Tories to reform wheat board despite court ruling

The Conservative government will press ahead with its plan to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing monopoly, despite a Federal Court ruling that says Ottawa broke the law by failing to consult with farmers.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, centre, is flanked by Alberta Agriculture Minister Evan Berger, left, and Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud, right, as they hold a news conference in advance of the final vote in the House of Commons on the Marketing Freedom for Grains Farmers Act, on Nov. 28. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The Conservative government will press ahead with its plan to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing monopoly, despite a Federal Court ruling that says Ottawa broke the law by failing to consult with farmers.

A Federal Court judge in Winnipeg ruled Wednesday that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz breached the Canadian Wheat Board Act by making changes without holding a plebiscite for producers.

During a news conference later in the day, Ritz said the government will appeal the ruling and will aim to pass the legislation by the end of the year as planned.

"Let me be clear, we will never reconsider western wheat and barley farmers' fundamental rights to market their own wheat and barley," Ritz said.

Federal ruling

A copy of the decision can be obtained via the website of the federal court.

The ruling has also been posted on the CWB's website under Hot Topics and Legal Challenges.

Justice Douglas Campbell wrote in the court decision that repealing the Wheat Board Act without consulting producers "is threatening and should be approached with caution."

"Generally speaking, when advancing a significant change to an established management scheme, the failure to provide a meaningful opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard and accommodated forces resort to legal means to have them heard.

"Had a meaningful consultative process been engaged to find a solution which meets the concerns of the majority, the present legal action might not have been necessary."

Ritz introduced Bill C-18 in Parliament in October to end the wheat board's 60-year marketing monopoly on western wheat and barley by next August.

If passed, it would enable the government to dismantle the CWB single desk without first having held a producers' plebiscite as required under Section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act.

Calls to delay legislation

Opposition MPs have asked that the government to hold off on passing the legislation until the court proceedings run their course.

"If they have any respect whatsoever for the parliamentary process, they would put the brakes on Bill C-18 until such time as the superior courts have ruled on the matter," New Democrat MP Pat Martin told reporters on Parliament Hill.

Canadian Wheat Board chairman Allen Oberg said he was pleased with the court's ruling and urged the federal government "to do the right thing" instead of continuing "to defy the law."

Oberg is scheduled to address a Senate committee on Thursday and said he will urge them to halt the legislation.

Pushing through the bill before the courts hear the appeal would show "contempt not only for farmers but for the whole democratic system," he told Evan Solomon on the CBC-TV's Power & Politics.

Farmers divided

Lawyers for the wheat board and government made their arguments in Federal Court in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

CWB lawyer John McDougall stressed the importance of Section 47.1 of the Wheat Board Act and that changes cannot be made unless "the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension."

Government lawyers, in turn, had argued the case should be dismissed because the courts have no jurisdiction to override legislation being debated in Parliament.

Governments are free to amend or repeal laws as they see fit, the lawyers told the court.

Bill C-18 has divided farmers. The board was set up following the Great Depression in an effort to have farmers band together and seek higher prices.

Supporters say the single desk prevents producers from competing against each other for sales.

Detractors say they want the freedom to seek better deals on the open market.

They point out that producers of other grains, as well as wheat farmers in other parts of Canada, already have that freedom.