reimagine the concept of what a workplace is. We also had to remind our stakeholders that workplaces don't begin and end with office buildings—they simply do not. We've done a great job at helping to support a range of workforces, from first responders, to trucking companies, to health care providers, to help them put employee mental health on the agenda.
We've had some pretty good results. So, where am I going with this? Well, farmers, producers and those mining our natural resources are equally people at work—hard at it, in fact. Rural Canadians are some of the toughest, hardest-working people anywhere in the world. But, as we've seen from our efforts with first responders, being tough isn't the same as being invulnerable, so we need to step up to the plate collectively and take a look at what's happening across our farming communities.
We need to give some serious thought to how we are supporting their mental health, because the challenges they face are complex and layered. Their chosen jobs are replete with realities most of us would find quite daunting. It's an around-the-clock job, 365 days a year, and profits are reliant on the vagaries of weather, the supply chain, trade agreements, and other factors far outside the realm of their control. And there are very high levels of stress and isolation. Compound to that is stress with a lack—and I mean a lack—of access to mental health care. Let's remember that access to services is scant and often unavailable in most communities across this country, and that stigma is hardly a thing of the past in communities where everybody knows everyone else.
These reasons just scratch the surface as to the need to examine where a pan-Canadian responsibility lies in bridging the gap that too often sees agricultural workers and producers suffering in silence before resorting to suicide.
Addressing this may seem a daunting task, but back in the seventies, when Canadians were dying in car accidents, we didn't throw up our hands and say there's really not much we can do about that; it's too hard a problem. In 1971, seatbelts were made mandatory in all new cars. Legislation was enacted to make sure we used those seatbelts. We've seen even stricter evolution over car-seat requirements. Grassroots organizations and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have lobbied hard to raise awareness about the dangers of impaired driving.
These and many other practical measures taken together actually save lives. In the same way, we have to build a practical framework to address the mental health of farmers, and we need to build better broadband infrastructure. Investing in e-mental health programs is not only wise but is the way of the future.
We should be making evidence-based distance mental health skills training, such as that provided by the Strongest Families Institute, widely available right across the country.
Taken together, these efforts would give farmers the opportunity to seek help where and when they need it, at a time convenient to them, and in the privacy of their own homes. It can be done.
We need to implement suicide prevention programs, such as the one the Mental Health Commission of Canada is promoting and now doing in three provinces in rural sectors. It's called Roots of Hope. It addresses such things as means restriction, provides resources such as walk-in mental health services when needed, and creates groups of like-minded people to share stories and act as peer supporters.
In 2015-16, the University of Guelph did a study co-authored by Andria Jones-Bitton, which revealed that of the 1,000 participants engaged in agriculture, nearly 60% were to be classified as suffering from anxiety.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members, for allowing me to appear here today.
I've never been more nervous making a presentation. This past year has been extremely stressful: we've survived two tornadoes, which struck four of our nine farms; I had a knee shattered in June, which I'm hoping to have back to normal by January; but the worst part was undergoing an integrity audit through Employment and Social Development Canada.
I've been involved in the seasonal agricultural worker program for many years and have represented Canada in international negotiations for the program for the past six years. I'm the past chair of the labour committee for the Canadian Horticultural Council. When the ESDC first introduced the concept of having an integrity audit process, I was very supportive of it. I said we need to have integrity in the program; we need to ensure that workers are protected and that people follow the rules; and there need to be consequences for those who do not. We get a bad reputation as the agriculture industry when somebody doesn't comply and misuses workers. I've been very supportive of it, but right from the start I said that the integrity audit process needs to have an appeal process whereby you can have people who actually understand agriculture look at a situation and decide whether there is a real threat or not.
Second, it needs to be timely. In horticulture, timing is absolutely critical. Asparagus, when it's hot, will grow eight inches a day. I have to harvest it at between seven and twelve inches. That means that most days when it's warm, we harvest every day in asparagus; some days we harvest twice. I need to make sure we have workers available.
