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Editorial: Follow the dollars

Most financial professionals will tell you to keep one hand on your wallet when someone doesn’t want you to look at the books.

From non-profit community groups to major corporations, the numbers don’t lie. If funds have been misallocated or things aren’t quite on the level, it can’t truly be hidden.

No matter how hard someone tries to cover it up, there’s always a loose end, a number that doesn’t quite add up, and a fresh set of eyes will cause that to jump out off the ledger and reveal the truth.

Some companies even force key financial staff to take vacations just to ensure some oversight.

It’s for this reason the federal government’s steadfast refusal — spanning two successive federal governments of two distinct political stripes — to provide a full and open accounting of the Canadian Wheat Board’s final year is so troubling.

In December 2014 the Globe and Mail newspaper noted the latest fulsome financial report it could find on the CWB’s website dated from 2011-12.

It noted the company was clearly up for sale, had been on a buying and building spree and was “allegedly” prosperous, but noted the choice of that word was necessary because there was no hard proof one way or the other.

Just four months later, in April of 2015, the sale of the CWB to a joint venture of Bunge Canada and Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC) Canada was announced. That entity paid $250 million for 50.1 per cent of the CWB, and rebranded it G3 Global Grain Group.

The remaining 49.9 would “… eventually be acquired by producer patrons of the CWB, who will receive $5 of equity for every tonne of grain sold to the CWB,” according to Martin Cash of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Since then there’s been, from some quarters, claims that the deal was sweetened, with money owed to farmers, in an attempt to kill off the CWB once and for all.

There’s little doubt then agriculture minister Gerry Ritz wanted a deal done. It’s impossible to say for sure why, but it’s also impossible to ignore that, politically, it was an expedient solution for him.

So long as the organization remained more or less intact, it would always be a rallying point for those who sought to have the single sales desk reinstated.

Recreated as a privately controlled subsidiary of two global organizations, no such residual sway would linger.

One might think the current Liberal government would be anxious to shine a spotlight on such skulduggery. Instead it seems set on all but ignoring the issue, when not actively blocking efforts to have the numbers reviewed.

Despite repeated requests from some groups — notably the National Farmers Union and the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance — the government has been steadfast in its reluctance to open the books.

In no small part that’s probably because if there was any wrongdoing, legal or moral, it’s going to be an expensive mistake to fix, measured in hundreds of millions of dollars.

No doubt the current government has other things it would like to spend that kind of cash on, rather than redressing something that happened under a previous government.

Slowly, however, there seems to be some movement towards a final accounting. Most recently the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench ruled against Ottawa, which was requesting the court strike the statement of claim.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the lawsuit will go ahead, but it is one key hurdle cleared.

The allegations in that as-yet-unproven statement of claim are interesting to all farmers who sold wheat and barley through the organization.

In simple terms, the plaintiffs allege the feds funnelled a total of $151 million to the ultimate buyers of the organization. They say $145.2 million was placed in an expanded “contingency fund” and $5.9 million was taken from pool accounts.

“In order to fund the transformation of the board to a privately held entity, the defendants engaged in a course of conduct intended to reduce payments to farmers who had sold and delivered grain to the board during the class period and to increase the monies in the contingency fund,” the statement of claim alleges.

What has been curious is the deafening silence by most farmers and farm groups on this topic. Back in the days of the single desk one could hardly go 10 days without a press release alleging wasteful mismanagement in some form. Not so today.

It’s likely most don’t want to get stuck in the quagmire of the CWB debate again, and that’s understandable. But asking for a full accounting of what went on is a far cry from going back in time.

The numbers really add up, and shouldn’t be ignored. If the numbers in the lawsuit are accurate, for each of the 70,000 farmers the CWB did business with, that equals $21,571.

Wouldn’t you like to know if that should be in your pocket?

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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