Thank you. I'm always willing to relinquish the floor to one of our CFIA representatives.
Thank you very much to the committee for, first of all, taking the time and the effort—and the passion—to listen to some of the witnesses you've had. This is a very important subject.
It's great for me to be back with the committee. I've had the pleasure of sitting on both sides of the table. I started my career long before politics on this side of the table, and it's good to be back here.
It is a very important and, I would suggest, overdue subject for us to discuss, and when I say “us”, I mean farmers. I want to speak from the heart today; you won't have any prepared text in front of you to read.
I was involved in farming for 30 years. I grew up on a farm. I was farming for 30 years before I came here in 2004. It's a great life.
Farmers are a tough bunch. We're six feet tall and bulletproof—and don't ever tell us we're not—until we start having troubles. Also, that's not just for men; it's for women as well. I know a young woman who has unfortunately become a casualty, a statistic—but she's not a statistic; she left children and a husband behind, and no one quite knows why. We are very reluctant to speak about it or to anyone about it, and that's our biggest challenge as farmers, and when I use the term “farmers”, I mean farmers and ranchers.
We have many stresses, and so does every industry and every sector have stresses. Some of the farmer's stresses are unique: commodity market fluctuations; trade deals around the world, which we're hearing much about; skeptical consumers who want to know how we're producing this food; government interference, to be very frank; and food trends.
One of these that farmers have a unique challenge with and that creates great stress is the weather. There's no larger stress than watching your entire year's investment and effort become the equivalent of this carpet on the floor in 10 minutes. That's a challenge for any producer, whether there are issues with livestock or grains.
We also have more serious stresses coming from social media right now. I think you've had some presenters who actually reflected on that, on the attacks on public trust. That's one of the biggest issues. How do we gain the public's trust that we are doing the right thing?
We have financial stresses as farmers. There's no doubt about that, but we're such an easy target. Anybody can drive down the road and see the great big equipment out in the field, the big shiny red, green or yellow equipment. Wow, these big farmers: they must be greedy. They must be selfish. Are they worried about the food they're growing for me?
The same people who begrudge a farmer becoming larger to survive used to shop at a corner grocery store and now shop at the big box stores for the same things.
Don't forget that we consume the same food that we sell to our customers, and we do the best to provide a safe and nutritious food supply.
Farming is a solitary life, whether it's on horseback out checking cattle or spending hours in a tractor or in a combine, with 18- to 20-hour days. I can remember many of them myself. In our busy season, there would be weeks on end, days on end, where I would never see a bed; you would just lie down and nap for a while. We're against the weather. This fall was a prime example across the Prairies with the snow, and it wasn't just the Prairies, but Ontario as well.
We have a very unique work-life balance. We live on our factory floor. You look out the window and you see something to do every time you look out—this should be done, that should be done. How do you balance it with making sure that you spend time with your family? That's one of the challenges: the guilt of not spending enough time with your family.
I want to share one experience.
As politicians, you've all given many speeches. The most difficult one that I ever gave was a eulogy to a church filled with over 500 people, two children, a mother and wife, and the grieving parents of my best friend. What do you tell them? Do you say, “I failed because I didn't see that?” You can't tell them they failed because they didn't see it.
Therein lies the importance of what you're studying at this committee, because I still wouldn't know what to tell them, and I don't think many of us would. That's why we need professional help. We need to encourage people to speak up, to stand up for themselves and not succumb to the stigma of it being a mental problem, because it's no different from any other challenge we face or any other disease. It's good that we're talking about this at this committee.
It's not only that, but we can be our own worst enemy as farmers: “I can do this all myself; I don't need help.” I did that for a while, until I got a phone call one Sunday morning from a little girl who said, “Daddy's on the floor and mommy's in church, and I can't wake him up.” And neither could I when I got there.
