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Remember When?

Reporters are notorious information pack rats and the Manitoba Co-operator’sAllan Dawson is no exception. Rumour has it his house is slowly settling into the Pembina escarpment due to the piles of paper, assorted reports and tape recordings stored in his office.

But give Dawson a bit of time and he can pull together a pretty good chronology of events, which, to the chagrin of politicians, keeps the record straight over who said, what, when and to whom.

This resource is quite useful when it comes to long-standing issues in which historical accuracy routinely falls prey to ideological expediency.

So, while we were pleasantly surprised when the federal minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board told farmers at a recent forum in Minnedosa that the government “respects the vote” of farmers who support the single desk, it’s appropriate to consider these comments in context to what else this government has been saying on the issue since it was first elected five years ago.

On Jan. 26, 2006 Canadians elected the Harper Conservatives to a minority government. One of the party’s campaign promises was to “give western farmers freedom to make their own marketing and transportation decisions. Western grain farmers should be able to participate voluntarily in the Canadian Wheat Board.”

The newly appointed minister for the portfolio, Chuck Strahl, initially said (Feb. 13, 2006) that ending the CWB’s single desk was not his top priority.

“What I’ve said to the wheat board and others is I don’t plan any immediate changes at the wheat board,” Strahl said March 2, 2006 to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. “Obviously there needs to be a consultative process. In the end there will have to be legislation.

By August, however, it had become a priority.

“For those who say just ignore that (election promise) they just don’t understand the political reality and they don’t understand the prime minister,” Strahl said Aug. 15, 2006. “The prime minister pulls no punches. We’ve made those promises… and my marching orders are to help us fulfil our promises we made during the campaign.”

Oct. 31, 2006, a plebiscite on barley marketing was announced. The choice put to farmers, as announced on Jan. 22, 2007, was criticized by board supporters and professional pollsters as inconsistent and biased.

“These people are extremely incompetent or they are diabolical,” said Scott MacKay, president of Probe Research.

Based on its interpretation of the poll, the federal government moved to remove barley from the CWB by order-in-council, saying June 11, 2007 that the change will take effect Aug. 1, 2007. The move was successfully challenged in court by Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board.

On August 2, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters the CWB’s single desk will end “one way or another.”

That government hasn’t wavered since Gerry Ritz has taken over the portfolio, although it appears to now recognize it needs the support of Parliament in order to remove the single desk. That won’t be there unless it wins a majority.

For the sake of space, we’re going to fast forward to Minnedosa on March 15, 2011, just days before an expected election. In response to a question from a single-desk supporter, Gerry Ritz told farmers that the government will not attempt to impose dual marketing unless farmers vote for it. “Until farmers make that change, I’m not prepared to work arbitrarily,” Ritz said. “They are absolutely right to believe in democracy. I do, too.”

We’d be the last to suggest that a government or politician isn’t allowed a change of mind. Survival of a species, whether it’s an amoeba or a Conservative cabinet, is predicated on the ability to adapt and learn from past mistakes.

But we’re left wondering. We hope Ritz means that farmers will make the decision through a plebiscite asking a fair question that clearly spells out the implications of the choices being presented. And before that plebiscite is undertaken, we suggest there needs to be a much broader discussion over the future of export grain marketing in Canada. Love it or hate it, you have to agree that the CWB is a big part of the system. Australia’s AWB didn’t last long after the end of the monopoly. With no facilities and capital reserve, the CWB would collapse even sooner. Whether farmers vote for change, or have one imposed, they need to know what and how big those changes will be.

We sincerely hope Ritz does not mean that a Conservative majority will be interpreted as a vote for change. It doesn’t matter how you twist the numbers. It’s clear that Prairie farmers are divided.

The Harper government has made promises to farmers who support ending the board’s single desk too. In the event of a majority, to which promise will it remain true? [email protected]

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