Canada's agriculture minister violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when he issued a gag order on officials with the Canadian Wheat Board in 2006, the Federal Court has ruled.
Then agriculture minister Chuck Strahl's 2006 directive telling board officials not to spend money advocating in favour of the single-desk grain marketing system was contrary to the Wheat Board Act and violated people's constitutional right to freedom of expression, Judge Roger Hughes wrote in the 34-page decision released late Thursday.
"It is a fundamental tenet of a free and democratic society that the citizens of a country agree to be governed and obey the laws if proper and fairly imposed, and that the government conduct itself in accordance with those laws," Hughes said in the decision. "It is a bargain that must be kept by both sides."
Single desk refers to a long-existing system in which the Canadian Wheat Board has a monopoly on wheat and barley sales. It had long maintained it needed the monopoly to assure supply to customers and ensure the best prices for farmers. However, many farmers believe they can get better prices marketing their own grain.
The Conservative government says it wants to give farmers more choice about where they can sell their grain, starting with barley. A bill before Parliament would allow barley farmers to sell their crops outside the wheat board system.
Speaking from Saskatoon on Friday, a feisty-sounding Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government won't change its course.
"We'll continue to fight in Parliament. We'll continue to fight in the legislature. But the bottom line is this, mark my words: Western Canadian farmers want this freedom, and they are going to get it," Harper told a crowd. "And anybody who stands in their way is going to get walked over."
Saskatoon political scientist David McGrane said Harper's attitude reflects the government's heavy-handed approach to the issue.
"That's something that really eats away at the heart of our democracy because democracy is all about free and open debate," he said.
One of the wheat board's farmer-directors, Larry Hill of Saskatchewan, said that for now, at least, the court ruling reaffirms that it is farmers, not the government, who control the wheat board.
Western Canadian farmers voted last year in a plebiscite on the future of the wheat board's monopoly on the sale of barley. The majority said they wanted changes, although many preferred the status quo.
Before wheat board officials were ordered to stop lobbying, they had argued in favour of the single desk. The wheat board had also posted information on its website supporting that position.
The government had argued the Wheat Board Act allows it to give direction to the wheat board to protect wheat board assets, but the judge rejected that argument, saying the intent of the gag order was to silence people, not save money.
"The minister's letter ... makes it clear that the minister intends to make an overzealous interpretation of the direction precluding any person on board time from any speaking out on the topic and insisting on removal from the website of material even though no use of funds in that respect has been demonstrated," Hughes said.
Some of the wheat board officials at the centre of the dispute two years ago are no longer with the Winnipeg-based grain marketing organization, including former president Adrian Measner, who was fired.