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Thursday, 12 May 2011 10:28

Fate of CWB in the federal government’s hands

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By John R. Statton - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The fate of the Canadian Wheat Board is hanging in the balance while farmers wait for the Harper government to get back to work in Ottawa.

The office of Gerry Ritz — federal Minister of Agriculture prior to the May 2 election — has indicated the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has yet to name its cabinet, despite the Conservative’s campaign promise of returning to work May 3.

The party’s members of Parliament have remained absent from office for more than a week, and have thus been unavailable for comment on the future or possible restructuring of western Canada’s grain marketing body.

A telephone call to the PMO yielded a response that there is no indication of when Parliament will resume.

“There’s still a great deal of planning left to do,” said a representative of the PMO. “We don’t have a timeline on it at this point.”

The Canadian Wheat Board Alliance (CWBA) represents farmers across Canada, and is a non-partisan group of farmers which feel there’s a definite need for the the CWB in its present form.

“Mr. Harper has made his position well known, but what’s a little bit troubling is the fact that the wheat board has a democratic structure in place that farmers vote on, and it’s a very singular issue and very focused, farmers have constantly and continuously put in eight out of 10 directors,” said Bill Gehl, CWBA chair, and Regina area grain farmer.

“With that structure in place, farmers are supporting single-desk and price pooling, so I would really hope that Mr. Harper and Mr. Ritz would respect that seeing really when you look at the election results: obviously they have a majority mandate, but when you look in a little bit further you can see that the popular vote for the party is less than 50 per cent — a little bit less than 40 per cent nationally — so hopefully they do respect farmers’ wishes when it comes to the CWB, and let farmers decide the future of the wheat board — not Washington or somebody in Brussels, or whatever.”

According to the CWBA, farmers are spread across 57 ridings throughout western Canada, and represent two per cent of the national population.

“It’s really troubling that this is such a huge issue to (the Conservatives) when support has grown for the wheat board certainly over the last few years, and the CWB has changed significantly with different marketing options,” said Gehl.

“I think what’s really important is the fact that its role is not just marketing grain: it’s also in transportation, championing farmers’ rights at the World Trade Organization, so any weakening of the CWB mandate has very serious repercussions for farmers.”

The organization currently represents approximately 55,000 permit holders.

“We certainly respect the results of the election, but we are also asking that the minister (Ritz) respect our democracy and the wishes of farmers here in western Canada,” said Allen Oberg, chair of the CWB.

He indicated Ritz was open to consultation with farmers, but Oberg was concerned the ultimate decision would be removed from the west and taken to Ottawa.

“In the present Act, it’s going to be spelled out that any changes to wheat and barely needs to be done by a plebiscite,” said Oberg.

“That’s how the CWB was set up back in 1998 when the control of it was given back to farmers.”

Prior to 1998 commissioners appointed by the ministry ran the CWB.

“Farmers may differ on their views about the board — some are very strong supporters, others have some difficulties with it — but in all the polling we’ve done they’ve been very clear that the decision on its future, role, and structure needs to be in their hands,” said Oberg.

“That’s very different from what the minister is suggesting here.”

Time will tell if the Conservative majority proves itself to be the sum of all fears for Canadian grain producers.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Gehl. “It’s kind of a dark day.”

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