Friday, December 14, 2012

NFU faces tribunal grilling

Guelph – Anne Slater and Sarah Bakker faced a thorough grilling by the Appeal Tribunal here today in the continuation of a hearing that began in July to consider whether the Ontario branch of the National Farmers Union qualifies for continued financing under stable funding.

Nicholas Richter, who chaired the panel for the Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ministry’s Appeal Tribunal, zeroed in on the relationship between the National Farmers Union, which is headquartered in Saskatoon, and the Ontario branch, NFU-O.

He pushed so hard that the lawyer the NFU-O hired to help present its case objected strenuously, lecturing the tribunal to stick with its mandate.

Richter countered that the tribunal has the right to seek information and basically wants to know how independent the Ontario organization is in both policy and finances.

The day-long testy hearing began with an immediate clash as lawyer Sean Bawden of Ottawa asked that about 40 documents the NFU-O recently filed with the tribunal be kept confidential and much of the hearing be held “in camera” – i.e. without any reporters or members of the public attending.

Richter resisted and pressed Bawden to define his concerns. Eventually they reached agreement that parts of three documents will be kept secret.

They are the salary and contract terms for the NFU-O’s only employee, Sarah Bakker, who lives in Stratford, and the numbers of an NFU-O credit card, bank accounts and credit union account.

Later they sparred over Richter’s request for minutes of NFU-O board meetings which are held by telephone conference call every second Thursday.

Richter was trying to get at a requirement that the NFU-O adopt all policies of the National Farmers Union.

Slater, who is the elected head of the NFU-O, insisted that it controls its budgets and policies and that it hires the National Farmers Union to provide some services, such as research, maintaining a data bank and providing publications to members.

She repeatedly testified that everything the National Farmers Union does that influences Ontario is under the supervision of the NFU-O’s board of directors, called the Regional Council.

She likened the relationship to that between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

She provided documents outlining a service contract with the National Farmers Union and said it’s now reviewed annually because Ontario members want to know they are getting full value.

Besides the contract, there is an agreement which includes a clause that all NFU policies become NFU-O policies. Slater responded that the Ontario board of directors decides the priorities it will assign to pursuing those policies and said all actions are based solely on Ontario board decisions such as whether to lobby the Ontario government, when and how.

When tribunal member Jane Sadler Richards opened her questioning by outlining all of the documents she wanted to review, Bawden objected and said he would advise Slater and Bakker to not answer any of them.

Bawden said the National Farmers Union bylaws and policies are irrevelevant to re-accreditation of the NFU-O. Richter countered that the tribunal has the right to seek the information and if the NFU-O refuses to answer, that refusal puts the organization at risk of an adverse tribunal decision.

Another issue that brought intense scrutiny is associate membership, an issue that also figured prominently in the hearings that led to re-accreditation for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario.

Slater and Bakker testified that only the National Farmers Union has associate members and the $65 membership fee goes entirely to the national organization in Saskatoon; none comes back to Ontario, nor do the NFU associates have any status with NFU-O such as a right to vote or attend meetings.

Slater said the associate members in Ontario are valued as supporters of the NFU and are provided some services, such as publications and information on current issues.

Every chair in the tribunal hearing room was filled as farmers from across the province attended.

Richter lectured them to be quiet after there were a few “hear! hear!” comments in support of a statement from Bawden and Richter ordered a large yellow sign lowered. It proclaimed  “I am a Huron County Farmer; NFU-O represents ME  and 138 Huron farmers”.

There were also a number of supportive signs posted outside the tribunal boardroom office, visible to anyone coming through that set of doors to the head office of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and a few other Ontario ministry offices.