The Commons: Playing 20 questions with Gerry Ritz

The Commons: The Agriculture Minister returns to the House

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. Thomas Mulcair stood and turned in his spot to directly face the Agriculture Minister seated across the way. After three days elsewhere, Gerry Ritz was back in the House of Commons. And with the Prime Minister occupied by a photo op scheduled for precisely this moment, there was now no one between Mr. Ritz and the opposition MPs who were here to shame him.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair began, “is the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food willing to accept responsibility for the self-regulating food inspection system he put in place?”

The New Democrats stood to cheer this query. Mr. Ritz stood to respond.

“Mr. Speaker, of course, there is no such system,” he asserted. “The CFIA operates at a professional level on a program called CVS which was implemented in 2005.”

This disagreement here was thus no less than definitional.

Mr. Mulcair stood to elaborate on his concerns. “Mr. Speaker, yesterday the head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told reporters that key E. coli testing data had been withheld from government food inspectors by XL Foods. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food knew that food safety data was being withheld. He knew that there were unsafe conditions at XL Foods,” the NDP leader said, venturing his reading of events. “Why did the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food withhold that information and endanger the lives of Canadians?”

Mr. Ritz stood to offer his assurances. “Mr. Speaker, when the first sign of E. coli showed up on September 4, CFIA took that seriously and recalled that product, brought it back to the facility and destroyed it. None of it got into the retail system,” he said. “Having said that, it began operations on September 4 and has been operating every day since. I have been meeting with CFIA officials on a daily basis to ensure that it has the capacity and is doing everything it can to ensure Canadian food safety.”

The NDP leader pressed further about what had gone wrong and what the government knew. Mr. Ritz pressed his case about what had happened and what had been done well.

With his fourth opportunity, Mr. Mulcair tabled the probably inevitable proposition. “The Minister of Agriculture has no other choice,” the NDP leader declared. “He must resign.”

The New Democrats stood to support their man’s demand. This being Mr. Mulcair’s first demand for a ministerial resignation—a seminal moment in the life of any new leader of the opposition—balloons should have been released from the ceiling and the proceedings halted so that the NDP leader could be presented with a commemorative painting or engraved watch, but instead Mr. Ritz was immediately afforded the opportunity to respond.

“Mr. Speaker, what the member opposite fails to recognize is that the OECD, an international body, has ranked Canada’s food safety system right up there at the top,” he offered in his apparent defence. “Every other country that we deal with, including Japan, that has a robust food safety system looks to emulate ours.”

It is unclear if Japan has been asked to comment since the beef recall.

“We will continue to do the job,” Mr. Ritz continued. “We will enhance what CFIA has, the rules and regulations it works within, and the dollars it will have to hire more inspectors. I am hopeful that the NDP will support us in those initiatives.”

He chopped his hand a bit at the end and the Conservatives in attendance stood to cheer and demonstrate their support for their man.

With his fifth and final opportunity, Mr. Mulcair reviewed the indictment and repeated the demand. “Mr. Speaker, key safety equipment damaged and inoperable, no clear testing standards, no monitoring system for tracking high rates of E. coli, withholding key food safety data, all of this just four years after the same minister of agriculture presided over another tainted meat scandal that killed 22 Canadians and he made jokes about it,” he scolded, jabbing his finger in the air. “This time the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food knew what was going on. He withheld what he knew from Canadians and he is refusing to be accountable. He is the one who put the self-regulating system in place. He is responsible. Why is this Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food still in his position? He must resign.”

Once more the New Democrats stood and cheered.

Mr. Ritz stood and reiterated his defence. “Mr. Speaker, there is no such thing as a self-regulating system in Canada,” he asserted. “CFIA has a number of different jobs it performs in these plants every day. The particular plant in question has 46 professional CFIA staff, which is a 20% increase over just a few years ago. We take this very seriously. We are working to ensure that CFIA has the regulations it requires and the monetary capacity to get the job done. I am hopeful that the NDP will work with us in the future.”

He was yelling at the end and the Conservatives stood up around him to cheer (various MPs in the Liberal corner mockingly calling them on).

Alas, Mr. Ritz was just a quarter of the way through the interrogation. Bob Rae wanted to know about gaps in the timeline. The NDP’s Malcolm Allen and Ruth Ellen Brosseau did too. NDP MP Philip Toone wanted to know why suspect meat was still being sold in his riding as of yesterday. Claude Gravelle wanted to know about broken rinse nozzles at the XL Foods plant. Linda Duncan returned to the subject of self-regulation. Peggy Nash asked about budget cuts.

Seventeen questions into the afternoon, Liberal Marc Garneau stood and simply explained what he wanted Mr. Ritz to say. ”Here’s what Canadians wanted to hear a responsible government,” he cried. ” ‘Yes, we have a serious problem. Yes, we are focusing on the problem immediately and yes, the health of consumers is our first priority.’ ”

Mr. Ritz was concerned that Mr. Garneau had not heard his reassurances. “Mr. Speaker, I am not sure where the member has been,” he pleaded. “We constantly say how seriously we take food safety by enhancing the capability of the CFIA to do its job.”

Not until the 19th question, did Mr. Ritz obviously wobble.

“We continue to enhance the capacity of the CFIA from both a budgetary and human resource perspective to get that job done,” he explained. “To make sure that it has the ability to capture any type of product like we see here, we build a body of evidence in our timeline and are looking forward to more recalls coming out.”

Perhaps “looking forward” was not quite the phrase Mr. Ritz was looking for here.

The Stats. Food safety, 20 questions. Aboriginal affairs and ethics, four questions each. Employment insurance, three questions. Airports, two questions. Trade, fisheries, veterans, health care and foreign investment, one question each.

Gerry Ritz, 20 responses. Pierre Poilievre, four responses. Kellie Leitch, three responses. Kerry-Lynne Findlay, John Duncan and Denis Lebel, two responses each. Peter Kent, John Baird, Keith Ashfield, Steven Blaney, Leona Aglukkaq and Peter Van Loan, one response each.

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