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Who controls the Canadian Wheat Board? That is the question, according to key players involved in a hotly contested plebiscite that is pitting Western farmers against a B.C. federal minister.
The plebiscite concerning the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and its monopoly on barley is the latest event in a year that has seen government firings, inter-provincial fighting, opposition motions and what some are calling a gag order against the CWB.
Though the details and complexities of the CWB may seem boring and inconsequential to some, literally hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are at stake. Farmers are already struggling; between 1996 and 2001 almost 30,000 farms were lost in Canada.
Started in 1935, the CWB was a means for farmers in the West to sell various types of grain collectively, attracting a single price and avoiding unstable shifts in the market. In 1998, the then-governing Liberals amended the Wheat Board Act to strip the CWB of its Crown Corporation status and allowed farmers to elect the majority of directors. It was the fourth- largest Crown Corporation in Canada at the time.
In the 2006 election, the Conservatives promised to dismantle the Wheat Board's monopoly both on wheat and barley. Since then, the CEO of 25 years for the Wheat Board was fired (incurring outrage from Wheat Board directors) while an order in council was issued preventing the CWB from spending money in favour of the monopoly.
"[ Agricultural Minister Chuck Strahl] doesn't seem to understand that this is a shared governance corporation with a board of directors, 10 of whom are elected by farmers," says CWB Director Bill Toews. "He seems to want to take full authority over the operations of the Board."
Last June, the government tried to amend the Canadian Wheat Board Act. The motion failed and opposition parties reminded the government that a “clear and direct” plebiscite was required before it could be amended.
According to Stewart Wells, president of the National Farmers’ Union, the Conservative government ignored the call for the required plebiscite until the NDP government of Manitoba announced their own plebiscite for Manitoba farmers this January. The results showed that between 60 and 70 per cent of farmers want to maintain the monopoly on barley and wheat.
Strahl, a Conservative MP from B.C., dismissed the results as being 'propaganda' and announced a plebiscite for barley farmers would be held in March. Instead of asking whether the monopoly should be maintained or not, however, a third option was put on the ballot; a dual system, where an open market would co-exist with the CWB.
“It's not possible,” says Maureen Fitzhenry, a media relations contact for the CWB, in reference to the existence of the CWB in an open market. “The Wheat Board has almost no facilities…we’d be asking our competitors to move grain. Okay, in all fairness, we could become a grain company, but that would involve the government investing [over a billion dollars] in infrastructure and they’ve made no commitment to do so yet.”
According to Fitzhenry, because the CWB is in competition with major US companies, the Australian Wheat Boardand others., the CWB requires high volume of product from a monopoly. “If [farmers] think there is no risk...they are wrong.”
Conrad Bellehumeur, director of Communication for Minister Strahl, disagrees. “A number of studies in Alberta…show this is possible.” He maintains the Conservatives envision a “strong CWB” within an open-market system and that his party is simply trying to give farmers the “opportunity to choose.”
But Alex Atamanecko, the agricultural critic for the NDP says that, according to the statistics he's seen -- including price comparisons and a report by Murray Fulton from the University of Saskatchewan -- “the Wheat Board as it stands would cease to exist in an open market.”
Fitzhenry doesn’t think Strahl’s Alberta studies are credible. “I think farmers want to keep the Wheat Board. Consistently 60 to 70 per cent of farmers support the single desk system.” Four out of five office directors elected during the last CWB elections are also monopoly supporters, says Fitzhenry. For her, the conflict is a question of “who controls the CWB: farmers or government?”
Bellehumeur says that barley is the only part of the CWB under review at the moment, but that a ‘wheat plebiscite’ will be instituted later. Wells believes Conservatives are waiting to tackle the wheat monopoly when they get a majority in parliament. Both Wells and Fitzhenry said before the plebiscite that regardless of the result, the Conservatives would interpret the results how they wanted.
Indeed, before the plebiscite, neither Strahl nor his communications director outlined what percentage of the vote was required to move ahead with reforms, saying, “The data will be available to anyone but it's up to me to say what this advice means.”
Wells states that the ‘attack’ on the Wheat Board is caused by a combination of “ignorance, malicious companies, commodity brokers and long standing anti-wheat board people… all within the government.” He wonders if Strahl, with a background in forestry, understands how the Wheat Board operates and whether he is getting biased information from sources in the US.
Atamanecko suggests the 14 US trade challenges under NAFTA and other trade organizations to the CWB may be influencing the Conservative stance.
In response, Strahl’s communication director says that Strahl has been called everything from “undemocratic” to “a communist,” but notes that Conservatives have the largest caucus of farmers in parliament. He thinks that the people making the most noise challenging Strahl’s credibility “are the same people against plebiscite.”
Meanwhile, CWB directors and staff have complained of a government “gag-order” after the CWB was told not to spend money promoting the monopolies. Because Fitzhenry is paid staff, she worries that the government can interpret any comment she makes as an expenditure of funds. “I’m not prepared to do a legal interpretation” she says, “Staff don’t know what they can and can’t say…it makes [our] job difficult.”
Atamanecko goes even further: “Their tactics are sinister and deceitful...they want to dismantle the Wheat Board and are doing everything possible to do so. They've singled out directors, the Wheat Board and contradicted the current CEO…and made the [plebiscite] question fuzzy.”
Results in, Conclusion Not
The plebiscite results released on March 28 show 38 per cent of farmers wanting to keep the monopoly, while 14 per cent want to scrap the CWB all together. Fourty-eight per cent say they want the dual system. Strahl has said he will remove the barley monopoly by August 1, 2007.
For Fitzhenry, the results are meaningless because the plebiscite offered “an unrealistic scenario.” She points out that the minister added up options two and three to declare that farmers wanted to scrap the CWB, “But why not add up one and two…and assume they want to keep [it]?”
Strahl has insisted on amending the Canadian Wheat Board Act by changing the regulations. “We're quite sure we can take it out through regulation,” Strahl says.
Strahl might come up against more opposition, only this time it might be in the courts. Though Strahl and Bellehumeur claim they can legally make the CWB a dual-system, others claim otherwise. Liberal Leader Stephan Dion told a group in March that legislation through parliament was legally required before abolishing the monopoly.
Fitzhenry is not willing to call the government’s actions illegal, but she doesn't think the government’s plebiscite constitutes a plebiscite under the Wheat Board Act. She says that directors for the CWB are of the opinion that in order to change the Wheat Board’s monopoly, an act of parliament is required.
“This isn’t over,” she says
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.