He was the same age as me. I went home and said to my wife, “I'm going to change my way of doing things”, and I hired a couple of people to help me and I took some of that stress out of my life. If you can't recognize that, if no one's helped you recognize those sorts of things, you continue doing it until you end up a casualty lying on the floor.
I rethought my responsibility to the farm and I rethought my responsibility to my family, and I knew which one needed to take priority.
I'll just wrap up here.
Good morning, Mr. Chair. My name is Rick James-Davies. I'm a veterinarian. I'm also the senior director of west operations at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
I appreciate this opportunity to speak about this important subject, mental health in the agricultural sector, and specifically the impacts on farmers, ranchers and producers when they must hear stressful news.
I'll be speaking today about the CFIA and the way we approach and deliver difficult news.
To set the stage a bit, I want to explain that CFIA is a science-based regulatory agency. Our business stems from a very broad mandate that encompasses food safety, market access, plant protection and animal health.
Mr. Chair, as a regulatory agency, sometimes the CFIA has to make the hard decision to depopulate herds or flocks to protect animal health from the spread of disease in Canada.
We do this to protect all of Canada's producers, farmers and ranchers, and the country's economy.
We've had to do this during avian influenza, BSE, bovine tuberculosis and others. They are not simple decisions, Mr. Chair.
They’re not taken lightly.
The CFIA is aware of the impact such decisions have on producers, farmers and ranchers.
The way in which the news is delivered can make a big difference.
We start in how we train our inspectors and veterinarians. We take recruitment and training of our staff very seriously. We select the best person to do the job. To become a CFIA inspector or veterinarian, the candidate needs to demonstrate analytical thinking, interpersonal skills, teamwork, planning, organization, dependability, good communication, initiative and judgment. Once hired, our employees are required to attend a prerequisite training program, or PREP, which covers all the fundamentals of not only inspection but also values and ethics and how to have difficult conversations.
The training doesn’t stop there.
There is additional operational guidance provided for program- or situation-specific activities, such as how to respond to a disease outbreak.
Let me explain a bit about how we operate when an outbreak occurs.
In the event of a disease outbreak, CFIA mobilizes experienced staff from across the country to assist in the area where the event has been identified. CFIA inspectors, veterinarians and other staff who respond to the high-stress situations are acutely aware of the potential impacts on producers. Those responding are well trained in the specific outbreak on how to work with and speak to producers, farmers, and ranchers regardless of whether it's avian influenza, BSE, TB or something else.
I want to add that this approach also provides mentoring to our more junior staff in a buddy system so that younger inspectors learn from their more seasoned colleagues.
I have some real-life examples of how we interact with producers. One I lived through in 2016 was the bovine TB outbreak in the west.
I'll give you a little bit of context. CFIA doesn't work in isolation.
We partner with other federal departments, provincial counterparts and industry associations to the greatest extent possible.
We also take all the necessary precautions to maintain producer confidentiality. Provincial health authorities are one of the key partners so that producer health and mental health remain a focus. When necessary, we refer producers to the appropriate provincial partner to support their health.
When it came to TB in 2016, a representative of the Alberta Beef Producers was fully embedded in our emergency operation centre. They were able to provide valuable insights on the impacts of CFIA's activities on producers and on how we might mitigate some of them. We held regular twice-weekly calls with the Alberta and Saskatchewan cattle associations to make sure the right information was getting out. In addition, those associations were able to help direct producers back to CFIA or one of our partners to get the answers they needed.
Regular town halls were held in the producers' communities.
Several CFIA specialists were present at each of these town halls so that specific questions on testing, surveillance and compensation could be addressed.
As well, our partners were there so that the producers had direct access to those other departments.
Case officers were assigned to every producer.
These case officers were CFIA inspectors trained and knowledgeable in all of the elements of the investigation. They could answer most of the producers' questions as well as ensure that the producers were able to speak to the specialists on very specific technical issues.
We visited producers on their farms and in their homes, and we sat down with them as much as we needed to. Every situation is unique. Every farm is unique. Every producer's needs are unique.