If the government decides, as they did in my case, that someone is not going to have workers, I'm out of business. That had serious impacts not only for my business but also for my family members.
Last October I was informed that I was going to go through an inspection, as they called it. I thought, well, okay; they have a random audit process, and that's fine. I was expecting this at some point; they're very thorough. They said, no, it's a risk-based audit. Right away that triggered some panic in me, because a risk-based audit means you are suspected of serious violations of the program requirements. You could be suspected of, for example, sex trafficking, imprisonment of workers, non-payment of workers, violence against workers, deplorable housing conditions—any one of those things.
What surprised me is that they wouldn't answer when I asked them what I was being suspected of. I'm right in the category with all of that. My neighbours all know that I'm under inspection, and so they obviously start saying that I must have done something really wrong, because that means they can stop processing your applications for workers for next year.
The government is so slow in working that I have to apply right now if I want workers next spring to start harvesting asparagus. Any delay in that process really screws me up. It used to take the government ten days to process those applications. We're now talking about several months for them to process them. When you add in an integrity audit process, who knows where the end line is and whether you'll even have a workforce.
When they came and said in October that they were going to do this integrity audit, I was very relieved to hear them say they would not stop processing my application in the meantime. What I didn't know was that they were lying to me: they did stop processing my application. I didn't find that out until two months later.
Maybe I shouldn't say lying, but they weren't telling me the truth. There's a difference. There are different silos within the ministry. Communication isn't really good, and one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing, and when they find out, nobody has the authority to overrule anybody else. As a farmer, you thus end up as a victim.
I thought, okay, I'm well organized; I'll submit everything they've required. I did that in November. I started experiencing health effects in October when they told me I was going to have an inspection. My resting heart rate has been 48 for the last 40 years, up until October, when it dropped to 40, which I thought was odd. Then one night while I was sitting watching TV with my wife, I said, "I don't have a pulse." She said, "That's ridiculous. Check somewhere else." But no, I didn't have a pulse.
What would happen was that my heart rate started ranging between 33 and 190 as a resting rate, and then it would reset for several seconds and wouldn't restart, so I was experiencing blackouts and things like that.
Anyway, we started going through this process, and we didn't know what we were accused of. You're guilty until you're proven innocent, because they're not going to process your application until you're cleared, which means you could be out of business right away. I farm in partnership with my brother-in-law and my father, and we also employ my son. My father is 81 years old. He started worrying about whether he's going to have enough money for his dotage when he gets old so he withdrew his member loans from the company.
I can't blame him for doing that. It's the prudent thing to do. When the bank realized that we had no guarantee that we were going to have workers this spring, they started to become nervous as well. We had less working capital because of my Dad withdrawing funds and also because our business was growing, so we had to increase our operating loan. The bank required an appraisal of all of our assets and then renegotiated our financing. That was okay. That was a little bit stressful, maybe, but we had hope that this integrity process would go tickety-boo. There's nothing wrong here. There's nothing to look for.
I was assured in December that I would know within days, not weeks, that I had my approval. That was the beginning of December, and I received my approval in about the third week of February. In the meantime, calls weren't answered, emails weren't answered, and we kept going through ridiculous questions. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada staff even suggested we move closer to town because there were more unemployed people there to hire.
First of all, it's a pleasure to be here today.
My name is Ray Orb. I am the president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, known as SARM. We have been the voice of rural Saskatchewan for over 100 years and we represent all of the 296 rural municipalities in our province. As an association, we are mandated to work in agriculture, which is an important sector and a way of life in this province.
Going back to 1911, we reported that there were 95,000 farms in Saskatchewan, and the crop area going to wheat was 5.3 million acres. In 2016 we counted 34,500 Saskatchewan farms and 11.8 million acres of wheat planted, more than double the area that was reported in 1911. The landscape has changed over the course of the last one hundred years. There are larger farms yielding more production while at the same time there are fewer farms and fewer farmers, and this has all had a hand in creating additional stress for producers.
