by SUSAN MANN
Two farm groups are growing concerned about the roadblocks Ontario agriculture ministry extension specialists face to attend the out-of-province meetings and conferences that help them remain up-to-date in their subject areas.
Harold Schooley, research section chair for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says provincial extension staff not being able to attend meetings in surrounding jurisdictions in the United States reduces Ontario’s access to research and technology transfer information shared at those gatherings.
“All of a sudden people are being told they can’t go across the line,” he explains, noting researchers in other countries may be reluctant to share their information if Ontario extension staff don’t attend and talk about their work.
“Things have tightened up over the last few years,” he says, noting previously staff members were only allowed to attend a certain number of out-of-province meetings a year but now they’re not allowed to attend extension meetings out of Ontario.
Ministry spokesperson Susan Murray says by email staff can attend meetings out of Ontario. There has been a process in the Ontario Public Service for many years to approve staff travel “to ensure public funds are appropriately spent.”
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales says the Ontario Agricultural Commodity Council discussed the matter at its meeting last Monday. The group has sent a letter on behalf of all the non-supply managed commodities in Ontario expressing its concerns to provincial Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin.
A government employee who asked not to be named says out-of-province travel is under greater restriction now than it was a year ago, or five years ago. Staff must meet criteria such as building a business case about why it’s important to go and submitting forms nine weeks before departure.
Sometimes people don’t get invitations or know about meetings until a few weeks before the event making it difficult to attend, says the employee, who traveled out of Ontario this year.
The increased level of process and time required to get travel plans approved have had a negative impact on the number of staff or the willingness of staff to try and go to extension meetings, the employee says. Moreover, filling out the forms and filing them in time doesn’t guarantee success but the employee describes the approvals success rate as decent.
The employee recommends farmers tell their provincial politicians they want extension staff “to have the freedom to do their job to the best of their abilities, which would mean less communications restrictions and less restrictions on travel,” within reason in terms of budget.
Schooley says they were also concerned because ministry staff was under “a gag order” during this fall’s provincial election campaign, “which everybody knew about because they wouldn’t talk to you, they wouldn’t send you anything by email or mail you any reports and stuff.”
Schooley says he isn’t sure where the gag order came from but says it hasn’t been totally lifted.
Murray says it wouldn’t be fair to say there was a gag order during the election but there “probably was a little more scrutiny on what was being said” to ensure public service employees couldn’t be seen at all to be supporting any one party.
Asked who was concerned about ensuring staff couldn’t be seen supporting any particular party, Murray says it was a direction from the Cabinet office to all ministries. “It’s the same with every election because they’re really concerned about impropriety, which is fair.”
Murray says there isn’t the same level of scrutiny now the election is over as there was during the campaign.
Schooley says the matter of agriculture ministry staff travel will be raised at the fruit and vegetable growers’ association annual convention next month. There’s a resolution before the delegates that Schooley hopes will pass and from there “it will be turned into a lobby position.” BF