Ontario calls on federal government for increased support as province’s ag sector faces COVID-19 outbreaks
The Ontario letter specifically asks the federal government to allow the use of federal quarantine facilities, increased in-person inspections of farm housing, and more education for workers around COVID-19 precautions and income supports.
By Stephanie Gordon
The Ontario provincial government, alongside several agriculture industry groups, have called on the Canadian federal government for additional support as the province’s agriculture sector faces COVID-19 outbreaks.
The Windsor-Essex, Ont. area reported 22 new COVID-19 cases on June 30. This increase follows the confirmation of 177 cases on June 29, after the local public health unit started targeted testing on farms. A single farm in Windsor-Essex was the site of 175 cases of COVID-19, CBC Windsor reported.
Premier Doug Ford and Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ernie Hardeman joined the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, and National Farmers Union, in writing a letter to Prime Minsiter Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau calling for more support from the federal government.
The letter thanks the federal government for the support already provided for the agriculture sector and Minister Bibeau’s ongoing engagement. The federal support includes $50 million for agriculture employers to implement COVID-19 measures and $252 million split up across multiple streams to help producers adapt their practices, boost food processing capacity in Canada, and minimize food surpluses.
“However, the agriculture sector continues to experience urgent challenges through this crisis. Farmers are confronted with inadequate availability of labour, additional costs to keep employees safe, and tremendous market volatility,” the letter reads, noting the ways in which agriculture producers continue to struggle. In particular, the letter notes that fruit and vegetable growers have experienced increased costs and reductions in planting due to a shortage of labour.
The letter calls on the federal government to do more, stating that, “It is clear that current support levels for our farmers are not sufficient to ensure food security for the broader public. The agriculture sector needs additional government support now.
“It is clear that current support levels for our farmers are not sufficient to ensure food security for the broader public. The agriculture sector needs additional government support now.”
“Farm operations with employees are dealing with significant costs related to COVID- 19 workplace safety including purchasing personal protective equipment, modifying workstations, and modifications to housing to enhance physical separation. Ontario has taken action to safeguard farm workers and protect the food supply, including providing up to $15 million through the Enhanced Agri-Food Workforce Protection program. Additional federal support is critical to support our famers in taking necessary steps to protect their employees – including temporary foreign workers – from COVID-19.”
More supports for temporary foreign workers
Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program is currently under the spotlight in response to COVID-19 outbreaks on farms and the death of three workers. On June 19, 2020, the Canadian federal government announced it would be overhauling its temporary foreign worker program. The program review was first reported by The Globe and Mail, which outlined that the government will be looking to increasing surprise inspections of working and living conditions and also considering establishing a national standard on living conditions. Mexico, one of the partnering countries in the program, also put a pause on sending workers to Canada in mid-June, but resumed after the two countries reached an agreement on improved safety protections for workers on Canadian farms.
Premier @FordNation, our farm organizations & I are united in calling on the federal government to increase support for Ontario’s agriculture sector & to do everything we can together to protect our agri-food heroes from #COVID19 as they feed our country at this challenging time. pic.twitter.com/QJXnho2i2T
— Ernie Hardeman (@erniehardeman) June 30, 2020
The Ontario letter specifically asks the federal government to allow the use of federal quarantine facilities, increase in-person inspections of farm housing, and more education for workers around COVID-19 precautions and income supports.
“Increased protections for temporary foreign workers after arrival in Canada should include the use of federal quarantine facilities for those who test positive and cannot self-isolate on the farm, along with increased in-person inspections of existing on-farm housing. The initial quarantine period should be used to educate workers about how to protect themselves from COVID-19, workplace health and safety, and labour entitlements,” the letter lists. “We request the federal government’s help to ensure that farmers have access to the workers they need through the program and that those workers have the necessary supports while in Canada.”
What Ontario has done
The Ontario provincial government removed the three-month waiting period for Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) coverage on Mar. 19, 2020 for uninsured people who do not meet the criteria for OHIP coverage. This move was “to ensure that no one is discouraged from seeking screening or treatment for COVID-19 for financial reasons.”
The Ontario provincial government removed the three-month waiting period for Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) coverage on Mar. 19, 2020 for uninsured people who do not meet the criteria for OHIP coverage.
“This applies to all new/returning residents to Canada who are eligible for OHIP coverage upon their arrival to Ontario (including temporary foreign workers who meet all other criteria under law). Additionally, the province is covering the cost of COVID-19 services for uninsured people who do not meet the criteria for OHIP coverage,” the letter explained. Ontario’s Ministry of Health won’t reinstate the three-month waiting period until “it is advisable to do so.”
“Increased support from the federal government would allow for better protection of temporary foreign workers and help stop the spread of COVID-19. To support these efforts, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is working closely with Ontario’s local Medical Officers of Health to strengthen protection for workers under of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.”
The letter also mentions the ongoing work by federal, provincial and territory agricultural ministers, but states that “we need those discussion to result in swift and meaningful action” and that “a national problem requires a national solution.”
The Ontario representatives lay out that they have already put forward a proposal that would promote nationally consistent support for farmers through AgriStability but they are waiting on a clear response to the proposal from the federal government.
“Provinces can’t do this on their own. The joint provincial AgriStability proposal advances meaningful improvements to support the agriculture and food sector to weather this storm. We would ask for your response at your earliest convenience,” the letter concludes.