Wheat board legislation coming Tuesday

The Conservative government is tabling legislation Tuesday to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over Western Canada's wheat and barley farmers.
In this Oct. 19, 2010, photo, hay bales sit in field near Saskatoon. The Conservative government is tabling legislation Monday to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over Western Canada's wheat and barley farmers. (Rob Gillies/Associated Press)

The Conservative government is tabling legislation Tuesday to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over Western Canada's wheat and barley farmers. 

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced the timetable for the government's plans to reorganize the wheat board at the Alberta farm of grain producer Matt Sawyer on Monday morning.

Ritz said the government wants to ensure the bill clears Parliament before the end of the year, saying both farmers and commodities markets need clarity to plan for the future.

The minister also denied that this change means the end for the wheat board. He said its future will be up to farmers.

The wheat board shot back on Monday with accusations that the goverment has been unwilling to collaborate on a workable plan for the board's future.

The board also released a list of six things it says the government needs to provide for the wheat board to function as a voluntary pool in the future.

Without these requirements — including start-up capital, debt guarantees and regulated access to terminal and port facilities — board chairman Allen Oberg says the board's ability to compete in a new open market is in question.

With the introduction of the bill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be one step closer to achieving what many Prairie farmers have been demanding for decades.

Harper had promised farmers would be able to choose how to market their crops by next harvest.  

"Not only will the legislation come forward, it will be passed very soon," the prime minister said earlier this month. "We will have dual marketing in August, for the next crop year."  


Key dates  

1935: The Canadian Wheat Board was created, with Prairie farmers mandated starting in 1943 to sell through the board.  

1996: 14 farmers are fined after taking their wheat across the Canada-U.S. border to sell or donate. 

1998: Changes to the Wheat Board Act gave control of the organization to a 15-member board, including 10 elected farmers.  

Sept. 12, 2011: 62 per cent of wheat farmers and 51 per cent of barley farmers who voted in a plebiscite chose to keep the board. 

Harper warned the wheat board and its supporters to start preparing for a voluntary system. 

"It's time for the wheat board and others who have been standing in the way to realize that this train is barrelling down a Prairie track. You're much better to get on it than to lie on the tracks because this is going ahead. It's time for the wheat board to go out in a dual market environment, to cultivate its customers and provide a competitive service, because those customers are going to have choice in the future," Harper said.  

The controversial system was set up as a voluntary board in the 1920s, but the federal government made it mandatory for grain farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in 1943. 

Known as a single-desk because it's the one option for selling grain, the idea was to use the monopoly to get farmers a better price. The organization, which has staff in Tokyo and Beijing, also takes care of marketing and shipping, with 80 per cent of the wheat going overseas. 

Farmers who have tried to go around the wheat board have been arrested, fined, and even jailed for not paying the fines, increasing tensions around the issue. Some said they could get better prices on their own.  

NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose Churchill, Man., riding is the site of a port through which grain ships, says the wheat board is the backbone of the economy in the Prairie provinces.  

"It allows farmers to prosper, it allows farmers to keep going in an increasingly difficult world and in their industry, and it makes sure that farmers, their families and their communities are at the centre of what they do," she said. 

The wheat board also helps smooth over rough years, Ashton said.  

"Whether it's climate or geography, there's high and low years for all farmers. The wheat board brings some stability in the marketing of a product that is there in a good year and a bad year." 

Opponents of the board say it should be up to farmers to decide whether they want to participate. 

In an email to CBC News, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said he grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and knows what kind of work goes into every step, from planning crop rotations to harvesting. 

"Farmers take on the risk of weather and disease and they manage multi-million dollar businesses. These same farmers are driving the economy by marketing other crops such as canola and pulses, and yet if they do the same with their wheat or barley, they could go to jail," he said. 

"Eliminating the wheat board's monopoly would give Western Canadian grain farmers the same rights and opportunities as grain farmers in Ontario. Our Government is committed to giving Western Canadian grain farmers the marketing freedom they want and deserve." 

Wheat board supporters fear a voluntary board will get lower prices, and that small farms that rely on the board to market their grain will have to close up shop. Ritz said Western Canada farmers are more than capable of marketing their own wheat and barley.

"Farmers, not the Canadian wheat board, are responsible for Canada’s world class reputation of producing safe, high quality grain and this will continue," he said.

"Furthermore, the same farmers who are shackled by the monopoly for wheat and barley are successfully marketing canola, beef, pork and pulses domestically and internationally."