Farming and ranching have unique occupational hazards and stresses, with strong traditions of being independent occupations. The Agricultural Health and Safety Network was founded in 1988 in Saskatchewan by the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture along with SARM and originally with six rural municipalities in the province. It actually provides support to improve health and safety on the farm. According to the Agricultural Health and Safety Network, farmers are exposed to a great deal of physical health risks, along with long strenuous labour and poor working conditions inhibited by weather and time of day. Due to the nature of farming, farmers and their families are susceptible to high levels of stress, depression, anxiety and suicide.
Long hours in the field, unpredictable weather and often low commodity prices are all common concerns for producers in Saskatchewan. If you mix those things, for example, with a prairie fire that destroys homes, crops and livestock, you have the perfect recipe for stress coupled with disaster. That's exactly what happened last year in the southern half of our province, in the fall of 2017, as we saw hundreds of livestock perish and close to 35,000 hectares of pasture land lost in a fire that swept through the Burstall and Tompkins, Saskatchewan, area last October.
I had the opportunity to hear first-hand from farmers and ranchers as we toured the area to witness that devastation. We met with several ranching families who have been devastated by the grass fires. Many of them have lost a good part of their livestock herds, their pasture and their livelihood. When I asked how they would recover, they said they had faced adversity before and pulled through then, and they'd pull through now.
As an association, we hear producer frustrations about land prices, taxation policies and the lack of safety net programs with regard to their operations. As a retired farmer myself, I realize it's impossible to alleviate all the stresses of farming and ranching, but it's imperative that we have mechanisms in place to support our producers in times of need.
According to a 2016 study from the University of Guelph, Canadian farmers are more stressed than those living and working elsewhere. The survey found that 45% of respondents had high stress; 58% of them were classified with varied levels of anxiety, and 35% had depression. As well, 40% of the respondents agreed that they would be uneasy about getting professional help. This demonstrates that there still is a stigma associated with mental health treatment, especially in the agriculture industry.
If you look at a report on how to feed the world by 2050, it indicates that by that time the world's population will reach 9.1 billion. Food production must increase by 70%. Annual cereal production needs to reach three billion tonnes, and annual meat production will need to increase by over 200 million tonnes.
To ensure a sustainable food system, we need to ensure we have healthy producers, and we need to look at the ag industry holistically. We need to equip our producers with all the tools they require to be healthy, productive and successful. This should include safety net programs that address disasters, such as prairie fires as a result of extremely dry conditions.
We need to have forage and pasture insurance available to farmers that is affordable, timely enough and adequate to protect farmers from disasters. Sometimes it's also necessary that programs be modified, such as the livestock tax deferral program that permits livestock producers to spread income over a longer period of time when they are forced to sell part or all of their herds.
On behalf of Saskatchewan's rural municipalities, we thank the standing committee for the opportunity to lend our voice to this important conversation.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, all of the witnesses and also the witnesses who spoke earlier.
It's difficult for me to figure out exactly where to start in this.
I am a farmer. Right now we have our crops under snow. When you add that, and when you take the regulatory burdens that are associated with it, such as those of the Canada Revenue Agency and the added stressors they have there.... I believe, Mr. Porteous, you mentioned the integrity audit, and how you are suspected of being something that you aren't. There's exactly the same situation with the CRA and with the other concerns that people have. It's just so frustrating.
We have groups, such as Do More Ag, that are out there talking about things. What we need is a “do no more harm” from governments and other groups, like anti-farm associations. We heard earlier about the attacks we've had. It's something that is so critical. I think of all of the different things.
As Canadians, we'll apologize for anything. Other people around the world understand that. We see that happening in our oil and gas industry. All of a sudden we are afraid to take our natural resources to tidewater, where the rest of the world is filling in the gap. We lose because of that. Our forestry has had the same types of attacks from Greenpeace, and so on. Our agriculture groups are having the same issues as well, as we deal with GMOs and all these associated non-tariff trade barriers.
