The federal bill to shut down the Canadian Wheat Board’s single marketing desk for Prairie wheat and barley has gone to Canada’s chamber of sober second thought.
The House of Commons, in an expected 153-120 split along party lines, passed Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s Bill C-18 through third reading on Monday evening, moving it to the Senate where it’s expected to pass and receive royal assent before year’s end.
"Western Canadian farmers have waited far too long for the freedom to market wheat and barley that they pay to plant, spend months to grow and tirelessly harvest," Ritz said in a release Monday before the vote.
"All members of Parliament should pass this legislation as quickly as possible so that farmers have the certainty they need to start planning for next year’s crop."
C-18 is a legislative package of amendments to various bills, most notably the Canadian Wheat Board Act, shorting out sections that until now required a farmer plebiscite and consultations with the CWB’s directors before changes can be made to the crops marketed through the board.
The bill, when it takes effect, would also change the CWB’s governance structure, handing its oversight to a smaller government-appointed board of five directors and tasking the new CWB with "marketing of grain through voluntary pooling."
The bill also contains provisions allowing the CWB to be either privatized as a new voluntary wheat and barley marketer, or failing that, shut down entirely.
A legislative committee studying C-18 on Nov. 3 added two amendments to the bill, meant to "increase the operational flexibility of the interim Canadian Wheat Board and give it equal opportunities to that of other grain companies," the government noted in Monday’s release.
Randy Hoback, the MP for Prince Albert, Sask. and a member of the Commons ag committee, told the house Monday that the CWB debate "has been going on and on (and) farmers are tired of it.
"They want to see this move forward. They do not want to see us catch up or have to spend a lot of time educating our opposition members on why this needs to change. They just want to see it done, and that is what we are going to do."
"We should all realize that a lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone to build this organization that has gained a worldwide reputation," B.C. NDP MP Alex Atamanenko, a former ag critic, said of the CWB in the Commons. "Now we are pulling the rug out from underneath it."
Eight of the CWB’s 13 current directors, he said, were directly elected by farmers. "They represent the majority of farmers and now they are being replaced by five government robots, or stooges, and I do not think that is right."
Atamanenko’s parting shot at C-18 was to ask Hoback if, when Prairie farmers begin shipping wheat directly to U.S. elevators and processors in the "climate of protectionism" now seen in Washington, "are the Americans going to stand for having all of our good quality wheat going in to be mixed up with theirs?"
"To say that we will ship all this grain into the U.S., I do not think that will happen," Hoback replied. "What will happen is farmers will look for value-added opportunities. They will look for other markets and they will use the new entity to sell into other markets. It is just that they will have a choice in how they do it."
Response from farm groups to Monday’s vote in the Commons ran along the expected rails. "This legislation can’t pass soon enough," Cherilyn Nagel, past president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said Monday from Ottawa before the Commons vote. "We urge the Senate to pass this legislation quickly so we can start reaping the benefits of an open market."
"This is a dark day for Canadian democracy, Canadian farmers and the Canadian economy," National Farmers Union president Terry Boehm, also in Ottawa for the vote, said in a separate release.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, "in one fell swoop, is destroying farmers’ marketing agency and transferring hundreds of millions of dollars of farmers’ money to the world’s largest grain companies," Boehm said.
Two of Ritz’s provincial counterparts, Saskatchewan’s Bob Bjornerud and Alberta’s Evan Berger, also attended Monday’s vote.
The governments in Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C., "representing the production of more than 80 per cent of wheat and 90 per cent of barley in Western Canada," have also conveyed their support "for giving western wheat and barley farmers the right to choose how to market their grain," the federal government said Monday.