We recognized this.
Producers who said they were not satisfied with the information they were getting from their case officer or the specialists were referred to me as the senior person in charge to see what more we could do to help, and what other resources we could bring to bear.
I can say that CFIA takes special measures to make sure that producers involved in an event are seen as individuals. They're not simply part of an investigation. Thus, after an investigation, we always take the time to do what we call a “hot wash” to review how the overall operations went and what we could have handled better or differently. We also routinely review and revise our guidance to inspectors who work in these challenging situations, and the agency and its inspectorate are involved between disease outbreaks so we can learn from our hot washes, continue best practices, review those challenges, and put plans in place to address them moving forward.
Additionally, feedback from the affected producers, farmers, ranchers and their associations is taken into consideration with a view to how we will respond to these events in the future.
Mr. Chair, as I said at the beginning, the CFIA is a science-based regulatory agency, and we as a regulator at times must deliver difficult news to producers, farmers and ranchers. We walk a very fine line in balancing the obligations we have as regulators with those of being understanding and sympathetic to the situation the individuals find themselves in. We try to do both with the help of our partners to the best of our abilities.
Thank you again for the invitation to speak today.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to both of our witnesses. I appreciate the testimony.
Mr. Menzies, I know you have come here as an individual; however, you have a wealth of experience working with producers throughout the county and again throughout the world as far as agriculture is concerned. You mentioned some of the stressors, and I think that's really what is important for us to consider. There are the threats we have by anti-farm activists. We have social media attacks. People have probably recognized, by listening to the testimony, just how difficult it is.
We also see the role of government. There are the carbon taxes and the regulations. There are the rules on neonicotinoids. Those of us in the west see the idiotic approach that is happening on that issue. There's the food guide and front-of-package labelling. All of these things are added stressors that agriculture people have to deal with.
I think back to, as Mr. James-Davies mentioned, the bovine spongiform encephalopathy. I was so frustrated watching the cow from the U.K. flopping around on Canadian television. We were dealing with that for years. If nothing else, I wish the CFIA had gone to the CBC and told them that this was inappropriate and had nothing to do with what was taking place on the ground. However, we allowed that type of media presence to frame the issue, unfortunately.
There are lots of these kinds of stressors. If people think that wasn't a stress, I think they're mistaken. I'll also throw in the potato cyst nematode issue out of Edmonton, where no one ever found it afterward. To most people, it looked as if it were a lab issue, not a health issue. There was frustration associated with that. It's another industry that felt it was being decimated.
Mr. Menzies, you've also worked on Ag for Life. I know that last year the key approach to that had to do with farm safety. This year the organization in which you are involved is talking about education and the opportunity to educate the public about what agriculture is truly about.
I need a minute or so at the end, so I might cut you off, but perhaps you could explain what the thoughts are here and how your organization is looking at trying to educate the Canadian consumer, even those living on the farm, about what is really taking place.
Thank you for that question. It is very important—and I've been cut off before, so I accept that.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Hon. Ted Menzies: This is one of the joys after politics: You're allowed to take part in some of these not-for-profit boards. You think, “I've spent my years in politics. What can I do now?” You can give back; I am, through Ag for Life in Alberta. There's also working with Ag in the Classroom across Canada. The two are partnering together on this. There was a successful safety trailer put together by Ag for Life. It went out in June last year across county fairs, schools, and all sorts of different community events. About 90,000 people, including children, got to go through this and learn about farm safety in interactive, technological ways that the kids love. We're going to mimic that with an agriculture education trailer that we think will be as effective.
There's a disconnect. Everybody used to have an auntie or a grandfather or a great-grandfather on the farm. There's a huge disconnect. Farmers are the best stewards of their land. They live on their land. They survive on their land. They want to pass it on better than the way they got it. They do their best to produce a safe and sustainable food supply. It's so easy to criticize them, and it's because of a lack of understanding of what goes on on the farm. Farmers are very vulnerable to this, so the more education....
