Edmonton Journal, Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Harper gov't is doing to CWB what the U.S. couldn't do by itself
Loss of wheat board would mean loss of power
by Albert Horner and David Orchard
For a year the Harper government has been threatening
to destroy the power of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).
Agriculture minister, Chuck Strahl, says barley will be
removed from the board's jurisdiction by August 1; a
decision on wheat will follow.
In the early 1930s, there was no CWB. Prairie farmers
took the price offered by the large grain companies or
took their wheat home. Grain sold for a few cents a
bushel. Farmers were driven off the land in droves.
In response to pressure and thousands of farmers
demanding an end to the unfettered power of the grain
giants, R.B. Bennett made a historic radio address
referring to "unconscionable monopolistic purchasers"
and "economic parasites." He set up the CWB as a single
seller of prairie wheat. In the 1940s Mackenzie King
extended the board's power to include oats and barley.
Starting from nothing in 1935, the board has grown
into the world's largest marketer of wheat and barley,
one of Canada's biggest earners of foreign currency and
perhaps the most prestigious marketing board in the
A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study described as
"huge" the $1.6-billion annual economic impact of the
Winnipeg-based Board, "with Western Canada as a major
As OPEC gave undeniable clout to oil producing
countries, so the CWB's quasi-monopoly put marketing
power in the hands of farmers.
Since its founding, the U.S. grain companies
dominating the world grain trade have fought this
impressive upstart. Earlier, they called it "communist."
In the last fifteen years, the U.S. has mounted a dozen
trade challenges seeking its demise.
The reason is simple. The Wheat Board returns all
revenue earned to the farmer, minus a miniscule per
bushel administrative charge.
Loss of the CWB would move the Canadian grain trade
into U.S. hands virtually over night. Hundreds of
millions more in profits annually would drain from the
farmer to the "five sisters" that dominate the
international grain trade, none Canadian. The Port of
Churchill — with the bulk of its business from the CWB —
and the entire east-west rail system including the great
grain terminals in ports from Quebec City to Prince
Rupert would be at risk.
If the Canadian Wheat Board goes, who believes the
rest of Canada's supply managed agriculture is safe?
Since assuming power, the Harper government has waged
an unrelenting attack on the CWB — firing its popular
CEO, Adrian Measner, stacking the board with government
appointees who detest it, and holding a fraudulent
barley "plebiscite" (complete with gag orders, a secret
voters' list, traceable ballots and deliberately
misleading questions). Still, only 13.8 per cent voted
to remove barley from the board.
This unprecedented assault on the internationally
respected CWB by its own government has not gone
unnoticed. Standard and Poors recently downgraded the
board's formerly pristine credit rating, and according
to the largest buyer of Canada's wheat, China's Yang
Hong, "Once the CWB's single-desk system is abolished,
we think the Canadian wheat industry may lose advantages
to other competitors."
He said his company may turn to other countries if
Canada can no longer guarantee reliable supply and
Mexico's Grupo Altex president wrote, "We would hate
to see you adopting the U.S. model, where we have to
deal with the large trading houses that always try to
take advantage of both farmers and clients like us and
very seldom, if ever, deliver what they promise."
But the Wheat Board is not gone yet. For over seventy
years it has — with Ottawa's backing — withstood
American hostility. Now the Harper government is about
to do what the U.S. alone has been unable to accomplish;
it plans, by order-in council, to strip the board of its
marketing power on barley.
Once before, a Canadian government joined the
Americans against its own farmers. Following its
signature on the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in
1989, the Mulroney government took oats from the board.
In 1993, it tried the same with barley, but was stopped
by a successful court challenge. The government changed
and held a fair vote among farmers, restored barley to
the board, where it has remained ever since, and
introduced the Canadian Wheat Board Act, putting
farmer-elected directors in control.
This time too, a court challenge may follow. However,
as in 1993, only a change of government will secure the
Board's future. A Harper majority will see the CWB gone,
and quickly. The new Liberal leader, Stephane Dion,
behaving more like a friend of the Western farmer than
the Alberta-based Harper administration, has promised to
restore the board's powers putting full control of its
future back into farmers' hands. Whatever changes the
CWB needs — and every farmer knows of some — will be
made by farmers, not imposed from Ottawa or Washington.
Today, the Liberal party is truer to John
Diefenbaker's defence of the West than the party
claiming his name.
Albert Horner is a retired grain producer and
livestock breeder. A four-term Progressive Conservative
MP under John Diefenbaker, he lives in Blaine Lake, SK.
David Orchard is the author of The Fight for
Canada: Four Centuries of American Expansionism and
was a candidate for the Progressive Conservative party
leadership in 1998 and 2003. He farms at Borden, SK.