“This milestone is particularly significant to many international customers, who view our longevity as a sign of stability in an often volatile world market environment.”
– CWB CHAIRMAN ALLEN OBERG
The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) turned 75 years old July 5.
Loved by some and despised by others, its future is far from clear. The Conservative government has promised to remove its single-desk marketing powers for wheat, durum and barley destined for human domestic consumption or export, but hasn’t yet.
One stumbling block has been the lack of a majority in the House of Commons.
Another has been the courts, which have ruled the government doesn’t have the authority to change the CWB’s marketing mandate without Parliament’s approval.
According to single-desk supporters, without that power, the CWB is of little value to farmers. The CWB would be a grain company with no facilities, having to rely on competing companies to gather its grain and move it to export position.
But single-desk critics counter the CWB can operate in an open market. They also say farmers would earn more.
Ironically, the CWB was created in 1935 by a Conservative government, mostly out of desperation. It was the height of the Depression and the Prairie Pools – a voluntary effort among farmers to try and establish voluntary single-desk marketing – had gone bankrupt. The government was left picking up the pieces. It tried to work with the private grain trade, but out of frustration created the CWB to assist.
Initially the CWB didn’t have single-desk marketing powers. Those came in 1943 under a Liberal government partly because of the Second World War.
And they were widely welcomed by farmers, according to historian John Herd Thompson.
In fact, many farmers had been pushing for a wheat board since a temporary one was set up following the First World War. It was created July 31, 1919, under another Conservative government.
The CWB paid an initial payment of $2.15 a bushel. The wheat board collected $2.62 a bushel when the wheat was sold and distributed the additional earnings to farmers.
Rightly or wrongly, many farmers believed they got a better price through the wheat board and many lobbied to have the wheat board restored.
After the Second World War, the CWB remained popular with farmers. Parliament had to renew the CWB’s mandate periodically. In debates in 1950, 1953, 1957 and 1962, not a single MP voted against an extension, Thompson wrote.
“Instead, MPs of all parties – Liberal, Conservative, CCF, and Social Credit – vied to outdo each other to proclaim their enthusiasm for the board,” he wrote.
In 1967, the Pearson Liberal government moved to make the board’s sale monopoly permanent. Before a unanimous vote in favour, Conservative Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker had the last word: The Canadian Wheat Board “will not be changed so long as there are farmers and wheat producers who are aware of the benefits.”
Probably the most radical change to the CWB was made in 1998 when a 15-member board of directors replaced three government-appointed commissioners to oversee CWB operations.
The board consists of 10 farmers, elected by farmers, and five government-appointed directors, including the president/ chief executive officer.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who introduced the change in CWB governance, said the intent was to turn control of the CWB over to farmers.
But the courts recently ruled the government can still direct CWB operations. That has prompted the current board to seek amendments to the CWB Act to ensure the directors, not the government have the final say over CWB management.
That’s unlikely under the current regime given the government’s position on the CWB.
Currently the CWB sells to 70 countries on behalf of 75,000 farmers in Western Canada, the CWB said in a news release.
“This milestone is particularly significant to many international customers, who view our longevity as a sign of stability in an often volatile world market environment,” said CWB chair Allen Oberg.
The CWB’s 75th anniversary is being marked with events and activities for farmers and customers: the creation of a customer-focused video, a contest for farmers, an online photo gallery and a special reception in Shanghai, China, for grain customers and government officials. [email protected]