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Is History Repeating Itself?

The wheat board isn t even dead yet, but that didn t stop some Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) delegates meeting here last week from wanting to resurrect it.

I ve got an idea here, Arborg farmer Kyle Foster said during a discussion about lopsided contracts favouring grain companies Oct. 27. Why don t we pool our grain together then we ll decide what the contract is going to read?

The room erupted in laughter. Then someone shouted: Let s form a wheat board!

That spontaneous banter had a cynical edge to it, however. Farmers in the room recognized they are about to lose some collective clout if the federal government ends the board s monopoly Aug. 1.

Ottawa is moving at lightning speed at least in parliamentary terms to push Bill C-18, the Grain Marketing Freedom Act for Farmers into law. It received first reading in the Commons Oct. 18, and passed second reading last week after the government restricted debate. Instead of going to the agriculture committee the bill is headed for a newly formed legislative committee for technical review. (See page 7.)

At this pace, C-18 should easily be law by year s end.

But it s not over yet. The board and its eight single-desk-supporting directors launched a court challenge Oct. 26. claiming the legislation is illegal. Section 47.1 of the wheat board act states farmers must vote before crops are removed from the single desk.

The government can either obey the law, they can change the law, but they can t ignore the law and that s what has happened here, CWB chair Allen Oberg said.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has a different interpretation. Section 47.1 simply covers the commodities sold by the board under the monopoly, not the existence of the single-desk monopoly itself, he says.

Both agree Parliament has the authority to end the board s monopoly on the sale of western Canadian wheat and barley destined for export of domestic human consumption. What they differ on is how.

Had the government removed Section 47.1 by amendment, a vote wouldn t be necessary. The government could have then introduced legislation to end the monopoly. The government chose a shortcut, believing its majority would win the day, Oberg said.

Resignations

The board s legal action was the last straw for District 1 director and open-market supporter Henry Vos who resigned Oct. 26. What is happening at the CWB today is, in a word, wrong, Vos said in a letter to farmers in which he calls the board directors ideological bullies.

District 2 director Jeff Nielsen followed suit Oct. 31, saying in a letter he could not condone the board s continued lack of understanding and respect to producers in Western Canada.

Both former directors said they support the federal government s move to kill the monopoly.

So does the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. It announced Oct. 27 plans to seek a court injunction to block the board s suit. The CWB and its board of directors have… no right to use farmers funds to advance a political agenda, association chair Gerrid Gust, said in a release.

Ritz condemned the board s actions and praised the wheat growers.

However, Oberg countered that the majority of farmers voted to keep the single desk in a plebiscite it held after the federal government refused. As well, he said legal action will cost a fraction of the $500 million a year the single desk returns to farmers.

The eight directors will fund the legal fight themselves if fired, Oberg said.

Farmers demonstrated for and against the board last week as the television cameras rolled. An estimated 300 CWB supporters travelled by cavalcade to the board s downtown offices Oct. 28 where they rallied alongside Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, urbanites and local politicians who support the board.

In contrast, David Anderson, Parliamentary secretary to the minister of agriculture and agrifood for the Canadian Wheat Board, held a news conference Oct. 25 near Lethbridge to fete the so-called Lethbridge 13. They re the farmers who chose jail in 2002 rather than pay fines for exporting grain without an export licence in 1996 and/or illegally removed their trucks seized by Canada Customs officials.

Brian Otto, president of the Western Barley Growers Association, said the jailed farmers made the supreme sacrifice, a term normally reserved for military personnel killed in action.

When the wheat board was placed in overnight, my dad said he went to bed a free man and woke up in the morning a prisoner of war, Otto said.

Back at KAP, it was as if history was repeating itself. A century ago, western Canadian farmers complained the grain companies and railways had too much power. Farmers organized, lobbied and convinced the federal government to pass the Canada Grain Act in 1912, creating the Canadian Grain Commission, whose mandate is to act in the interests of producers.

Fractured voice

The Prairie Pools and board were created in the following decades. But the pools are gone, the board is on the chopping block and not only do farmers collectively pack a smaller political punch, their unanimity has been fractured into polarized factions.

The resolution KAP was debating called on the farm group to seek a lawyer s help in improving grain company contracts. Starbuck farmer Reg Dyck said a farmer in his district was outraged when a grain company wanted him to sign a contract allowing its officials to check his bins.

Although the resolution was defeated, many delegates agreed it is a growing concern.

We seem to be losing our rights as farmers, so I think this will have to be looked at in the future, Dyck said.

The wheat board s future dominated much of the KAP meeting. During a 40-minute in-camera session delegates discussed the controversy swirling around KAP s position.

Several weeks ago, three farmers ran an insert in theManitoba Co-operatorurging farmers to pull their memberships to protest what they alleged was KAP s undemocratic shift away from supporting the board.

During the closed-door session delegates endorsed president Doug Chorney s handling of the issue, Chorney said in an interview.

KAP doesn t want the board s mandate changed without a farmers vote, Chorney said. But if the board s monopoly ends KAP wants policies that work for members.

Chorney said KAP lost 36 members because of the ad.

Rammed through

KAP is disappointed C-18 is being rammed through without the needed fulsome debate, Chorney said.

There are too many unknowns, he added.

The wheat board controversy has chastened KAP s General Council. Delegates tabled one board-related resolution and defeated another, arguing passing it might be seen as endorsing the government s actions.

The tabled resolution suggested ways to improve a voluntary wheat board. Starbuck farmer Ed Rempel said that allows Prime Minister Stephen Harper to blame farmers when it fails.

Don t get sucked into this deal, he warned.

The defeated resolution called on KAP to lobby the government to retire the Canadian Wheat Board name if C-18 becomes law.

As Rae Trimble said so eloquently, let him (Prime Minister Harper) find his own damn name, Rempel said.

Someone piped up with a suggestion: Ritz Crackers.

A resolution supporting a mandatory checkoff to fund the Western Grains Research Foundation, Canadian International Grains Institute and Canadian Malting Barley Technical Institute was also defeated but then resurrected and passed.

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I ve got an idea here. Why don t we pool our grain together then we ll decide what the contract is going to read.

Kyle Foster

Arborg farmer

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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