“We’re saying a minister should not be able to change or override the regulations and the voting procedures of the Canadian Wheat Board just through a simple letter of instruction and a secret one at that.”
– STEWART WELLS
Allegations that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz exceeded his authority by instructing the Canadian Wheat Board to cut thousands of CWB permit book holders from the 2008 CWB directors’ election voters’ list goes to court Jan. 20 in Winnipeg.
“We’re saying a minister should not be able to change or override the regulations and the voting procedures of the Canadian Wheat Board just through a simple letter of instruction and a secret one at that,” Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board (FCWB) member Stewart Wells said in an interview Jan. 7 from his farm near Swift Current, Sask.
FCWB, a coalition of farmers and others who support a farmer-run wheat board, filed for a judicial review with the Federal Court in September 2008 after learning a “ministerial letter of instruction” from Ritz was sent to the CWB July 23, 2008.
The ministerial letter said CWB permit holders who didn’t deliver grain to the CWB during the 2007-08 or 2008-09 crop years shouldn’t automatically get a ballot.
Under the CWB Act’s regulations, CWB permit book holders, and interested parties such as crop-share landlords named in the permit books, are to be placed on the voters’ list provided to the CWB election co-ordinator and automatically receive ballots.
“Although these individuals may hold permit books they have not clearly established they are eligible producers,” Ritz stated in the letter to the CWB.
Having a permit book gives the holder certain rights, Wells said. “What the minister did with the letter was take away those rights and privileges.”
Ritz said in his letter those permit book holders dropped from the voters’ list could apply for a ballot by filing a statutory declaration or filling out a form Ritz ordered making it easier for non-permit book holders who had grown at least one of the major crops during the previous 15 months.
However, Wells said permit book holders knocked off the voters’ list weren’t informed directly that they wouldn’t automatically get a ballot as had been customary since CWB elections began in 1998.
The election co-ordinator ran advertisements telling farmers to check to see if they were on the list.
At the same time, according to Wells, Ritz was sending letters to farmers who never marketed through the CWB, encouraging them to get a ballot, and made it easier for them to do so.
The plan was to help anti-CWB farmers vote, while disenfranchising CWB supporters in an effort to elect CWB directors who oppose single-desk selling, Wells said.
The Conservative government’s opposition to the CWB is no secret. It has promised to remove the CWB’s single-desk marketing powers. It tried to do just that for barley in 2007 through an order-in-council, but FCWB challenged it in court and won. The court ruled changing the CWB’s mandate must be approved by Parliament.
Before the last CWB election the federal government tried to change the election rules proposing in Bill C-57 that only farmers who grew at least 120 tonnes of grain during the current or past crop year be eligible to vote. The bill died on the order paper when the general election was called.
“You earn the right to call yourself a farmer by growing crops, not by filing paperwork,” Ritz said in a news release announcing the proposed amendment to the CWB Act when it received first reading in the House of Commons May 27.
Ritz said many farmers named in permit books have retired, rented out their land, or only grow small amounts of grain as a hobby.
At first blush it appeared “interested parties” would not get to vote if the bill became law. But later in an interview, an official from Ritz’s office said crop-share landlords who are actively involved in managing their rented land would still get to vote. However, it was not immediately clear how the law would determine which landlords were active and which were not.
FCWB also says it was wrong for government MPs to spend taxpayer money campaigning in the CWB election and want it made illegal.
At the very least those MPs should’ve registered as third-party interveners, but they refused to do that, Wells said.
After the 2008 election the number of pro-and anti-single-desk farmer-elected directors was unchanged at eight and two, respectively. [email protected]