Do you remember 1979? It was the only winter in recent memory that was colder than the one we are experiencing now.
If you are a farmer, you also remember it as the year grain was stockpiled in grain bins and elevators rather than being moved across the Prairies to be shipped to global customers. The breakdown in the system caused serious financial stress on farmers and farm-related businesses.
The years 1978-79 and 2013-14 are similar with respect to weather and the plight of the Prairie farmer, but they differ in one major area.
Today, some Canadian politicians, industry leaders, rail companies and Canadian citizens have shifted their focus from the movement of grain to the movement of oil and other resources. The building of more pipelines would help to take care of the movement of oil and free up the rail capacity for grain.
Agricultural producers and related industries have been moved down the ladder of priorities, once again placing stress on our farmers and industries that service agriculture and sending a message to our global grain customers that Canada is an unreliable supplier of the most important form of energy -- food.
If the problems of the past repeat themselves, can we sometimes look to the solutions that were found then to help guide us in finding solutions to the problems we are facing today?
In 1979, Manitoba premier Sterling Lyon, attending a national first ministers conference on the economy, stated if producers could get their grain to market, it would have an immediate and positive impact on the entire Canadian economy. He proposed a two-day National Grain Transportation Summit to be held at the Manitoba Legislative Building.
The proposal was accepted, Lyon was charged with arranging the summit, and the organizing began.
The list of those invited to attend included politicians and industry leaders from across the country who recognized there was a serious national problem that needed to be addressed.
Those attending included the four western premiers: Bill Bennett of B.C., Peter Lougheed of Alberta, Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan, with Lyon acting as chairman; Otto Lang, the federal minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board and other portfolios; the presidents of the two national railways; the heads of Canadian grain companies; agriculture industry leaders; port and regulatory authorities; labour leaders, several others involved in the grain industry; and finally the national media. The summit took place in mid-January 1979.
As Manitoba's minister of agriculture and one of the organizers of the summit, I can say with pride this was a major undertaking initiated by the provincial government that led to commitments by all the major stakeholders involved. At this point the finger-pointing, the blame game and the excuses were put aside and replaced by a spirit of co-operation that led to a series of actions intended to solve the problem.
Some of the actions included:
-- On behalf of their taxpayers, Lougheed and Blakeney each committed to purchase 1,000 grain hopper cars.
-- Lyon agreed to lease 400 to 500 grain hopper cars.
-- Lang committed to additional grain cars on behalf of the federal government and all farmers through the CWB.
-- The president of CP Rail committed to $75 million in added locomotive power.
-- CN Rail promised rail and equipment upgrades for the grain sector.
-- The major Prairie grain co-ops and private grain companies committed to building new grain terminals at the port of Prince Rupert, B.C., with financing in the millions of dollars offered by Lougheed through Alberta's Heritage Fund. B.C.'s Bennett committed to port infrastructure support for the terminals.
All commitments made were ultimately fulfilled.
To quote a highly regarded senior Canadian business leader, George Richardson, "There is a solution out there for every problem; you just have to find it."
The summit proved the truth of that statement. Through vision, organization, co-operation, commitment, determination and follow-through by all the people involved, a major economic problem was on the way to being solved.
Now it is time to give support to Canada's minister of agriculture, Gerry Ritz, and the provinces, which have been working hard to get the grain moving again. It is time for the political and grain-industry leaders to assemble in one room and look for ways to get our grain moving in order that our farmers can be paid for the work they do.
In the interest of Canadian farmers, our most important energy producers, it is time for action!
Jim Downey was Manitoba's minister of agriculture from 1977-81 and deputy premier, 1990-99.