Seeking out the sweet spot in his pursuit of the Tory leadership, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier is calling for free trade for one of his home province's most emblematic and highly protected products, maple syrup.
After targeting trade limits on milk, eggs and poultry, Mr. Bernier is spreading his free-market mantra to a product in which Quebec is a global powerhouse. The province generates about 70 per cent of the world supply of maple syrup and producers operate under strict controls.
Mr. Bernier wants Ottawa to end the power of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, a cartel that limits syrup production and sets prices. His policy announcement in Ottawa on Tuesday was dubbed "Free the maple syrup."
"The cartel of maple syrup has to be abolished," he said. If he became prime minister, Mr. Bernier said, he would fight to let Canadian producers freely export maple syrup to other provinces and to international markets.
The position establishes Mr. Bernier, one of five declared aspirants to replace Stephen Harper, as something of a maverick. His outspoken stand against supply management has put him on shaky ground with agricultural producers in his rural riding of Beauce.
On maple syrup, however, he is able to tap into a vein of discontent among Quebec syrup makers. Some dissident producers have tried to challenge the grip of the maple-syrup federation, without success; Mr. Bernier was accompanied at his announcement by Angèle Grenier, a producer from Quebec who faces $100,000 in legal costs for selling her maple syrup to New Brunswick.
Ms. Grenier has been fighting the Quebec maple-syrup federation since 2000 for the right to sell her product independently and wants to take her case to the Supreme Court. She is crowdfunding her legal fight and appealing to the public for help.
"I'm caught in this system in Quebec, which has a monopoly and takes away all my rights," said Ms. Grenier, a producer from the town of Ste-Clotilde-de-Beauce. She has set up a fundraising page, which states, "Maple Syrup is not a crime."
Maple syrup quotas have become the latest battle horse for Mr. Bernier, who has also called for the privatization of Canada Post and Canada's major airports, as well as the deregulation of the telecommunications industry. On maple syrup and other supply-management issues, he said he believes that Quebeckers would back him.
"Quebeckers are like other Canadians," he said. "They want to pay less, half the price for their eggs, their poultry and their milk." He added: "You have to have the courage of your convictions."
Mr. Bernier's stand did not win over any fans at the Quebec maple-syrup federation. Spokeswoman Caroline Cyr said the current system helps expand international markets, invest in research, stabilize prices and protect smaller producers. Producers themselves democratically voted in the regime, she said.
"It's a complex system but it has allowed beautiful things," she said. "Yes, there are constraints. It's true that when you join together you have to make concessions. In the modern world, working together for the common good makes us look like we come from Mars. We're in an individualistic society. But we have had excellent results."
She said Mr. Bernier's position could antagonize many producers. "There are a lot of people working in agriculture in Quebec, without even counting their families," Ms. Cyr said.
The Liberal government defended Quebec's maple-syrup producers' federation and said the movement for the collective marketing of syrup began in Mr. Bernier's own Beauce region.
"Once again Mr. Bernier has turned his back on producers in his region," Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay's office said in a statement emailed to The Globe and Mail.
"We support the existing regulations as they enable the province of Quebec to make its own decisions about its own industry. We have always been open to working with Quebec to discuss and improve regulations."