The August 19th letter from Les Producteurs du Lait du Quebec (PLQ, the Quebec milk marketing board) to the Mesdames at the Saint Monastere Vierge – Marie la Consolatrice, on their 265-acre farm in the rocky, bush hills north of Montreal, didn’t mince words.
The letter, written in French and given to Ontario Farmer by the nuns, was translated into English.
After ‘an investigation’ by the PLQ, it ‘leads us to believe’ that over the past two and a half years “you have produced and/or marketed a volume of 38,304 litres of milk without the knowledge of the PLQ and without holding quota,” it stated.
“In consequence, by virtue of article 18 of the Regulations, a penalty of $53,207.00 has been imposed on you. In addition, a penalty of $20,000 has been imposed on you by virtue of article 8.03 of the Conventions,” stated the letter.
In bold print the letter stated, “as of today you must make payment within 10 days of receipt of this notice of $73,207.00 to the PLQ.”
The letter concluded, “govern yourself accordingly.”
The nuns got an extension on paying the fine so they “could work things out.” But any attempts to plead their innocence through two different lawyers have been ignored, they said.
In meeting with Ontario Farmer on October 28, they stated if they did not pay by the end of that month, in three days time, the fine would go up an additional $20,000, totalling $93,207.00 on November 1.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” they said.
Three nuns, including the Mother Superior, agreed to meet with Ontario Farmer and go on the record about their situation, including providing documentation, but without using their individual names or allowing personal photographs.
The 25 fully robed sisters on this monastery farm, with various livestock, do all the work themselves, which includes a small licensed cheese factory for goat’s milk. That cheese is also marketed on-site and they get 45,000 visitors per year to their shop selling their farm’s products – and in 120 Quebec IGA stores, with their monastery label attached.
Some years ago they dispersed their on-farm goat herd and merely buy in goat’s milk for their licensed facility. Within days of that plant license being issued, the nun’s chuckle recollecting, “the Montreal Mafia coming out here in their big, black cars, they got out, looked at our small factory, got back in their cars and went back to Montreal. They left us alone.”
“But it seems the Quebec Farmer Milk Mafia isn’t leaving us alone.”
Three years ago, paying $800 a week for their personal consumption of store-bought milk – plus serving about 100 people on a Sunday, with summer services having over double that amount on their farm – and with several sisters having milk health issues, they decided to buy three cows, said the nuns.
Three Guernseys were purchased on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River and whether, because the milk was raw, or A2, the sister’s health issues went away, they said.
“They are such a beautiful animal, God created perfection.”
These cows, plus their calves, are allowed to frolic free over the whole facility and love being petted by the sisters and visitors. Nearly everyone going into the shop usually has a Guernsey within arm’s length to stroke, they said, as was the case with the Ontario Farmer visit.
“About 40,000 of those 45,000 customers per year ask, ‘can we have milk or milk products from those lovely animals?’ ” said the nuns.
Phone inquires were made three years ago to the PLQ and after being informed that the minimum of 12 kilos of quota was required, plus an inspected barn, they shelved the idea and “we only used the milk for ourselves.” Some cow manufactured cheese or yogurt might have been given away to the poor, “when we do that with our excess product,” they said.
But the demands for this cow’s milk by the visiting public became more insistent and another call was made this spring to the PLQ, wondering if there was any way they could market any cow product. Once again they were told the same regulations applied and nothing was done, they said.
On July 5th, with the nun who regularly ran the shop and knew the regulations against retailing cow milk product being down in Halifax, another nun was on duty. A man arrived and wanted to buy some dairy product, “from those beautiful animals outside.”
He was told no, but he kept asking and begging, and so the kindly sister went to the main kitchen and got a container of yogurt made from cow’s milk and labelled as such for the cooks, they said.
The man insisted on paying for it.
Several days later the phone rang and the PLQ person, whom the nuns had been sporadically interacting with on their prior inquiries, was on the line, wanting to know how many litres of cow’s milk they produced per day.
“I don’t know,” replied the administration nun, “I don’t work with the cows.”
She yelled out to a passing nun asking the question and received an estimated volume reply, which was relayed to the PLQ person calling.
“That was their entire investigation,” say the nuns. They have also been informed by the PLQ, through their lawyer “that we have a recording of that conversation saying how many litres you are producing,” they said.
“Everything I said on that phone conversation is the truth, so I’m not worried, but imagine, they would do that,” said the administration nun.
“Perhaps we don’t qualify as a legal family allowed to consume our own milk, but we are sisters here, we are a family.”
Just down the gravel road, leading Holstein breeder Tim Clark, who milks in a robot barn, cites the sisters as being “great neighbours over the years, they are amazing people and do so much good.”
“I have questions for the PLQ,” said Clark. “When someone openly calls for advice, why do you do a sting operation, rather than going out and meeting with them to discuss things? Are all phone calls made to the PLQ recoded?”
The inspectors who ran the sting operation out of the St Eustache office, “look like dorks,” he said.
“Yes, the sisters made a small mistake, selling that container of yogurt, like getting caught speeding going into town,” said Clark. “But that isn’t a $73,000 fine.”
“Is all our heritage gone?” asked the Mother Superior. “Monastery’s helped lay the foundation of this country. Perhaps, out of this, the law can be changed to allow them the freedom to support themselves and do good in their communities.”
And who is there to rein in this abuse of power? If you want to contribute to a fund to help fight this case, contact firstname.lastname@example.org .