Some Ontario farmers who failed to get a payment from an OMAFRA program more than a decade ago are concerned that the reasons the program failed could be replicated in new programs with the same poor results.
They continue a sometimes lonely fight in the courts and in the court of public opinion to get the funds they believe they were owed from a government program and accountability from government.
The Ontario Cattle, Hog and Horticulture Payment program (OCHHP) was put in place in 2007 after a confluence of factors caused a steep drop in hog and cattle prices and challenges for the horticulture sector.
Why it matters: There are concerns that COVID-19 programs rushed into place could suffer from the same administration challenges as the OCHHP.
The program was developed at extreme speed for government – put together in a couple of weeks near the end of the year with farmers calling for a payment by Christmas. Funds flowed in early 2008.
The funds were funnelled out quickly, and helped many farmers. But that speed meant that only farmers previously enrolled in a government program were eligible and payments were based on receipts from 2000 to 2004, which resulted in an estimated $13.5 million sent to 1,700 people who were no longer producing hogs or cattle. Farmers who started farming or had recently expanded – who it could be argued were most in need – got little or no payments.
That included Ursula van den Heuvel O’Neil and her husband Will O’Neil who had purchased a hog farm near Forest in 2005. She says 7,200 farmers missed by the program are still owed money.
Six other farmers filed court documents before the Statute of Limitations was up for taking action on the program. The Statute of Limitations is the period of time after an occurrence during which legal action can be taken.
OMAFRA said in a statement to Farmtario that “As this matter is already before the courts, we cannot provide comment on concerns about the program.”
OMAFRA said that it has complied with all requests for information from concerned parties including government auditors on the OCHHP program and that it understands the concerns about the program.
Van den Heuvel O’Neil has boxes and boxes of correspondence from her search for justice for farmers who were missed by OCHHP. She’s become an expert in Ontario government policy formulation and she worries that nothing has changed that could prevent another OCHHP program happening during another crisis.
An Auditor General’s report in 2017 pointed to flaws in Ontario agriculture programming, including issues with the Risk Management Program, the federal-provincial AgriStability program and the need for a framework for future crisis programs so that the OCHHP problems aren’t repeated.
Issues more than just policy
“I think at the time people thought, ‘This is a policy thing, people fall through the cracks’, and that’s just the way it is,” says van den Heuvel O’Neil.
At the time, the young farmers’ group believed the formula was correctly applied but the policy itself was flawed.
“We believe that it’s an administrative problem,” she said in a recent interview at their hog farm. Van den Heuvel O’Neil’s dining room table was covered by her files on the issue.
In 2014 van den Heuvel O’Neil threw a bunch of terms into a Freedom of Information Act application and ended up with the actual delivery agreement.
Some of it was redacted and a further appeal got her more information.
“We were clearly the objective of the program and retired farmers weren’t,” she said.
“There is a mechanism in place that the ministry has to comply with, a risk management system that they have to follow,” and it wasn’t followed in the case of OCHHP, she says.
The Transfer Payment Accountability Directive (TPAD) requires certain standards of programs and accountability for how the money is spent in those programs and van den Heuvel O’Neil says that those standards weren’t met. The TPAD also requires corrective action when something isn’t working.
It’s the requirement for corrective action that van den Heuvel O’Neil says the requirement for corrective action is the basis of farmers’ continued claims for funds.
“I’m not sure why OMAFRA and Agricorp (which administered the program) feel they don’t need to comply.”
Van den Heuvel O’Neil wasn’t able to get any information about the Treasury Board note – the justification for spending – on OCHHP, and she says that information is important.
Because she believes that the issues with the OCHHP program are administrative, she went to the Auditor General who is responsible for examining the nuts and bolts of spending programs.
If the issue had been in policy, then the Ontario Auditor General wouldn’t have been able to take on the audit, says van den Heuvel O’Neil. She also talked to the provincial Ombudsman’s Office and it took a year for it to work out who would create a report on the issue. Van den Heuvel O’Neil then met with Auditor General Bonnie Lysek.
In 2017, Lysek’s report contained a significant series of criticisms of agriculture funding programs, including some points on OCHHP that van den Heuvel O’Neil had not previously known. For example, the Auditor General revealed that OMAFRA staff had raised concerns about the eligibility criteria before the program was launched and that a 2013 analysis by OMAFRA found that 1,350 farmers would have received payments if eligibility had been based on 2007 income instead of the earlier years.
There were more than 7,200 farmers identified in that report who expanded operations or started new and could have received insufficient payments.
“Over 7,200 is a significant number of people and not just a few farmers,” said van den Heuvel O’Neil.
She says it’s obvious that the standards for risk management assessments for the program were not upheld.
“The rules don’t need to be changed. They need to be applied. If this is what goes on in the other ministries, this should be a great concern to everyone.”
After the Auditor General report came out van den Heuvel O’Neil contacted then-Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal and her registered letter was returned unopened.
“That’s not democracy. That’s not how this works.”
She hasn’t found much support from the current Conservative government either. She has letters of support from when the Conservatives were in opposition.
“Ernie Hardeman (now agriculture minister), there was not much he didn’t do on this issue. He said in all his years as an MPP, this was the issue he had done the most on.”
However, there’s still no movement on the OCHHP now that the Conservatives are in power and she says they won’t discuss it as it is before the courts.
“I know of people that lost their farms, people who had to get out of these sectors, people who are still carrying the burden of whatever debt they had to take on in excess due to everything that went on. By no means was this program going to give you a nest egg in your account. It was going to give you the bare essentials to get you through.”
Van den Heuvel O’Neil can be contacted at [email protected].