That is the attack. For the people who are watching and for the members we have here, these are the attacks people are talking about when they say that this is where the pressure is as far as agriculture is concerned.
Ms. Bradley, you spoke about the need for appropriate training for mental health workers, but I believe that one of the things we heard before is that the medical profession doesn't understand. You can't simply say, “Go away from the farm. Stay away for a while.” That doesn't work when you live where your work is and where your family is. I think that becomes one of the critical things for training, to make sure we have a group of farm folks who have that.
Look at retired farmers. They're the ones who understand all of this. There's a pool of people you can also talk to and work with.
Ms. Bradley, can you think of any strategies that could allow that to be part of it?
Mr. Porteous, perhaps you could fill us in about some of the concerns you have with regard to government intervention, if there is enough time.
I think one of the concerns we have is we talk about farm workers and the employees and so on, and how important those are, and we have all of these programs, but the person who owns that farm is also working on that farm. You have situations where—and in Alberta we're at this stage now—if you have a certain number of people then there's a chance to do unionization, and isn't that going to help your operation?
These are the other sorts of issues that are coming at us because of the government not understanding what the farm is like. That's one of the situations you have.
Nobody understands a 90-hour work week. When you go and tell people that, they think you're full of it. Nobody understands that's exactly what you have to do.
Then they have other added stresses. It's one thing to deal with the weather, but it's something else to have somebody say, guess what, you're causing global warming so therefore we should be taxing you a little bit more, and I'm sure that will help.
If there's any time left, I'll let you rant [Inaudible-Editor].
Lack of access to services is a huge problem among the farming community and anyone right across Canada but particularly those in rural settings.
The program I mentioned, called Roots of Hope, is something that.... Yes, it is important to have trained professionals, but in some of the smaller communities where we are seeing that program being rolled out right now, there's a thing called peer support work. Not everybody needs a highly paid clinician. There is a time and a place for that. But certainly having access to peer support....
We have to be more innovative. In a country the size of Canada, we can't build mental health clinics on every single corner.
I mentioned e-mental health. Those services can be accessed online or even by telephone if need be. It has seen great success in areas within Canada, as well as in other countries.
I mentioned Strongest Families, which has a huge program that can be accessed 24-7 at home. We know that cognitive behaviour therapy for anxiety and depression is not only as effective online as it is in person but sometimes even more so.
I think we have to rethink the way in which we are delivering services, in order to get these important programs to people, particularly when they are feeling suicidal.
Mr. Porteous, I'm very disturbed by the testimony we heard from you today. This is a study on mental health, but what you went through manifested itself in physical terms. I'm very sorry. I know you were nervous appearing before the committee today, but I hope you view this body as a committee of parliamentarians who are very interested in the subject, and I think we are all united in trying to find ways to make the system operate better.
In this case, we potentially have three ministries involved—Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; ESDC; and Agriculture Canada. I've dealt with the federal government for many years now. Before I was a parliamentarian I worked for an MP as a caseworker. I have seen what happens to constituents when federal ministries are not doing their job properly. Often it's a problem of communication. They work in their individual silos. They are not aware of the holistic aspect of the problem. I'm worried this might be the case here.
If the government is causing this kind of stress for farmers, we need to fix the system. This committee needs to send a clear message to the minister.
We understand the problem. I don't want to dwell on that. I want to move forward to constructive solutions. With all your expertise, what recommendations can this committee make to the federal government to make the system better so we are looking after farm workers? Because that's a very valid concern, but we also want to make sure that farmers have access to that labour pool, and that they are not suffering from the same kind of stress you went through.
I can think of four cases offhand that are exactly the same as mine, involving the same timing and so on. When the investigations of all four of them were completed, they found absolutely nothing that any of the farmers had done wrong, but they had interrupted their businesses for four months in that process.
If there's not a major concern—and I don't believe there was in any of them because mine wasn't as a result of a complaint.... I was told by a senior official that it was the senior officials himself who registered the complaint against me, but I can't get that in writing because they are blocking the freedom of information request.