This committee needs to be commended for raising this as an issue and in the broader context of the attacks on modern agriculture. We in this country are the benefactors of climate change; because our climate is changing, we can produce more food. We now have the responsibility to feed more people, because others will not be the beneficiaries of this changing climate.
Anyway, go ahead and cut me off, sir.
I don't need to add any more.
I'm very pleased that they're coming together. I am disappointed at how it happened. The minister knew and has actually complimented the committee for the work that it's doing on mental health, but nobody gave us any heads-up about what was coming.
All of a sudden, out of the blue, people are standing up, doing S. O. 31s and asking questions, and we're saying, “but we're in the middle of a study here”, which makes me begin to wonder why we're doing the study when the minister is coming out with an advisory group and asking them and what they're going to be putting forward. That was the disappointment.
I think we've been working very well through this study and others. That was a bit of a downside to it.
Obviously we support the motion. I'm glad to hear that you would do that and that we would get them in and that it needs to be a part of the end result.
I do not want to see what this committee has done being lost because we get trumped by that report. I'm not sure how that's going to unfold, because we're likely going to have a report done before whatever happens with the Farm Credit and the 4-H people. I'm not sure how that's actually going to end up and what impact it's going to have on our report. We'll have to deal with that as we go forward.
Your testimony came from the heart. You spoke from experience. I've had some friends who have committed suicide, but not on a farm. Personally I think we've probably all lived that. We've all known somebody who has gone through that.
With regard to your time in farming, you talked about social media and the pressures that exist now. I remember when I was in school that if a rumour started, it was just in the classroom, and if you were unlucky, it made it through the school, but nowadays, something starts and for farmers there are animal rights activists who really point fingers.
I'm not sure if they're really aware of the mental health challenges that doing that can pose for somebody who is 5,000 miles away and disconnected, but connected to their own community, working on acreages and acreages of land and, as you said, living where they work.
How do we prepare farmers to be better equipped to sustain that pressure, to take that pressure, but at the same time how do we inform the other side to understand the potential impacts that they're causing when they do that? I think there is a way to have a debate about these issues in a respectful manner. I'm just wondering if you've done some work through your organizations in terms of educating the public.
That's a very tough question. If we had the answer or the solution to that, I think we'd all be better off: those who don't understand, those who are living the agricultural life, and those who are worried about their food supply—and they should be concerned. We have issues with food safety. They're absolutely unintentional, but those things happen.
To me it comes back to the findings of a committee such as this that brings it out in public. I would hope that some of the people who don't understand the stress they're putting on producers could actually hear some of these witnesses speak and say, “I follow social media, and you're attacking me and suggesting that I don't produce sustainably or safely the food that I'm going to provide to you.” To those people, that cuts deeply and, yes, it's going to be a stress to them.
I hate the word “educate”, but how do we get farmers to stand up and tell their story? It's a good story: the sustainability, the way we're—and I repeat myself—leaving the land better than when we....
Thirty per cent of the land that I first took over back in the seventies was alkaline. It was pure white. It wasn't growing a thing. Through continuous cropping and modern farming practices, now it's totally productive, except for the fact that it didn't rain this year. We've improved it. We've improved the way that we produce food. We've improved the volume of food that we can grow that helps feed the world. How do we tell that story to convince those people who are justifiably concerned about our producing it in a safe manner? It's education.
Thank you very much, Chair.
Mr. Menzies, I also want to echo the comments of my colleague about your heartfelt opening testimony. Thank you for sharing your experience not only as a farmer but also from the regulatory side. Having been a member of Parliament and a member of the government, you really have seen this issue from all sides.
One of the most rewarding jobs I've ever had was when I worked at a blueberry farm as a teenager. The only constant thing on the farm was the fact that we were bringing blueberries up from the field. As you said, when you look around a farm, there's always something to do.
