Former agriculture minister and Conservative MP Gerry Ritz appeared before the House of Commons agriculture committee during an emergency meeting March 19 in Ottawa to discuss the grain transportation backlog in Western Canada.
Alistair MacGregor, the NDP MP for Cowichan —Malahat — Langford in British Columbia asked Ritz about the former Canadian Wheat Board’s role in grain transportation. The following is a transcript of Ritz’s response, lightly edited for clarity:
Gerry Ritz: The big thing is they (CWB) were a monopoly buyer not a monopoly seller. So they put out a three-bushel quota* and it made it easy for the railways to keep up because they’d put out a three-bushel quota up in Ian’s (Boxall, with the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan) area, but I wouldn’t get it. So the railways could concentrate on Ian’s that couple of weeks… and get the grain out of there.
They did the same thing with Jeff (Nielsen of the Grain Growers of Canada). There was no Western Canada-wide movement of commodities. They (CWB) picked and choosed (sic) and tried to keep it fair for everybody, so that we all starved to death.
I never, ever cleaned my bins out. Not once. Not ever.
The first couple of years that I farmed they (CWB) never sold a bushel. I wasn’t allowed to sell to anybody else. I wasn’t allowed to trade it. I had grain on the ground. It rotted. I lost a ton of value there.
What they (CWB) did is they bought and then they would make a deal with the grain company here to move product over there and even when it got to their terminals in Vancouver, they had a boat come in they’d say, ‘take some from Ian’s terminal, take some from Jeff’s terminal’ — move that boat to the point where some of the shippers wouldn’t even come in and pick it (grain) up because it’s hard on the carcass of a boat moving it out half loaded and shove it back in again.
So it was easy for the railways to keep up because they were getting little bits — dribs and drabs.
The blending (to improve grades) was done on the Prairies.
It’s not done as much on the Prairies. So you have to co-ordinate those trains coming into the ports in order to blend that product.
That’s why 2013-14 was easy to do with that blunt (order-in-council) instrument of minimums (weekly railway shipping volumes) because it was all the same (grade).
But every other year we’ve had low protein here, we’ve had higher grades over here that we needed to move, but it’s all done at port now in a different way.
So with the wheat board gone it actually made it tougher for the railways to keep up. The shippers like it, farmers have liked it for the most part.
MacGregor: But are there lessons that we can learn from that for the current government going forward…? Because the B.C. Chamber of Shipping has told me that in the years following that (end of the CWB) there was a bit of a mix-up and it did lead to the increased use of anchorages along the southern Gulf Islands, the loading at port wasn’t as efficient as it used to have been.
Ritz: Boy, I would argue that. You’d have to talk to the grain companies themselves, but they all said it was easier to me at that time. You can’t go back and change it now.
The big difference when Australia took theirs (wheat board) down, their version of a grain commission, their version of Cigi (Canadian International Grains Institute) were all tied into their wheat board. So that was the big concern with buyers like Japan — that they (thought) we were going to lose our capacity to grade.
No, because CGC (Canadian Grain Commission) is a stand-alone agency. Cigi is a stand-alone agency. So they continued on doing their good work.
Somebody made the point about the crop (trade missions) that happens every fall now where we go out to the world with representatives of all the different commodity groups… and those are worth their weight in gold.
They continue to work really, really well. But the grain commission takes part, Cigi takes part, all of the line companies take part, a lot of the farm organizations. It’s a dynamic industry group going from country to country.
* The CWB switched to delivery contracts from delivery quotas to source grain from farmers in 1996.
Gerry Ritz was member of Parliament for Battlefords-Lloydminster from 1997 to 2017 and Canada’s federal agriculture minister from 2007 to 2015 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.