You need to have a system that doesn't assume you're guilty until you're proven innocent. If I were a rapist, I would have more rights than I do as an employer, because rapists are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. That's step one.
Step two is that you have to have somebody who understands agriculture making decisions about agriculture, because otherwise they don't know what they are talking about.
Step three is that you have to have a goal. If the goal in Canada is to grow the economy and grow agriculture as a major driver of the economy and grow employment.... Horticulture is a huge employer in agriculture. We can't get Canadians to do the number of jobs we need done. We need a reliable workforce, and the seasonal agricultural worker program works very well in filling that growing labour gap. If we're really serious about the sector, and if horticulture actually matters in Canada, it needs to be a priority. We have to have integrity in the system, yes, but don't destroy the system while people who don't know what they are doing are performing a check.
Yes. I think each time we do an adaptation of two of our training programs, The Working Mind and Mental Health First Aid, we learn something we can pass on to the next one.
I think my biggest learning throughout all of this over the years has been with the issue of stigma. I'm not talking about stigma for farmers, although that is a very real thing. We have all kinds of evidence that if we made the right investment and created programs that could address the mental health of the agricultural community as well as elsewhere that they would work, but we're not paying attention to that evidence. It leads me to believe—and we are now starting to study it more at the commission—that there is the issue of what we are calling structural or institutional stigma.
There is all kinds of evidence to demonstrate that if we did the right thing, it would work. We simply aren't doing it. We have to reach a crisis, and I believe that we are in a crisis situation right across the country in terms of suicide. Our rates stayed the same for over a decade but are now climbing. Never mind all of the deaths by opioid overdose that aren't actually suicides. We are not doing anything nationally. It is happening piecemeal across the country to address this crisis situation.
Stigma on many different fronts has to be addressed. The answers are there. We simply are not putting the time, money and effort into developing the answers.
I want to thank the witnesses for their presentations today.
My question is for Ms. Bradley.
In Canada, we do not currently have a mental health strategy for farmers. We know that farmers' mental health problems can lead to even more serious problems, and sometimes even to suicide.
We also know that depression in the general population, not just among farmers, costs Canada $32.7 billion per year. Problems with anxiety cost $17.3 billion per year.
Do you have similar data to share about farmers specifically?
We simply don't have the programs. I mentioned one program called Strongest Families, out of Nova Scotia. It's being provided across the country in various sectors, yet there are huge communities that do not have access to it.
New Zealand does. It has a program for families—as one specific example—in which children are having difficulties. I can assure you that if there is stress and anxiety among parents and in their families, children feel it too. With this program they are able to access services in the privacy of their homes, so stigma isn't an issue, and they are able to do so at times that are convenient for them.
That is one example of a program that is not being provided right across the country, particularly in Ontario. It could do a great deal to help the plight of farmers with children who have difficulties.
Then there's the whole issue of e-mental health. That is another way, although I'm not aware of any program focusing simply on the agricultural community, but it could be developed. E-mental health is certainly a way of addressing that gap for people who work very long hours, as we've heard, and at very different hours.
Thank you, Ms. Bradley.
Unfortunately, that's all the time we have. I certainly would like to thank the panel, Mr. Porteous and Ms. Bradley, for talking to us today.
Mr. Orb, I understand, had a power outage, but we will forward your questions and try to get an answer from him.
Just before you leave, I have three little things I want to share.
Thursday, October 18 is the deadline to submit recommendations in relation to the study of the advancement of technology in the agriculture industry that can support Canadian exports.
Friday, October 19 is the deadline to submit travel proposals for the period of January to March 2019.
On Monday, there will be the draft report prepared by the analysts. It will be distributed to all by email.
Also, I want to thank Monsieur Berthold.
He mentioned that this student was here with us.
I hoped you enjoyed the session.
Thanks for sitting through it. Hopefully it was helpful.