NDP community benefits agreements create policy conflict for new premier

Policy from past haunts Eby

The messy dispute surrounding Indigenous participation in a new hospital project in Duncan provides a cautionary tale for Premier David Eby about the need to overhaul some of the archaic policies of his predecessor before they blow up in his face.

Eby was left to solve an uncomfortable dilemma not of his own making this month.

On the one side, a union-only construction program crafted by the John Horgan government. On the other, a mid-Island First Nation locked out of helping to build a $1.45 billion hospital on its own land because its construction crews weren’t unionized.

The conflict perfectly encapsulates the tensions these days within the NDP – out-of-date policies from the last administration, designed as favours to the party’s long-time friends, clashing with the modern landscape of Indigenous reconciliation being led by the current premier.

The Cowichan Tribes had, for months, tried to negotiate a solution to being locked out of the Duncan hospital project, but to no avail. The NDP was in the middle of changing leaders and wasn’t listening. Plus, the previous Horgan government had made it clear that union-only construction rules, called community benefits agreements, should be adhered to rigidly.

The Cowichan Tribes, however, was unimpressed.

“It is unacceptable that the traditional peoples of this land should be excluded and deliberately prevented from playing a role in the building of vital community infrastructure,” Chief Lydia Hwitsum wrote publicly Jan. 19.

“This amounts to a rejection of our Rights and Title within our territory. It is hard to believe in today’s environment of Truth and Reconciliation that we would find ourselves in this situation.”

By the time the issue burst into the legislature this month, in the form of angry Indigenous contractors sitting in the public gallery and Opposition MLAs hurling fiery questions, it was already a full-fledged political hot potato.

Eby, to his credit, barely hesitated in crafting the solution after it became a political issue on the floor of the legislature. He created an exemption for the Cowichan Tribes. Indigenous contractors on the project won’t have to be unionized to work on the site, he ruled.

Behind the scenes, work started to make sure at least some of the remaining sub-contract work was directed towards Indigenous companies.

Still, it was weeks of negative controversy that the NDP could have, and should have, avoided.

Eby didn’t create the community benefits agreement program, he inherited it from the last premier. It actually dates back to the 1990s BC NDP government, when unions were the party’s largest donors and held all the sway in the hierarchy of the party’s internal power structure.

Horgan came from that era of the NDP, as did his senior strategists and Labour Minister Harry Bains. It made sense for them to resurrect what amounts to a public kickback scheme to the party’s friends in organized labour, because that’s the NDP they knew.

Eby, however, owes organized labour nothing.

He crafted the law that banned union and corporate donations, neutering the financial grip unions held on the party. His strategists have experience from the 2020s, not the 1990s. And the NDP’s power base now lies in urban Metro Vancouver, instead of the union-heavy natural resource towns of the NDP’s past.

The new premier has also placed a renewed emphasis on First Nations reconciliation.

He was the first premier sworn in at an Indigenous ceremony, at the Musqueam Indian Band. In the last month, he’s delivered several speeches to the natural resource and forest sectors, warning that Indigenous consent and participation is now a requirement of proceeding with major B.C. projects.

All of that must have made it extremely frustrating for Eby to watch the province’s largest First Nation, in Cowichan, accuse his government of denying its rights to fairly participate in a project on its own territory. It is the antithesis of the Indigenous-led future Eby has been promoting.

The grand irony of CBAs was they were supposed to boost Indigenous employment on public projects. Instead, they ended up locking out one of the most sophisticated, modern First Nations from even participating. The public is paying for this policy – it drives up the cost of taxpayer-funded roads, bridges and hospitals by an extra seven per cent to help line the pockets of NDP-friendly unions – but, apparently, without achieving the stated benefits.

Eby’s exemption for the Cowichan Tribes is the first of its kind for the CBA program, but it will not be the last. He’ll need to turn that policy into swiss-cheese to make it relevant to today’s landscape.

The Horgan government left Eby a political landmine in the form of CBAs. He’ll have to start combing through the books, looking for others.

The last thing Eby needs as he tries to push the NDP into the future, is antiquated holdovers from the past dragging him back down.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Dairy producers not milking the system

Make milk dumping illegal

A video of an exasperated Canadian dairy farmer, Jerry Huigen, went viral recently.

For probably the first time in Canadian history, a Canadian dairy farmer was filmed while discarding milk on his own farm. Almost three million people have now viewed that video. It shocked many Canadians, who were left wondering why this is even possible when food prices are skyrocketing at the grocery store.

The dairy industry has its reasons. Supply management, which is our government-sanctioned quota system, allows 9,500 dairy farmers to produce what we need as a country. The system is highly protected with import tariffs, and the Canadian Dairy Commission sets an appropriate price for farm milk so that farmers can make a decent living.

