The new chief of staff to Canada’s agriculture minister is also a member of one of the most powerful families in the country’s agricultural sector.
Mary Jean McFall ran for Parliament last fall as the Liberal candidate in Leeds-Grenville, Ont., where her family runs Burnbrae Farms, the country’s largest egg producer-processor. McFall, a lawyer, lost to the Conservative incumbent, Gord Brown.
Lawrence MacAulay, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture, appointed McFall his chief of staff in late December, according to iPolitics website. She started the job Jan. 4.
A grotesque and flagrant conflict of interest
The appointment has at least one critic raising questions about whether it is appropriate for someone to run the minister’s office who is so deeply invested, and who benefits so greatly, from Canada’s current quota system for eggs.
McFall’s family business, Burnbrae Farms, owns laying stations and egg-grading facilities in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. The family owns at least 470,000 units of egg quota, which, at the current value of $300 a hen, means that her family owns about $140 million of egg quota.
“I think this is a grotesque and flagrant conflict of interest,” said Ian Lee, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. “She has a stellar CV and a distinguished career. But the minister is supposed to represent all Canadians, not just the few farmers under supply management.
“She is part of a family that is one of the largest and most wealthy beneficiaries of supply management, and the minister should be scrupulously neutral. How on earth can he possibly review this policy, when his chief of staff is a beneficiary of a system that exploits the middle class?”
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Others are more concerned that the appointment signals the Trudeau government’s determination to maintain Canada’s supply management system under which the Egg Farmers of Canada, a national marketing agency, decides the quantity of eggs that farmers may produce in Canada, and apportions egg production quota.
Supply management was the topic of much debate during the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks last year, with opponents arguing that the system should be opened up, which they say would lower prices to consumers.
Sylvain Charlebois, a business professor at the University of Guelph, said the appointment shows the minister is “getting closer to farmers. And it should also be considered as an endorsement of supply management.”
Even so, Charlebois praised McFall for a recent deal between Burnbrae farms and McDonald’s to allow the restaurant chain to serve cage-free eggs. “The McDonald’s partnership with Burnbrae shows how open egg farmers have become to be in synch with modern trends,” he said.
Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the NDP agriculture critic, called the selection of McFall as the agriculture minister’s chief of staff “kind of surprising.”
“She is going to have a hard job making sure there is a firewall between her office and her family,” Brosseau said. “She can’t be seen as looking out for her own interests and the family business. She is going to have to take a lot of care.”
Burnbrae Farms, near Brockville, Ont., traces its roots to the 1880s when Joseph Hudson emigrated from Scotland. He named his 100-acre farm Burnbrae — “burn” means brook in Scottish, and “brae” means hill. McFall is one of five children of the current Burnbrae patriarch, Joe Hudson, who is the grandson of the original Joseph Hudson.
McFall studied political science at Harvard and law at the University of Toronto. For 12 years, until 2010, she sat on the board of the Egg Farmers of Ontario. She served as a Brockville city councillor from 2010-2014.
For five years McFall acted as Burnbrae’s general counsel before joining Templeman Menninga, a law firm with four offices across eastern Ontario, as a partner.
“My background through my family’s business is pretty relevant to (the portfolio) so I think that’s part of how I got the job,” McFall told the Brockville Recorder and Times last week.
In response to Financial Post questions McFall sent a statement by email, saying “it’s essential that I take all steps to avoid any conflicts of interest and, more importantly, prevent even the perception of one.”
“I can assure you that arrangements have already been made for me to meet with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner so that I can fulfill my obligations in an open and transparent manner.”
In response to questions, Jocelyne Brisebois at the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner sent an email statement noting that a minister’s chief of staff is a Reporting Public Office Holder, and added, “the Conflict of Interest Act contains provisions aimed at preventing conflicts between the public duties of government officials and their private interests or those of their relatives or friends.
“All public office holders have a general duty to arrange their private affairs to prevent conflicts of interest and are prohibited, in the exercise of an official power, duty or function, from giving preferential treatment to any person,” the email added.
A schedule attached to a regulation made under the Farm Products Marketing Act in 2010 lists “Burnbrae Farms Ltd., Mary Jean McFall,” as owner of 471,723 units of “fowl quota for a number of fowl specified hereunder and egg production quota for a number of eggs laid by such fowl.” Burnbrae holds the largest amount of quota on the list.
Jim Romahn, a longtime farm journalist, railed on his blog Agri007 recently that “it’s not fair that poor people have to pay inflated Canadian prices for eggs — because of import tariffs to protect supply management — so four quota holders can become so filthy rich.”
MacAulay, who represents the Prince Edward Island riding of Cardigan, and the Ministry of Agriculture in Ottawa did not return telephone calls.
Harry Pelissero, general manager of the Egg Farmers of Ontario, said of McFall, “based on her business and legal background, she will probably serve the minister very well.”
This article was modified to add a statement from the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.