Despite the tragic loss of his wife on the way, Henk Schuurmans was determined to complete his Canadian Milk Tour the second time around.
Schuurmans, a dairy farmer from Elmira, Ontario, pulled up to the Cowichan Milk Company on Koksilah Road in his pick-up truck on Oct. 1 with a large fibreglass cow in the back, signalling the western end of his trip to defend Canada’s dairy farmers and their way of life.
The visit comes on the heels of the announcement of a deal that would update NAFTA, but many feel comes at the expense of the nation’s dairy farmers.
Schuurmans and his wife, Bettina, had started their trip to B.C. from their hometown in July on a John Deere tractor to raise awareness about the Canadian supply management system and this nation’s dairy families.
But the tractor was rear ended on July 9 just outside Saskatoon in a terrible accident in which Bettina died and Schuurmans suffered a broken pelvis and ribs.
Schuurmans was determined to finish the tour to honour his wife and continue with his mission to draw attention to issues facing the nation’s 12,000 dairy farms, specifically challenges to the supply-management system that governs the Canadian industry.
After recuperating from his injuries, Schuurmans and his two daughters, Lize and Emily, left their home to begin the Canadian Milk Tour a second time in his pick-up truck on Sept. 13, and arrived in Victoria on Sept. 30 before heading to the Cowichan Valley.
Coincidentally, Canada and the U.S. signed a renewed NAFTA agreement, officially known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, on Sept. 30 that is expected to open the door to more American dairy imports into Canada, which many feel will negatively impact Canadian dairy farmers.
“It’s so heartwarming to see people here to greet us, as it was during our stops on the way here,” Schuurmans said to the gathered farmers at the Cowichan Milk Company, while leaning on crutches. “It’s very uplifting to receive so much support.”
Schuurmans said he found it very difficult to start the Canadian Milk Tour again after the death of his wife, but he felt he couldn’t leave the tour unfinished.
“I wanted to complete this trip with my two daughters in memory of their mother, and to help ensure the future of the dairy industry,” he said.
“I have two sons who are interested in taking over my farm when I retire, and I want to make sure there is still an industry there for them.”
As for the new deal between the U.S. and Canada that would give American farmers greater access to Canada’s dairy industry, worth about 3.6 per cent of Canada’s current dairy market, Schuurmans said he will wait to hear how the nation’s milk boards will interpret it before he makes any substantive comments.
“The 3.6 per cent doesn’t sound like much, but I have to see just how it will impact us,” he said.
“But I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m sure the Canadian industry will still be around for future generations.”
But Fred Van Huizen, a dairy farmer from the Valley who was there to greet Schuurmans, isn’t so sure.
He said the industry was led to believe that there would be no more market concessions to the U.S.
“We were promised there would be no concessions so why are they doing this?” he asked.
“This will do nothing to help the Americans deal with their oversupply problems.”
Van Huizen said that the Canadian dairy market is minuscule compared to the U.S., so even allowing just 3.6 per cent more of American dairy products into Canada’s market will hurt local farmers, while barely scratching the surface of America’s oversupply issues.
“Those extra products they will be allowed to sell here will be gone in a heartbeat, and you can bet they will still blame us for their problems,” he said.
Another local dairy farmer, Chris Groenendijk, said the government continues to chip away at Canada’s dairy industry in order to get trade concessions in foreign markets.
“It’s not like the sky is falling, but all dairy farmers across the country will lose some sales as a result, which comes off our profit margin,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that (U.S. President Donald) Trump is a shrewd and tough businessman, but he’s certainly no diplomat.”
B.C. Premier John Horgan and Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology, issued a statement in which they welcomed the deal with the U.S., but expressed concerns about its possible impacts on the nearly 8,000 people working in British Columbia’s dairy industry.
“We proactively met with trade officials in Ottawa in May to advance B.C.’s interests in a new trilateral agreement,” the statement said.
“B.C. sent a provincial official to every negotiating round to represent B.C. and has been in constant contact with Canadian officials over the past few weeks. Our government has strongly advocated on behalf of the hard-working people in this province’s many economic sectors, as part of the renegotiation.”