Feds to proceed with overhaul of Canadian Wheat Board despite court ruling

The Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act is currently before the Senate and is expected to come back to the House of Commons for a final vote late next week. That legislation seeks to allow farmers and agri-business to enter contracts for the private delivery of grain starting in August of next year, while maintaining the Wheat Board as a voluntary grain pooling option that will be transitioned into private ownership over the next five years. Bob Zimmer, MP for Prince George-Peace River and a member of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, said his government has moved to limit debate on the bill in order to avoid delays by the Opposition parties.

“Both sides are entrenched on the issue – they (the Opposition) are entrenched in their and we (the Government) are entrenched in ours – and simply, to do this (procedure) is just not wasting time,” said Zimmer. “We have actually had a lot of debate and have heard from both sides many times, and that’s why it (the procedure) is being used, to move things along.”

However, the legislation is also being challenged by Judge Douglas Campbell, who found in a decision released on Wednesday that the government would contradict the Canadian Wheat Board Act without consulting farmers through a plebiscite. Zimmer said his government plans to appeal that decision on the grounds that the specific clause the judge cites does not apply to wholesale changes to the Wheat Board itself.

“The judge is saying that it applies to the Wheat Board itself as an entity, but that clause was never meant to hold a plebiscite to do that, it was meant to hold plebiscites so farmers could make decisions on what kind of crops the Wheat Board would handle,” he said.

He said he believes the majority of Western grain growers support marketing freedom, and he disputes the results of a plebiscite conducted by the Wheat Board earlier this year that shows 62 per cent of the over 38,000 respondents were in favour of maintaining the single-desk marketing system.

“We heard a statistic this week that there is actually only 17,000 grain farmers in Canada, but for some reason there were 64,000 ballots, so how does that work?” said Zimmer. “And then some of the grain farmers who should have gotten ballots that had been legitimate (farmers) in the past didn’t get one, so that’s why I hear the 62 per cent is really a skewed result.”

He said what his government is proposing is really a compromise between a single-desk approach and a complete free-market approach, by maintaining the Wheat Board as an option for famers. He said introducing competition will actually force the Wheat Board to find efficiencies and will actually improve the service it provides to farmers.

Zimmer added Western farmers should not be concerned about the uncertainty created by the potential for a court injunction or lengthy appeals process, saying he is confident the legislation will pass before Christmas.

“Our whole goal with this is to expedite this so the grain farmers of Western Canada can actually plan their crop year and be able to sell it on open market by Aug. 1,” he said.

The push for more marketing options has been supported nationally by organizations such as the Grain Growers of Canada, and in the B.C. Peace region, has been endorsed by the BC Grain Producers Association.

However, Allen Watson, a recently-retired farmer from Rolla, said he is concerned about the legislation and it implications for the marketing of wheat and barley internationally.

“This is going to have such an impact on Canada as a producer of high-quality grains, and the ability to put the right product in the right place at the right time for our global customers,” said Watson. “The movement of our grain will look like a ‘dog’s breakfast’ without the Canadian Wheat Board to coordinate that movement.”

He also disputes Zimmer’s interpretation of the Canadian Wheat Board Act.

“I have a copy of the Act in front of me and it very clearly specifies that they can not change grains or add grains without going to the farmers first. The Canadian Wheat Board is owned by the farmers.”

Watson said he doesn’t believe the Wheat Board can exist as a voluntary option, and that competition will ultimately decrease the value of Canadian grain.

“Either we have an orderly marketing system for grain or we don’t, those are the two options. If you open that up, and all of a sudden we have multiple sources of grain for our global customers, do you think they’re going to pay the highest price? No, they are going to pay the lowest price.”

He said the government is afraid to bring the legislation to farmers for a vote because it knows the proposed changes would ultimately fail, and he suggested it is the government that is in fact trying to skew the results of a potential plebiscite by allowing canola growers and cattle ranchers to have a vote.

Mile 0 City will continue to follow this issue in the coming weeks.