Even though it wasn't my farm, I can remember the huge sense of pride I had in seeing customers leave with blueberries that I helped bring out from the field and seeing the value that was placed on that product. We really cared about how we looked after those plants and the quality of the product that was going out the farm gate.
We've heard from a number of witnesses who were talking about the problems with social media. It's a new challenge that farmers are now having to deal with.
When you look at this committee's work and the possible recommendations that we can make, tailored in with the experience that you have, in what ways can we help re-establish—because I think the value has always been there—the value that farmers have for our society in terms of telling their story to the public and trying to provide that counter-narrative about the real worth they have?
Once again, that's a great question. I guess my answer would go back to education, but maybe we need to take it back a step.
Yes, there's Ag for Life in Alberta, and we're going to provide this unit to go to the schools, but there's always the challenge of fitting that into the curriculum. Is there time in a curriculum that's so full now to help young people who are going to grow up and maybe work on a blueberry farm—or maybe not—as they mature? You were privileged to be able to work on a farm. I always say that farm kids are so fortunate because they have to learn to live in both worlds, the city world and the country world. They're lucky. Our kids were lucky that they were able to do that.
How do we get this instilled in education? How do we get it to fit into the education system, not to show biases but just to teach them how important food production is in terms of where our food comes from, how it's produced sustainably and that it's healthy? We have to start at a younger age, in my view. The challenge, as the educators will quickly tell you, is in where it can be fitted into the curriculum.
Mr. Alistair MacGregor: Yes.
Hon. Ted Menzies: To me, it's a good fundamental education. We should be teaching people how to cook: how to prepare food, how to clean it and how to make sure that you are putting it on the table as safely as it was provided by a farmer. That's not even in the schools anymore:
Thank you both for being here.
I will start with Mr. Menzies.
As a former MP, you know we get into situations sometimes that are difficult to handle when we're working with our communities.
Last Saturday night I was at an event. The parking lot attendant from the University of Guelph is losing his son to cancer, probably by Christmas, so I went to the event to celebrate the life of his son while he is still alive.
There was a person at a table who looked like he'd had a stroke. Part of his face was not doing well. I started talking to that person, and it turned out that he was a farmer. He had put a gun in his mouth and blown away part of his brain. His wife was there. His wife got the suicide note. Now this person goes to talk at schools. There's a program in Waterloo Wellington called Beautiful Minds, and he will talk to school kids about suicide and the stress of being on the farm.
You mentioned Ag for Life as a school program. We have a school program locally. There are a lot of disjointed efforts, and as a former member of Parliament, you know that trying to pull all this together....
From your work in the not-for-profit sector with regard to things like Beautiful Minds or Ag for Life, could you maybe comment on some of the direct connections you might have had with people who are benefiting from the programs or are courageous enough to stand forward and talk about their challenges?
Thank you, Mr. Menzies and Mr. James-Davies, for appearing before us.
Mr. Menzies, those were phenomenal words. You're a man who is able to communicate, and I think that's what we need. We need two things, and you said that Mr. Longfield nailed it. I think he did, but you did as well when you said that you have to work together.
For all of the various folks involved in the farming industry and those who are outside, I think the ultimate goal is to have a safe supply of food. However, the folks looking in don't fully understand the challenges that farmers deal with. You talked about a solitary life and how you see it. How do you actually bring people together in concrete ways?
I'll give you an example from my neck of the woods of Steveston East Richmond. The farming is a little bit different. It's blueberries and cranberries. We used to have a hog industry, but not any longer. We have some chickens, organic and non-organic.
There's a movement headed by a great chap, Dr. Kent Mullinix, who heads up the food sustainability program at Kwantlen Polytechnic. He's trying to bring all the levels of government together, as well as the social groups, to head out to the schools and talk about where food comes from and try to connect with the guys in Richmond who buy the food—and not only the farmers in East Richmond and in Steveston, but farmers all across the country.
