Church stands with Prairie farmers

Published September 1, 1999

“Act of God” or not, the Anglican Church is lining up behind Prairie farmers facing an economic disaster after a combination of torrential spring rains and low commodity prices played havoc with this year’s crop.

Bishop Malcolm Harding of the Diocese of Brandon said no one in the rest of the country seems to be paying much attention to the situation which is threatening the livelihood of Western farmers.

The bishop has written to all parishes alerting them to the importance of the farm crisis. More work needs to be done in the pastoral area, he said.

One farmer told him he felt the need to meet with other farmers to talk about the problems. “The women do it well but the men have a bit of a struggle,” the bishop said. “There’s a role for the church.”

Ministerial groups are to meet in September to discuss other ways to help.

It’s a crisis that has built slowly and lacks the dramatic pictures that captured people’s imagination and sympathy during the Ontario-Quebec ice storm and the floods in Quebec’s Saguenay region and Manitoba’s Red River. But the implications of this disaster are likely to be more severe and long-lasting, warn observers in the region, who suggest the long-term outlook for farmers has not been as bleak since the 1930s.

Bishop Harding says he and Rev. Larry Winslow, regional dean of the Peace Garden Deanery, have been working together to deal with the crisis on a “political, pastoral and prayerful level.” This includes lobbying the federal government for assistance for farmers. The national church’s general secretary, Jim Boyles, has already written Ottawa supporting the diocese’s call for action.

The Rural Disaster Recovery Coalition, which includes Manitoba’s agricultural producers, chambers of commerce and the association of municipalities, predicts losses of $240 million in the farm sector this year.

The coalition says because the situation is an “act of God,” it should be regarded by governments as a unique circumstance and should be addressed outside existing agricultural support programs.

Three factors led to the current crisis, Bishop Harding said. Record-high spring rains left many fields unsuitable for planting and overgrown with weeds; commodity prices were low; and Canadian farmers have difficulty competing with American and European farmers who still receive subsidies.

Canada has eliminated almost every farm support program while other countries have continued to prop up their agricultural industries, Hartley Furtan, an agricultural economist at the University of Saskatchewan, told the Canadian Press’s Sandra Cordon. While the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades demanded reduced agricultural subsidies, it did not call for their elimination.

As many as two million acres of farmland in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan went unseeded this year. As Fr. Winslow wrote in an article, this compares to 1,800 unseeded acres in the Red River flood of 1997. Canadians hit by the recent natural disasters were able to return to their lives and occupations with minor interruptions, he said. That’s not true with the current farm crisis, which could result in farmers losing their livelihood.

Bishop Harding has visited farms in hard-hit areas. “I would say the mood is extreme anxiety,” he said.

“There’s a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that nobody cares, nobody’s listening,” Bishop Harding said. “I’m talking about farmers who are good people; these aren’t moaners and groaners. It is a very complex issue but right now there is a need for immediate relief.”

The Diocese of Brandon sent a resolution to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien calling for emergency financial relief for farmers. It has approached the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund for assistance as well. The Primate’s Fund will consider a request for assistance once a particular program of assistance and a budget is identified, said Elsa Musa, co-ordinator of refugees and emergency relief.

Most of the Fund’s cash goes to overseas projects because those emergencies are so acute and there is often little other assistance available, she said.

In the meantime, the Primate’s Fund will channel money to farmers from Canadians who wish to help. People can mark Western Canada Farm Crisis on their cheques.

Longer-term solutions need to be considered once the immediate emergency is over, Bishop Harding said. He notes the Manitoba government has offered some relief, including financial aid for students, but the federal government had yet to act, except for offering quicker access to existing aid programs.

Meanwhile, farmers are staging protests by blocking traffic with farm vehicles. Bishop Harding said he might join one of the protests.

“As Christians, we must stand up when people are hurting,” he said.


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