Fears that scrapping the monopoly-powered wheat board could undermine Winnipeg’s grain sector hegemony were bolstered with news Saskatoon wants Cigi (Canadian International Grains Institute) to move there.
The offer came Nov. 29 during a meeting with Saskatoon economic development group representatives, Rex Newkirk, Cigi’s director of research and business development said in an interview March 1.
“We were surprised,” Newkirk said. “They sat down and within a minute or two they said, ‘what do we have to do to move you to Saskatoon?’ It’s important for people to understand there’s lots of competition out there, not just for Cigi but other grain industry players as well.”
Cigi, created in 1972, promotes Canadian grain exports by teaching end-users at its facility in Winnipeg, how best to use Canadian crops. It employs 35 people, mostly skilled and well paid.
Over the last 40 years 34,000 people from 110 countries have attended Cigi courses.
The Canadian Wheat Board and the federal government fund Cigi. But after the board loses its monopoly Aug. 1 funding will come from a farmer checkoff and Ottawa.
Officials from Saskatoon met with other Winnipeg-based grain groups and at least one is moving to Saskatoon, Newkirk said. He declined to name the organization.
“We are not actively trying to poach,” Tim LeClair, president of the Saskatoon economic development group that visited Cigi told the Winnipeg Free Press. But it did ask Cigi where it sees itself in three years with the wheat board gone.
Winnipeg and the West’s grain industry grew up together. The West’s first wheat export left the city in 1876 when Winnipeg, with a population of fewer than 3,000, was a mere village.
The founding in 1877 of the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange, which evolved into ICE Futures, cemented the city’s position as the centre of Canada’s grain industry.
Even if the Canadian Wheat Board continues as a private company, without its monopoly and other regulatory powers, it will no longer dominate the grain industry. With the anchor gone it’s possible the industry will disperse, especially if other cities offer incentives to move.
Saskatoon’s Innovation Place at the University of Saskatchewan is already home to a lot of agricultural research, both publicly and privately funded.
Cigi has no immediate plans to leave Winnipeg, Newkirk said. But that could change.
“So if they manage to pull a bunch of the industry out — I mean Cigi needs to be where the industry is,” he said. “We need to be in the centre of it to have access to these resources.”
One way to ensure Cigi stays, Newkirk said, is to build the proposed grain industry “Centre of Excellence.”
“If we’re able to land a Centre of Excellence here that would certainly make it easier to say, ‘look, the industry is here and we’ve just got to stay, period.’”
Meyers Norris Penny concluded in a 2005 study that it made sense for Cigi, the Canadian Grain Commission and the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre, all at 303 Main Street, to be under one new roof with the wheat board and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre at the University of Manitoba.
“Significant cost savings are likely to be achieved in the form of streamlined operations, improved workflow, better utilization of equipment and facilities and elimination of duplication,” the report says.
In 2008, then Treasury Board president Vic Toews announced the five organizations could come together. The 28,000-square-metre centre had an estimated cost of $150 million to $300 million. Four years later it appears that it is no closer to being built.
The Manitoba government should be pushing for Cigi and the centre, Progressive Conservative Agriculture Critic Blaine Pedersen said in an interview February 29.
“Obviously Saskatchewan is very serious about setting this up in Saskatoon,” he said, noting Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall recently announced $10 million for wheat research.
Keeping Cigi is a priority for the Manitoba government, an aide to Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn said in an email.
“That’s why Premier Selinger raised this with the prime minister in November and the minister raised it earlier this week in his very first meeting with Minister Ritz,” the aide said. “In fact, Minister Kostyshyn toured Cigi just a week after being appointed… and that same day joined the premier in a meeting with U of M and Cigi to discuss how we continue to move forward.”
The aide chided Pedersen and his Tory colleagues for failing to support the wheat board given the impact its demise could have on Winnipeg.
When federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was asked if Ottawa would fund the centre he replied:
“The Harper government continues to invest in science and research to keep the agriculture industry, a pillar of our economy, on the cutting edge. Based on the long-standing tradition of grain trade and innovation being based in Winnipeg, it seems logical that’s where a cereal Centre of Excellence would be created.”