Based on your experience, what should he and other organizations who want to do this look at, and what factors should they focus on?
Thank you both for coming out. We have the greatest industry in the world in Canada, and that's agriculture. I believe that to be true. It sustains life for Canadians and many people around the world, because we export. I don't believe food safety is an issue here in Canada. It's often because of the foods that come in. We've never had a situation where it hit the marketplace. If we have, like BSE, it got stopped. The media coverage of what that was going to do was really detrimental to our agriculture industry, but we never stopped it. It went on.
Mr. James-Davies, I always get concerned when we review the transportation of livestock and the length of time livestock can stay on a truck. Coming from the west to Ontario, they want to unload them at Thunder Bay. Every time we unload livestock, we create an opportunity for risk. If an animal were to injure a leg or break a leg, actually there's nothing wrong with that animal except for its broken leg, but that producer has lost that whole animal. Those are stresses that are brought on by regulations driven by outside sources that actually don't understand the industry but are having a huge impact on farmers' mental health and the stress put upon them.
I mention that not to blame you, but to get assistance from people such as your inspectors, who actually understand the livestock industry and the transportation of an animal. We're not talking about moving people. If we had their assistance, perhaps we wouldn't get drawn into these things that place extreme stress on our producers.
Mr. Menzies, I also want to thank you for what you said. I'm just wondering how we train the trainers. You talked about the professional people, and we do too. Some of us here actually went through the eighties. Maybe you did too, although you don't look old enough.
Voices: Oh, oh!
That was the last question, but if I may, I'll permit myself to make a short statement as a lifelong farmer myself.
I agree with what you said. First of all, you have to surround yourself with your wife, your family, your good friends. I think that's the key to keeping a sane mind. You might come in and say, “The plastic on the other greenhouse just blew away. We lost all of what we had.” You need somebody, as you said, waiting for you on the other side to say, “We still have our family. We still have our health.” I think that's very important.
The other thing I might say is that we've heard testimony that we should shut down this site or whatever. I welcome people into my greenhouse at any time. I'm glad they're there. I'm glad we don't have DDT today. I'm glad we don't have chlordane or diazinon. That killed my dad. I'm glad the CFIA is there to protect us.
I'm glad, too, that in terms of the maple leaf, when we sell our product outside the country, people know we are a safe place. I welcome it. I'll stand up any time when people come into my greenhouse and show them what I do for them—any time.
Thank you, Mr. Menzies and Mr. James-Davies, for being here today as part of our study. You've certainly contributed to it very well.
We shall break and come back.
The Canadian Psychological Association, the CPA, is the national association for the science, practice and education of psychology in Canada. Thank you very much for inviting us to speak to you today about the mental health of one of Canada's vitally important communities.
Farming is a stressful occupation that can lead to depression, psychological distress and suicide. High levels of mental health disorders and suicide are significant health issues for male farmers worldwide. In Canada specifically, men die by suicide more often than women and are typically more reluctant to seek help.
Data collected in 2015 at the University of Guelph as part of a farmers mental health survey revealed that farmers experience higher rates of stress, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and depression than the average population.
Research has also demonstrated that psychological treatments are among the most effective of treatments for mental disorders, notably depression and anxiety, yet access to psychological services is an issue across the country for farmers, ranchers and producers, and every Canadian. Psychological services provided outside of hospitals and schools are not publicly funded. Canadians either pay out of pocket or rely on the private health plans provided by their employers, plans that often do not provide enough coverage for an effective dose of psychological treatment. Those who cannot afford to pay for treatment end up on long wait-lists or depending on prescription medications, which at present are also not publicly funded, or simply do not get help at all.
Being self-employed, farmers, ranchers and producers may not have private extended health insurance. Publicly funded mental health services in rural areas are often in short supply and wait-lists are long. Even for those who have private insurance or who can pay for care, the per capita ratios of all health providers are lower in rural than in urban areas.
