Pardons for border runners raise questions

Now that the CWB is changed, Stephen Harper says farmers who broke the law in the 1990s deserve to be pardoned

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to pardon some of the western farmers convicted of contravening Customs Act regulations in the 1990s is raising eyebrows.

“Where does that stop?” Bob Roehle, a former CWB employee and member of Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board asked. “In a democracy, do I get to choose which laws I support?

“What about these freedom fighters who don’t like Medicare?”

A government official declined to release the names of the farmers pardoned, citing privacy laws. However, the official confirmed the convictions were under the Customs Act, not the CWB Act.

In some cases farmers failed to show custom officials an export permit, some were charged after they illegally removed trucks seized by custom officials and others were convicted with contempt of court.

“(T)hose farmers were charged, they were hauled into court literally in chains, convicted, fined, jailed, threatened, equipment seized, lives were interrupted,” Harper said. “But let me be clear about this, these people were not criminals, they were our fellow citizens — citizens who protested injustice by submitting themselves peacefully to the consequences of challenging that injustice.”

Harper said he was using the ancient power of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to pardon the farmers.

“For these courageous farmers these convictions will no longer tarnish their good names,” he said.

However, the Appeal Courts at the time saw it differently. “The appellants were properly charged for violating Section 114 of the Customs Act. The trial judge found that customs officers, acting in the scope of their duties, did seize the vehicles, and that the appellants did wilfully evade the customs officers’ attempts to place those vehicles into custody,” Madam Justice C.L. Kenny wrote in upholding their convictions.”

The Parole Board of Canada website says such pardons can only be granted in clear cases of injustice and only “in very exceptional and truly deserving cases.” The injustice should not have been foreseen at the time of sentencing. But in many of the cases farmers deliberately sought to be arrested and chose to go to jail rather than pay a fine.

“Furthermore, the Royal Prerogative of Mercy is not a mechanism to review the merits of existing legislation, or those of the justice system in general,” the site says.

PostMedia quotes interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae as saying the pardons are partisan. “They’re corrupting the process,” he wrote in a Tweet.

But Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said the pardons were just because the law was not.

“The Liberals have always supported jailing farmers who resisted the old and unjust wheat board monopoly, so it’s no surprise they don’t approve of doing the decent and just thing now that the wheat board monopoly has been abolished,” he said in an email.

Kevin Bender, president of the pro-open market Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said in an interview that he supported the pardons because he was told regulations were changed retroactively.

On May 17, 1996 the Liberal government quickly passed an order-in-council amending Canadian Wheat Board Act regulations after a legal loophole made it impossible to enforce the existing legislation. A provincial court judge had acquitted Manitoba farmer David Sawatzky on charges of failing to provide an export certificate when he exported wheat and barley to the United States between November 1993 and August 1994.

Arnold Conner ruled that while the Canadian Wheat Board Act requires an exporter to obtain an export license, neither the Customs Act nor the wheat board legislation required an exporter to show it at the border. The change made it compulsory for wheat and barley exporters to show customs officers a wheat board export licence at the time of export.

Then agriculture minister Ralph Goodale justified the amendment arguing Parliament intended the wheat board to have a monopoly on wheat and barley exports.

While Harper said many of the convicted farmers exported only token volumes of wheat, Sawatzky was accused of trucking 810 loads of wheat and 50 loads of barley into the U.S. and selling it for just under $2.22 million U.S.

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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