An Ontario judge has overturned a provincial tribunal’s refusal to grant the National Farmers Union-Ontario (NFU-O) status as an accredited Ontario farmers’ organization.
Justice Robert Beaudoin of the Ontario Superior Court in Ottawa last week issued a mandamus order directing the province’s Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal to accredit the NFU-O.
NFU-O president John Sutherland said last week the group’s council “is pleased with Judge Beaudoin’s decision in our favour, although we are frustrated about having to spend precious resources to obtain a fair assessment about meeting the criteria for re-accreditation.”
The group — an affiliate of the Saskatoon-based National Farmers Union (NFU) — has been shut out of Ontario’s provincial farm business registration (FBR) program without accreditation since last year.
That rejection in turn cut the NFU-O off from the stable funding the FBR process provides, for part of 2012 and all of 2013 to date.
The FBR program — which since last month has been under review by the province — requires all farm businesses with gross farm income of $7,000 or more to file with the provincial ag ministry a completed farming business registration form — plus a fee (now $195 plus HST), payable annually to an accredited farm organization.
Ontario farm businesses — which need an FBR number to access certain provincial programs — can then ask for a refund of that fee, if they wish, to direct it to a different organization.
Farmers since last year have had to choose between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario as the only two accredited farm groups in the province.
Funding from the FBR program, Beaudoin noted, had previously made up “almost the entirety of the NFU-O’s annual funding” since it was first accredited in 2002 — a sum the Tribunal previously estimated at about $500,000 a year.
The Tribunal’s decision came after the NFU-O previously applied for and had been granted FBR accreditation in 2002, 2005 and 2008.
Following hearings starting in July 2012, the Tribunal ruled last December that the NFU-O — due to the nature of its relationship with the National Farmers Union (NFU) — could not be said to “represent farmers in the province,” as per the requirements for accreditation in Ontario’s Farm Registrations and Farm Organizations Funding Act.
The NFU-O’s purpose, the Tribunal ruled, “was not to represent farmers in Ontario but rather to allow the NFU and NFU Region 3 to access stable funding” under the Act. The NFU-O, the Tribunal said, “functions with very little autonomy and is effectively shackled to the NFU.”
Beaudoin noted the NFU-O, throughout this process, has had the support of the provincial agriculture minister — currently Kathleen Wynne, the province’s premier.
The minister, Beaudoin wrote, contends that the Tribunal, in its 2012 decision to block NFU-O accreditation, “focused on the monetary interests of farm organizations in being accredited rather than the broader public purposes of the Act.”
The minister, he wrote, has also argued it’s unreasonable to conclude the NFU-O doesn’t represent Ontario farmers when — at the time it went before Beaudoin to seek a judicial review — the group had 2,247 FBR-based members and 58 direct members.
Beaudoin, in his ruling, agreed the Tribunal’s decision on the issue of standing was “unreasonable.”
The Tribunal, he wrote, has given section 4(1) of the Act — the part that says an organization “representing farmers in the province” can apply for FBR accreditation — a “deeper significance than was required by the legislation.”
For 10 years, he wrote, the Tribunal had accepted the NFU-O as an organization representing farmers in Ontario and “did not, in the decision under review, identify any change in circumstances that warranted a change in this finding.”
Granted, the Tribunal isn’t bound by its own previous decisions, he wrote, but “the Tribunal’s consideration of unauthorized criteria has the effect of creating the very type of financial uncertainty that the Act was intended to eliminate.”
Furthermore, he wrote, nothing in the Act’s criteria blocks a group from being affiliated with a national organization, and “there is no evidence that the (NFU-O’s) members have been misled or are unaware of the role of the national organization.” Beaudoin also noted no one opposed the NFU-O’s application for accreditation.
“The NFU takes pride in being a democratic organization that is completely transparent and accountable to members,” NFU national president Terry Boehm, who farms at Allan, Sask., said in the group’s release last week after Beaudoin’s ruling. “We don’t hide or obfuscate the truth, whether in accreditation processes or in working on behalf of farmers.”
Getting the NFU-O’s accreditation back, he said, “has been tortuous, and has cost the organization a great deal in terms of lost revenue, legal fees and damaged reputation.” — AGCanada.com Network
Ont. farm business registration process under review, Sept. 1, 2013
Ruling leaves NFU-Ont. seeking funds from refunds, April 27, 2013
Ontario general farm groups to appeal lost status, July 17, 2012