But dairy cows cannot magically start and stop making milk and butter fat. It just doesn’t work that way. So, most farmers will overshoot to hit their quota. Feed, the weather, and many other factors influence milk production – most Canadians can appreciate that.

Based on rough estimates, it is believed Canadian dairy farmers can dump up to 300 million litres a year in Canada. I asked the Canadian Dairy Commission for exact figures on the amount of milk dumped, and they could not say, which is a problem in and of itself. Since the dairy industry is self-regulated but highly protected by public policy, the Commission, a crown corporation, ought to know. But transparency is hardly the dairy sector’s strong point.

In Ontario, an amendment to By-Laws for Marketing Boards under the Milk Act was made last fall, allowing the Dairy Farmers of Ontario to “list and maintain the confidentiality of commercially sensitive DFO board documents.” Similar rules affect other dairy boards across the country. The DFO did disclose the amount of wasted farm milk prior to 2022. Moving forward, that is highly unlikely to happen again.

Now, as usual, dairy advocates were quick to go on the defensive in an attempt to trivialize the issue of milk waste on the farm. Dairy Farmers of Canada are always ready to send marching orders to those affiliated with Canada’s dairy practices. Their message always implies supporting the status quo, without saying so directly. They did the same with the “Buttergate” scandal in 2021 when it was disclosed that dairy farmers were using palm oil derivatives to feed cows, making butter harder. And they are doing it again, normalizing what is seen as completely unacceptable for Canadian consumers and taxpayers.

Milk dumping remains a highly taboo subject within the industry, which is why dairy boards do everything they possibly can to silence people and make embarrassing stories disappear. It shows the true dark side of supply management, the system farmers care very much about.

What is being missed in this debate is how supply management can actually eliminate all waste as the quota system can be used to our own advantage. Producing food only to destroy it makes no sense, especially with looming emission targets. Most dairy farmers around the world do discard milk occasionally. But Canada has the perfect system in place to eliminate all waste.

Firstly, we need to make milk dumping illegal. This policy shift will provide an incentive for farmers to adjust. Right now, dumping is the easiest thing to do: making it illegal would force marketing boards to find a market for the surplus.

Secondly, the CDC should create a strategic reserve for milk or powdered milk. Most Canadians aren’t aware that we already have a strategic reserve for butter, which includes over 85,000 kilos. Such a buffer could help between processing and shipping to markets abroad. And finally, we need processing plants.

Canadian dairy farmers have often argued that we can’t ship Canadian milk abroad; that is until China decided to build its own plant in Kingston, Ontario, called Canadian Royal Milk. That’s right, Ontario dairy farmers are supplying this Chinese-owned plant to produce baby formula, and all its products are shipped to China. We can certainly do this ourselves. All we need is to create an incentive for change.

Change for the better is possible. The first step to fixing a problem is to recognize that we have one. Meanwhile, though, many dairy advocates and academics will continue to normalize the issue of milk dumping by calling farmers like Jerry Huigen incompetent, foolish, and irresponsible. We also have zero publicly available data about farm milk waste, as we continue to pay more for milk and dairy products at the grocery store.

Huigen, with his 43 years of experience as a dairy farmer, has now delivered what Canadians deserve from the industry. Courage, transparency, accountability. This is what we need, now more than ever so we make supply management work for farmers and Canadians.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Grocery receipt mistakes costing Canadians plenty

Check your grocery receipt

If you’re not checking your grocery receipts for errors before leaving the store, chances are you’re overpaying for some of your groceries, especially for discounted items.

In the U.S., some states have tried to put a number to the problem of receipt discrepancies. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Standards Division collected fines—the average fine was between US$40,000 to US$50,000—from dozens of Walmart stores due to pricing errors over the course of 2022.

The agency found about 26% of price scanner inspection failures. The technology itself was an issue, not human error. The department also detected that in roughly 10 per cent of cases, at least one item was overcharged for one reason or another.

Aldi in Australia recently got into hot water when consumers took to Facebook to share easy-to-spot errors the grocer was committing. Worse, the errors were repetitive. In the same country, at Coles Supermarkets, it was revealed an automatic discount was issued to regular shoppers who were mistakenly charged full price on previously discounted items. The chain even spontaneously printed the word “apology” on receipts.

In Canada, few know how significant this problem is but mistakes on grocery receipts do happen and they happen for a variety of reasons. For one, cashiers or other employees may accidentally input the wrong item or price into the system. Also, the store’s technical equipment may malfunction, leading to incorrect pricing or item information, especially on items that are either volume discounted or even “enjoy tonight” deals.

Price discrepancies are also quite frequent. Stores may update their pricing regularly, especially these days, leading to differences between the advertised price and the actual price charged at the checkout. Scanning errors may also occur when an item can be double-scanned.

Another common mistake will occur even before you show up at the register. While shopping, you may think you’re reaching for an item on sale but end up with a higher-priced item because a clerk stocked the shelf with the wrong product.