Travelling to urban areas to get specialized mental health care means absences from work that farming may not permit. It means leaving families and support networks and losing revenue. For some farmers, ranchers and producers, seeking mental health services may not seem worth the cost of recovery.
The recruitment and retention of psychologists to work in rural and remote communities is part of the problem. It's estimated that the psychologist-to-population ratio in rural areas in 2012 was approximately 1:28,500, as compared to an average of 1:3,848 in urban areas.
Mental health service providers who do practice in rural communities often have large caseloads. The federal government can take immediate steps to help recruit mental health workers to work in rural and remote communities to ease caseloads and wait times.
In 2013, the federal government launched the CanLearn program that forgives a portion of Canada student loans for new family physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners who agree to work in underserved rural and remote communities. CPA has long asked to expand the program to include psychologists to improve the recruitment and retention of mental health care providers in these underserved communities.
There are other factors related to the values and experiences of farmers that may prevent them from seeking and receiving care. These include the stigma attached to mental illness as well as a lack of understanding of farming and its realities on the part of health care providers.
E-mental health services that include psychological treatment may help overcome some of the barriers to seeking care. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, e-mental health care shortens wait times, reaches across time zones, improves accessibility in rural and remote areas and is cost-effective. E-mental health treatments have also been shown to be just as effective as face-to-face treatment for certain illnesses and work for several kinds of mental disorders, including depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.
Internet-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy, offered through the online therapy unit at the University of Regina, screened 1,046 patients for Internet therapy last year. Of these, 8.6% identified as living on a farm and 23.2% lived in small rural areas.
It is the CPA's view that all care, whether delivered in person or virtually, should be delivered by or under the supervision of regulated and specialized mental health care providers and should be monitored for, and be guided by, their treatment outcomes.
In closing, the CPA would like to make the following recommendations: First, the government should fund research and programs delivering evidence-based e-mental health services. More can be done to promote these programs with farmers, ranchers and producers and to tailor programs and train providers to work with these communities.
Second, while we applaud the federal government's 2017 investment of $5 billion over 10 years in mental health, mental health spending should be increased from 7.2% of total public health spending to a minimum of 9%. The U.K. spends on average 13% of their total health care budget on mental health.
Third, the CPA has been part of a steering committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, working to advance e-mental health by calling for investment in proven innovations, addressing knowledge gaps and identifying and sharing best practices. We hope that the government continues to invest in the commission and this important work.
Fourth, we ask that the government expand the CanLearn loan forgiveness program to include psychologists working in underserved or rural communities. Doing so will improve the recruitment and retention of mental health service providers in these communities where mental health need is great and underserved.
Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.
I am Mary Robinson, past president of the Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture, P.E.I.'s largest general farm organization. Our federation's mandate is to help improve the sustainability of island farmers and farm families.
Today I will focus on the services we are delivering in P.E.I., speak of some specific concerns and give you my two cents' worth on what I feel our Government of Canada could and should do to better protect and fortify Canada's farmers, producers and ranchers.
First off, what are we doing in P.E.I.? In the 1990s and early 2000s, there were a couple of major stressors for agriculture in P.E.I. We had a potato virus that shut us out of fresh markets in the States, and BSE hit our beef producers hard. We saw a significant jump in the number of farmers and their family members seeking counselling services. National research highlighted farmers and their families being underserved with regard to mental health services.
A local counselling firm put these two points together and approached the provincial government in hopes of helping the P.E.I. farm community. Our Department of Agriculture approached our federation to discuss how we could partner to deliver a valuable program to P.E.I. farmers.
In 2004 our farmer assistance program, FAP, was launched. FAP offers confidential professional counselling services to P.E.I. farmers and their family members. Designed to help address issues that impact mental health and well-being, the program offers confidential sessions with a professional counsellor. On the front lines delivering the program we have two registered social workers and one registered psychologist.
