In the late nineteenth century, in Quebec as in other industrialized jurisdictions, rural-urban migration led farmers to sell more and more of their products on the market. At that time, market rules put producers at a distinct disadvantage to buyers, who were much fewer in number. Farmers banded together and began looking for ways to increase, secure, and stabilize their income.
From the Union catholique des cultivateurs…
In 1908, a law created a framework for the creation of agricultural cooperatives. Within 15 years, 350 local cooperatives had been founded. The Coopérative fédérée de Québec was created in 1922.
The end of the war and the early 1920s witnessed a period characterized by overproduction, declining prices, farm debt, and rural exodus towards cities. It was against this backdrop that the Union catholique des cultivateurs (UCC) was founded on October 2, 1924.
In 1930, scarcely 10% of Quebec farms had electricity. The UCC made rural electrification one of its leading causes, and a bill was finally adopted in 1945. In the next 7 years, 10,000 km of power lines were built, reaching 35,000 homes. By 1954, 85% of rural inhabitants were on the grid.
In 1931, the UCC created a provincial farm credit. With loans of up to $6,000 at 2.5% interest over 30 to 39 years, it was considered to be the most generous farm credit in Canada at the time.
Over the years, the concept of collective agreements, which already existed in England and in six other Canadian provinces, made its way into Quebec. The UCC congress officially demanded legislation on this in 1944, but it took until 1956 for the provincial government to establish the Farm Products Marketing Act.
Starting in 1965, mandatory levies were used to finance the farmers’ groups that administered joint plans (tools used to establish collective contracts under the Act). These groups established sales agencies and set quotas. It was not long before those who administered the provincial joint plans saw the need for better coordination at the national level, especially for border control and supply management. In 1971, a Canadian law would eventually set out the official powers of the national groups.
… to the Union des producteurs agricoles
In 1972, in the wake of the Quiet Revolution, the UCC shed its religious identity and changed its name to the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA). But there was much more to it than a name change: Over several decades, the union had become known as the voice that spoke up on behalf of all farmers. With the adoption of the Farm Producers Act that year, the UPA became the sole representative of the profession.
The Act defines the status of producer, recognizes only one certified association to represent agricultural producers in Quebec, and, provided certain requirements are met, grants this association the power to collect compulsory assessments and contributions. The UPA also obtained the consent to do so from its members following a referendum in overwhelming support.
The UPA fought for many causes throughout the 1970s and 1980s: agricultural zoning and taxation, regional development, the enhancement of joint plans, remuneration based on the real costs of production, crop insurance, income stabilization insurance, recognition of the role of women in agriculture, support for the next generation of farmers, etc. Between 1978 and 1991, the UPA supported the creation of a number of collective tools: Twelve new provincial joint plans were created, and quota systems were put in place for dairy, poultry, and egg production.
Several groups formed agreements with buyers under these joint plans. Producers developed tools to address their specific needs. Selling agencies and electronic auctions came on the scene. Specialized auctions were organized. Payment security was negotiated. And it was also during this period that new farming sectors gradually began to organize and join the ranks of the UPA (rabbit producers, goat producers, large game producers, aquaculturists, organic farmers).
Over a century of collective action
The 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s saw a shift towards environmental protection as the dominant paradigm. Farmers spoke in favour of sustainable models of farming in which short-term profitability could go hand in hand with long-term profitability and society’s calls for resource protection. In 1994, the UPA developed a formal agroenvironmental strategy. The huge undertaking of raising awareness and encouraging the adoption of new practices began, and this was supported by major investment: Between 1998 and 2008, farmers invested nearly $500 million in these activities.
The 1990s also saw the emergence of a new global economic order. During this period, Quebec agriculture developed in a context of international trade negotiations, which in turn influenced Canadian policies. The UPA kept a close watch on the new rules governing the opening of markets. Already in 1989, 12,000 Quebec farmers had assembled in Ottawa to express their concerns about the GATT negotiations. In 1992, the UPA took part in the Sommet sur l’agriculture québécoise, during which the government acknowledged the need to adapt farmer assistance programs to modern economic realities. Later that year, this led to the creation of Quebec’s agri-food issue panel, whose purpose was to ensure better liaison between between the different links in the chain.
A few years later at the Rendez-vous des décideurs in 1999, the UPA called for the creation of an organization that would be run jointly by government representatives and farmers to provide farm insurance, farm financing, and other financial tools. After years of groundwork, La Financière agricole du Québec was founded in 2001.
Today, feeding the world is a strategic challenge of global proportions. Farming communities of all stripes would benefit from standing together and finding innovative methods of action in a context of globalized markets. In 1993, this recognition led to the creation of UPA Développement international (UPA DI), a not-for-profit corporation founded in order to lend support to democratic farmers’ organizations and collective marketing systems in countries around the world.
With this same global awareness, the UPA also adopted the concept of food sovereignty in 2007, which laid the foundation for a new kind of social contract between farmers, citizens, and governments.
In December 2009, the UPA shared its vision for Quebec agricultural and food policy in a document entitled Le pouvoir de se nourrir. The vision proposes a set of concrete actions to ensure a brighter future for Quebec agriculture.
Farmers have been actively involved in all these historic milestones, thus making an important contribution to the development of Quebec society, most notably in rural areas.
No matter the issue, whether it be improving efficiency to meet needs, conquering markets, or working to ensure food self-sufficiency, farmers have played a key role in building the province we know today by defending their values and their profession.
New issues continue to appear on the horizon for the agricultural sector, including free trade agreements, concentration in the processing and distribution sectors, biosecurity, climate change, and sustainability. These issues call for innovative methods that will draw on the strengths farmers have built over many decades of pulling together.