Mistakes on receipts can happen for countless reasons, but some people never check receipts. Anywhere from 35% to 45% of Canadians rarely, if ever, verify grocery receipts for errors, according to estimates, while about 30% of consumers will always check. Many don’t bother because they feel rushed or can’t pay attention for one reason or another. Some opt to use self-checkouts for that exact reason.

The onus is on you to be extra careful.

Consumers who are more vigilant and check for mistakes will likely save more money. But as a shopper in Canada, you do have rights if you see a mistake at the grocery store that ends up costing you more.

Many years ago, the Retail Council of Canada, along with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, instituted a national scanner price voluntary code. Consumers are entitled to a discount of up to $10 for each scanning error at participating food retailers, including Walmart, Sobeys, Loblaws, Costco and Metro.

In Quebec, it’s the law. Grocers must give the discount but in the rest of the country, retailers should comply with the code and give you a discount and are obligated to display a description of your rights as a shopper at checkout areas.

The pressure of exiting the store as soon as possible, coupled with bagging items yourself, means that errors can be overlooked. With food prices the way they are these days, if you see a mistake, don’t hesitate to alert a clerk or manager.

And don’t wait until you get home. Few will go back or will forget about it.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Many Canadians skeptical of new drinking recommendations

Guidelines hard to swallow

It looks like we all need to drink less alcohol.

Last fall, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a national organization that provides information and advice on substance use and addiction, shared recommendations that we should all drink no more than one or two drinks a week. We learned recently these are now Canada’s official guidelines.

Since 2011, in Canada, moderate drinking has been defined as up to two standard drinks per day for women and up to three standard drinks per day for men, with no more than 10 standard drinks per week for women and 15 standard drinks per week for men. So, a limit of one or two drinks a week is a complete departure from the public recommendations we had been given before. Furthermore, the CCSA also recommends adding warning labels on bottles, stating that alcohol can cause cancer.

It’s unclear whether Canadians would appreciate such labels, but when looking at the scientific literature and the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, the findings in recent years are overwhelming. The evidence that alcohol causes seven types of cancer is now incredibly strong. Numerous studies from all over the world can easily be found; many of them aren’t cited by the CCSA. Some articles claim that current estimates suggest that alcohol-attributable cancers make up 5.8 per cent of all cancer deaths globally.

These studies, coupled with the CCSA’s recommendations, will likely be received by many Canadians with great skepticism. After all, we are living longer, and many seniors drink regularly and responsibly without experiencing any health issues.

Alcohol has been around for a very, very long time. Historians claim that fermented beverages existed in ancient Egypt. Some archives also suggest alcohol was drunk by the Chinese over 9,000 years ago. Intuitively, it’s hard to understand why anyone would put alcohol in the penalty box, as we did with cigarettes or other such harmful products in our lives. According to multiple studies, other substances and factors can cause cancer. But the risks have now been demonstrated scientifically.

But the CCSA’s scientific evaluation is far from perfect. For one, a number of studies still show the benefits of moderate consumption when considering all the causes of mortality in determining health risks. In other words, drinking may not be the main cause of death, even for a regular consumer of alcohol. These studies are mentioned in the report but barely in passing.

Another of the CCSA’s most significant oversights is its evaluation of the social and cultural aspects of drinking. Alcohol is very much part of many celebrations, leisure events, holidays, vacations, end-of-day routines, and more. The CCSA dismissed all research which looked at the social value of alcohol, believing none of it was worthy of scientific consideration. Perhaps overlooking such an important piece of behavioural science will only make more Canadians unconvinced. This research area requires more attention, and many Canadians would likely concur.

Socializing alcohol doesn’t just have its bright side, though. Undesirable social problems are also obvious, including mental and physical ailments, incidences of abuse, sexual and domestic violence, harassment, and so forth. Alcohol is often part of our society’s darker side.

The CCSA’s recommendations point to an opportunity for Canadians to have a deeper, better understanding of our relationship with alcohol. We need to be open and honest with ourselves while appreciating the fact that enjoying our favourite alcoholic beverage responsibly, in moderation, remains the most balanced policy.

But there is hope. If we can make chicken meat in the laboratory, we can certainly make synthetic, non-cancer-causing alcohol. In fact, GABA Labs, based in the U.K., has already launched a product called Sentia, which mimics the effects of alcohol, but doesn’t cause a hangover or long-term health consequences. Many expect the science to be perfected and commercially available in many outlets within five years. Quite promising.

Still, our beverage industry has done wonders for Canadians and will undoubtedly continue to innovate and offer great products for all to enjoy.

Food science can come to the rescue and help many Canadians lead better, healthier lifestyles. But in the meantime, the CCSA’s report is likely a difficult message for Canadians to swallow.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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