The numbers from April 1 to September 30 of this year illustrate how important the program is. In those six months, 47 people used the counselling services and we delivered over 95 sessions. Topics addressed included marital issues, depression, anxiety, grief, life stages, PTSD, addictions, child management, and, suicide prevention.
FAP has been cost-shared between the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, and until recently had been allocated just under $13,000 per year. Uptake continues to grow. In some ways, this is a good problem, but it does result in continued and increasing budget overruns. In 2017 it became clear the program needed at least 50% more funding. We discovered that to avoid disruption of counselling services, the service providers had quietly been absorbing program losses.
For the last two years, the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture has increased its contribution. There were discussions with our Department of Health in hopes they would commit to topping up the program when necessary, but so far nothing has come of this.
After coverage in local media, Farm Credit Canada's Charlottetown office contacted our federation to express their interest in directly contributing this year. Since 2004 over 800 farm clients have accessed mental health services through FAP, with more than 2,000 sessions delivered in total. We continue to have strong feedback on the value found in these services.
Now for some specific concerns.
I know that this committee has been given several examples of producers' mental health issues. I would like to bring you one from P.E.I. Over the past four years, we have watched one farm family in particular be pushed beyond reason.
In August 2014 there was what we now call “a significant weather event”. These are really common now. They're common and they're more destructive. This one dumped three inches of rain in less than one hour. You can imagine that volume of water falling on a field. It resulted in water that was laden with silt and crop inputs—yes, pesticides, fertilizers, seed, what have you—running off the fields, busting through our established buffer zones—because farmers establish buffer zones—and ending up in ditches and streams.
Days later, 1,155 dead fish were found over a 3.5-kilometre span in the river. As a result of the fish mortalities, this farm family has been in and out of court for the past four years facing charges, acquittals, Crown appeals and now sentencing. Ironically, this farm was celebrated in 2012 for its environmental stewardship.
This family is a valued community member. They are employers, notable contributors to our local economy, and they work hard hand in hand with the local watershed group. Recently they took on more debt, reinvesting in their operation to expand it and to access more markets, so they've taken on more financial stresses. Most recently, one of their daughters has been diagnosed with cancer, and her baby's almost a year old. At the last court date, they were told that the Crown, pursuing DFO charges, is seeking a minimum fine of $175,000. I don't know about their farm, but I don't know if our farm could sustain a $175,000 fine and continue to operate. I can't imagine being faced with these stresses.
As in many regions in Canada, P.E.I. producers face many uncontrollable risks: weather, disease, pests, tight margins, trade vulnerability, buyer amalgamation, public trust issues, labour shortages, BRM shortcomings, and the list, unfortunately, goes on.
What can government do?
Now I get to the emotional part of my presentation. I was working on my Christmas card list earlier this week, and I had to remove two names, two producers I know who committed suicide. They died by suicide this year alone. If we want to be effective in quelling the losses and negative impacts resulting from mental health struggles, we must find the resources to implement a pan-Canadian approach to agricultural mental health research and to strongly support mental health initiatives across the Canadian agricultural community.
As a primary producer, I encourage this committee to take into consideration the potential negative impacts from different campaigns, for lack of a better word, such as front-of-pack labelling and access to temporary foreign workers. We know that producers are being held up, because they're being randomly audited. There is increased regulation. I have no trouble with common sense regulation, but it seems unending, and there is a lack of leadership, in particular from Health Canada and PMRA, to help instill a sense of confidence that our food is safe, that our farmers are doing good work, that we should be proud and we should be damn well happy.
I found Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton's statement summed it up well: “We can't have a sustainable food system in Canada if we don't have sustainable farmers.” This historically stoic profession, “six feet tall and bulletproof”, as I heard earlier, is highly vulnerable right now and needs help right now. Canada cannot expect its agriculture sector to grow and expand if it does not invest in farmers' foundational well-being.