Wheat board defenders rally on Parliament Hill

Farmers opposed to the government's plans to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board rallied on Parliament Hill Tuesday to draw attention to their fight, which includes a national ad campaign and a legal challenge.

Final vote in House of Commons not yet scheduled but expected soon

Supporters of the Canadian Wheat Board rally on Parliament Hill on Tuesday. The Canadian Wheat Board Alliance brought two dozen Western farmers to Ottawa to meet with as many Senators as possible as legislation to dismantle the board's grain marketing monopoly moves towards passage. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Farmers opposed to the government's plans to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board rallied on Parliament Hill Tuesday to draw attention to their ongoing fight.

"They have risked our futures without ever considering what the consequences of removing the board will be," said Drew Baker, the 24-year old grain farmer who kicked off the rally. "On our own, we will have little power to negotiate with big American companies, and that concerns me."

Bill C-18 would dismantle the CWB's "single-desk" marketing system, which gives it the exclusive right to sell Prairie wheat and barley. It would also dismiss the farmer-elected directors on its board, dramatically changing the governance of the organization which has been farmer-controlled since 1998 reforms to the former Crown Corporation.

The government hopes to transition to an open market system over a five-year period, in which some kind of voluntary pool may continue to exist, but farmers will be free to sell their grain as they wish.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz wants the bill to become law before Christmas, so the grain industry has time to adapt to a new open market system in time for selling the 2012 wheat and barley crops.

"Why is Stephen Harper hell-bent on ramming this legislation through Parliament without allowing us to voice our concerns?" Baker told the rally. "I want a vote."

NDP wheat board critic Pat Martin welcomed the farmers to Parliament Hill, saying it had been the "scene of a sham and a travesty that unfolded in the past two weeks" with the Harper government "ramming through" Bill C-18.

"Your government has failed you, your government has lied to you," Martin told farmers, saying he's had phone calls from farmers who voted Conservative because Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said last spring they would get a vote before the government did anything. "That was a bald-faced lie. They turned their back on that commitment."

Bill fast-tracked

The government moved time allocation to limit debate on Bill C-18 mere days after it was introduced Oct. 18, and it passed second reading Oct. 24. A special legislative committee studying the bill heard witnesses at just two four-hour evening meetings, and time allocated to spokespeople defending the wheat board's single-desk marketing system was limited to one hour.

The committee held those hearings two weeks ago and a final vote in the House of Commons is expected soon. The legislation will then move on to debate in the Senate. Senators have already begun planning for their committee's review of the bill.

"The unethical steamrolling of everyday prairie farmers is a stain on the face of Canadian democracy and must be stopped," said farmer-elected CWB director Rod Flaman. "They've failed to talk to the very people who will suffer the most if the board is dismantled."

"I'm not talking about the special interest groups who represent only a small number of farmers but happen to have the ear of this government," Flaman said. "Farmers have never been invited. Farmers have never been asked."

"We will not be bullied any longer. In just over a week, 28,000 Canadians have written letters to their MPs in support of farmers," another CWB director Kyle Korneychuk told the rally. "They are concerned about how farmers are being treated and who might be next."

"There has never been a more overt contempt for democracy," Korneychuk added.

In question period Tuesday, Deputy Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale accused the government of diverting "at least $100 million" of wheat board funds "to pay for the destruction of the single-desk [monopoly marketing system]," which he called the "misappropriation of funds."

"The only misappropriation is by the wheat board itself taking farmers' money to run a campaign against farmers' own expressed views," Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied. "Western Canadian farmers have been very clear that they want dual marketing ... That's why this government was elected by Prairie farmers and that's how we are proceeding."

Opinions split

Western grain producers are split over the government's plans. Several grower organizations have lobbied hard in favour of an open market, appearing with ministers and buying advertising in support of the government.

Conservatives have noted repeatedly that they were elected in nearly every Prairie riding last spring, citing that as the only mandate they need to proceed. However, in recent wheat board elections, where grain farmers in those same rural constituencies voted, eight of 10 directors elected ran on platforms in favour of keeping the monopoly.

The agriculture minister's riding is inside the wheat board district that also elected the current chair of the wheat board, Alberta grain producer Allen Oberg, who is leading the fight against the government's bill.

The CWB has launched a lawsuit with the farmer-elected directors as plaintiffs, arguing the government's plans violate the Canadian Wheat Board Act and should be overturned.

That Act specifies the minister cannot change the system without holding a vote of Prairie grain producers. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said previously a vote would be held, but the only one that has been held was a plebiscite organized by the wheat board itself, which found a small majority of farmers wanted to maintain the single-desk system, not dismantle it.

Two of the board's 10 farmer-elected directors were in favour of the government's plans and resigned over the board's decision to proceed with a court challenge.

The legal arguments will begin in Federal Court in Winnipeg Dec. 6. 

Wheat growers in favour of the government's legislation are also suing the wheat board, arguing it should not be spending producers' money on lawsuits fighting the government.

Battle moves to airwaves, Senate

Over the last two weeks, the CWB has also launched a national print and broadcast advertising campaign. But as the fight escalates, CWB chair Oberg has become a magnet for criticism by the Conservatives. 

"He's doing a great disservice to the farmers he claims to represent by wasting farmers' money on breakfast for the NDP caucus and an expensive survey," Alberta Conservative MP Blake Richards said before question period in the House of Commons Tuesday. "This is in addition to the $1.4 million being spent on baseless, self-serving ad campaigns and $100,000 wasted on a reckless lawsuit in an attempt to keep their outdated monopoly."

"How much more of farmers' money are they willing to risk by wasting time and refusing to work with us in the best interest of farmers? Not only does Parliament have the right to change legislation, our government has the responsibility to deliver on the promises we made to Canadians," Richards said.

Earlier at the rally, Oberg defended the cost of the board's lobbying efforts, citing a potential $500 million in lost income for prairie wheat and barley farmers.

"This advertising campaign is certainly justified. [It works out to] seven cents a tonne, a quarter of a cent a bushel, a one-time payment in respect to farmers' rights being trampled on and Parliamentary process being compromised. Certainly that expenditure is justified," Oberg said. 

Also at the rally, Goodale agreed that farmers stand to lose millions once the wheat board no longer demands the best prices on farmers' behalf.

"The system will be totally at the mercy of the grain companies and the railways and the farmers' clout will be gone," Goodale said, saying the government is handing a "$6 billion per year trade freebie" to the United States while getting nothing in return.

"That too is not only wrong, it's just plain stupid," Goodale said.

Farmers and CWB officials are lobbying senators on the bill this week.

The NDP's Martin, a long-time advocate for abolishing the Senate, expressed little faith in that effort on Tuesday morning.

"Stephen Harper has spent the last year stacking that Senate with hacks and flacks and party apparatchiks, to where it's going to be an uphill battle to talk reason and logic to ideological zealots. The treatment of this legislation has been a disgrace," Martin said.

Another pro-wheat board rally was also held over the noon hour on Tuesday in Winnipeg, where the wheat board's offices are located.