Commissioner for Oats

What future for farms and forests?

By Paula Simons

When my dad was a little boy growing up in Round Hill, Alberta, he was immensely proud that his Pa was the Commissioner for Oats. My Jewish grandfather wasn’t a farmer. He ran Round Hill’s general store. But in a farm community, my dad figured being the Commissioner for Oats must be a very important and prestigious job.

When my father was 8 or 9, the family moved to Edmonton’s bustling Boyle Street immigrant neighbourhood and left their oat-growing neighbours behind. So I don’t think it was until my dad himself started law school at the University of Alberta that he finally realized his own father had never in fact been a Commissioner for Oats. Instead, he’d been Round Hill’s Commissioner for Oaths. Since neither his Yiddish-speaking father nor his Eastern European immigrant customers could pronounce that final “th” sound, my young father naturally assumed they were saying “oats” instead of “oaths.”

The pandemic and its accompanying supply-chain crisis have thrown into stark relief the vulnerability of our food supply.

This was one of my dad’s favourite anecdotes, one he told pretty much every time he was called upon, during his long legal career, to serve as a commissioner for oaths himself. Now, a generation later, the story has come full circle. Or maybe that should be full crop-circle. Not that I’m actually Canada’s Commissioner for Oats. But I am the brand-new deputy chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry—known colloquially in Ottawa as AGFO.

It’s the first time in three years that an Alberta senator has served on AGFO, and the first time in almost a decade that an Albertan has been selected to a leadership position on the committee. As a city girl, I’d never expected to hold this position. But I can’t think of a more essential or exciting time to be working on these files.

This pandemic and its accompanying supply-chain crisis have thrown into stark relief the vulnerability of our food supply lines and the fragility of our ability to keep grocery shelves stocked. Canadians are facing major price hikes at those same stores, while few farmers are seeing any benefits from those higher prices. Prices of Alberta’s signature steaks and roast beef, in particular, are soaring out of reach for most families, but Alberta’s ranchers and cow-calf operators sure aren’t cashing in. Those profits are being taken elsewhere along a production line dominated by a handful of multinational giants.

At the same time, a series of climate crises, particularly the fires and floods and freezes in BC, have exposed susceptibilities in the transportation conduits we rely on to ship our food exports—and our forestry products—to international markets. Alberta canola, lentils, wheat and, yes, oats, got stranded in elevators for weeks when rail lines were washed out and trains couldn’t get our crops to the Port of Vancouver.

Climate change is having a direct impact on farmers, ranchers and foresters all across Canada. At the same time, farmers, ranchers and forestry companies are trying to figure out how to adapt their own practices to help them reduce or sequester carbon while they work.

And against that backdrop, fresh trade wars and trade skirmishes are playing out—with China playing games with imports of Canadian beef and pork, with Canada challenging the latest round of punitive US softwood lumber tariffs, with the Americans challenging our restrictive dairy rules, and with new attention to the whole marketing-board/production-quota model in Canada, which, with each passing year, seems more and more a throwback to another century.

Today we need to be thinking about everything from the health of our soil—which is integral to everything we grow—to the health of our economy as we consider the future of agriculture and forestry, two land-linked industries dominated by near-monopolies (or monopsonies), a condition that puts severe limitations on robust market competition.

Senate committees don’t always capture the Canadian imagination. A couple of years ago, when I was serving on the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, we made a few headlines when we held hearings from coast to coast on the controversial Bill C-69, which amended Canada’s environmental impact legislation. It was the first time the Senate had ever held hearings on a bill outside of Ottawa, and as we travelled from Vancouver to St. John’s (with stops in Calgary and Fort McMurray), hundreds and hundreds of people turned up live to watch our hearings in progress.

COVID-19 is going to limit that kind of road trip. But Senate hearings are always public and always available to live-stream—even if they aren’t always the sexiest of clickbait. Whether you’re watching or not, here’s my oath that I’ll be doing my best to fight for a prosperous, environmentally sustainable and globally competitive agriculture and forestry sector—and to make my father and grandfather of blessed memory proud.

Paula Simons is an independent senator and the host of the podcast “Alberta Unbound.” She lives in Edmonton.


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