Reaping What They Sow
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 4, 2006
Obscured by income trusts and other matters of state is a prairie whirlwind this young Conservative government surely hoped to avoid reaping. But with still more “promises” to keep and little time, patience or prudence with which to do so, Canada’s new minister of agriculture and Canadian Wheat Board siezed his levers of power and set about ending the CWB’s single desk monopoly on selling western Canadian wheat and barley.
The optics could have been better. As Stewart Wells, President of the Saskatoon based National Farmers’ Union and leader of a coalition opposed to unilateral action by the federal government on the CWB, observes, disallowing the CWB funds for public advocacy looks like a gag order. Worse, removing a third of some 45,000 eligible voters from the list half way through the current election of the CWB’s ten farmer-elected board members is blatant election tampering. Then there’s that Task Force stacked with anti-monopoly members. “The same old bunch showing up in new organizations every 18 months,” adds Wells, including many tied to the very companies that would benefit from the CWB’s demise - Agricore United, for instance, whose parent company is the multinational Archer Daniels Midland where Brian Mulroney is a director.
Approving noises from the U.S. haven’t helped while, most recently, mysterious resignations and removals of some of the government’s five appointed board members have added to the controversy about this government’s tactics. Only when the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments voiced their displeasure and Manitoba undertook to hold a plebiscite giving its 7,000 farmers a voice in the process did Strahl announce that a federally sponsored plebiscite, as mandated by the Canadian Wheat Board Act, would take place among barley growers next year.
Cynically, but probably accurately, Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter told the Canadian Press holding a barley plebiscite is a strategic decision. “If he can’t win the barley vote he hasn’t got a hope in the world of winning the wheat vote,” he said.
It would be easy to dismiss this episode as flat footed politicking around an institution whose history and track record deserves better but that would be only part of the story. Created in the 1930s, the CWB is no stranger to controversy. Having stabilized price fluctuations for farmers shell shocked by the Depression, today it oversees a $4 billion to $6 billion annual wheat and barley export operation, selling superior product at premium prices. Fast disappearing prairie grain elevators – from 5000 in 1970 to 352 in 2005 - chart the decline in the family farm but arguments about the board’s future ring familiar from times past. Then, too, farmers fought neighbours fancying their chances in an open market while the ADMs, Cargills and Bunges lurked on the sidelines waiting to capitalize on the fallout. Strahl’s plebiscite announcement on October 31 highlighted this dynamic by marking the tenth anniversary of the Lethbridge Thirteen – that group of southern Alberta farmers fined for bypassing the CWB and transporting their (mostly) barley into the U.S. They chose jail instead and became icons of the anti-monopoly movement.
Today’s CWB dynamics are substantially altered by the presence of three governments opposing it. Alberta and the minority federal Conservatives are new to the game while the United States has over the years unsuccessfully used all the offices of the World Trade Organisation and the NAFTA to challenge it.
Monopoly advocates argue changing the board effectively destroys it. Anything less than a monopoly allows the multinationals to play farmers against each other by offering high prices that will inevitably drop once they are hooked. Free market ideologues argue an end to the board’s monopoly will mean lower prices to consumers but if the mad-cow crisis is any indication, rock bottom prices to cattlemen didn’t alter a thing at the meat counter.
As the ideological duke it out, Strahl is finally doing the right thing holding a plebiscite though even this won’t address the larger schisms revealed by the CWB controversy. Alberta is more out of step than ever with Saskatchewan and Manitoba while any schism between the Conservative Party’s factions of populism and economic determinism won’t erupt unless the party fails to produce a majority in the next election. As the whirlwind takes its toll in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, this is now more likely.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.