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Fate of CWB a disturbing harbinger for Canada's dairy, poultry and egg farmers

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Stephen Harper

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With the farmer-owned Canadian Wheat Board gutted by legislation and its assets sold off for a song to Saudi Arabian and American corporate interests last summer in the name of "marketing freedom," it now appears the country's supply-managed daily, poultry and egg sectors are next.

Since the days in the mid-1990s when he ran the so-called National Citizens' Coalition, the mysteriously financed and secretive far-right lobby group dedicated to the proposition no good can come from handing mere citizens tools for confronting the power of multinational corporations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had collective bargaining groups like the CWB, labour unions and supply managed agricultural sectors in his gun-sights.

Using negotiations for an international trade deal like the current Trans-Pacific Partnership, which have stretched inconveniently into the election period, as cover for an effort to destroy an institution that gives individual farmers the ability to negotiate effectively with the self-described "agri-food industry" is entirely consistent with Harper's modus operandi since he emerged as a public figure in the late 1980s.

Indeed, it would only be news if Harper means what he now says about protecting the supply management system, since he has dedicated his life to destroying such institutions.

The Wheat Board, which acted as a collective bargaining agent for Western grain farmers, has now been smashed to rubble by the Harper Government. Even its honestly descriptive old name is gone -- what's left is known as the G3 Global Grain Group, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean.

The brave new world of market freedom promised farmers by Harper has already turned out to be a catastrophe. World wheat prices have remained at record highs, but without the Wheat Board's marketing savvy the price fetched for wheat on the Canadian Prairies has fallen by half, a loss of $5 to $6.7 billion a year to prairie grain farmers according to a recent study by University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Richard Gray.

Gray's reference to "constraints in export capacity" is a polite way of describing the logistical chaos left when the Wheat Board was no longer there to quarterback grain shipments. The Board's private-sector replacements unsurprisingly used this as a pretext to lower the prices they pay Canadian farmers and pocket the money for themselves. If nothing else, this outcome exposed the mendacity of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's oft-repeated fairy tale that the private sector was up to the job of moving grain to port.

Actually, things are worse that this, because grain sales are denominated in U.S. dollars. With the free-floating Loonie at 75 cents US, Western Canadian farmers' receipts would have been 25 per cent higher if the Wheat Board were still around.

Meanwhile, the private grain trade favoured by the PM and his party is making record profits at the expense of farmers who relied on the CWB -- and who were never compensated for the seizure and sell-off of the assets they bought and paid for.

A group of the impacted farmers calling themselves the Friends of the CWB is still trying to use the courts to claim they were shortchanged by the government to the tune of $720 million dollars when Harper and company converted the Board from an accountable, farmer-run collective bargaining organization into another secretive margin trader. The Friends are in the process of submitting a claim to the Supreme Court for approval, but from this vantage point, their legal effort looks like a forlorn hope.

In a prescient article written about the PM's plans for the Wheat Board back in 2006 in the now-defunct Farmers Independent Weekly, journalist Allan Dawson described the fate of the Wheat Board as "a canary in the nation's political mine shaft."

Said Dawson, who now writes for the Manitoba Co-operator: "If most farmers support single-desk selling and the law states there must be a plebiscite on the CWB, why does the government insist it will end single desk selling unilaterally? The answer is ideology. The Conservative government, and especially Prime Minister Harper, opposes the CWB on philosophical grounds."

Dawson went on, wondering: "Will supply management be next? The government says it supports it, but the same MPs that oppose the CWB, oppose supply management. The two have a lot in common."

In reality, of course, agricultural institutions are just some of the items on the long list of co-operative and cost-sharing mechanisms Harper hopes to destroy -- including our public health-care system.

So here we are in 2015 and supply management -- apparently to everyone's astonishment -- is "on the table" in the TPP "negotiations."

One senses, though, that the TPP table is not so much the venue for a stout defence of supply management as a convenient excuse to do away with another hated mechanism for shifting a little power and money from the corporate sector toward individual working families.

What will happen to the egg, dairy and poultry sectors in the event this works out the way the prime minister obviously hopes it will?

"In a brutally competitive global market, without the 'cost of production' pricing maintained by supply management, Canadian farmers in these sectors would not be able to make ends meet," wrote economist Bruce Campbell in a 2008 analysis of Harper's record and likely tactics that was published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"Industrial-style contract farming, like what we see already in pork production, would take over, with corporate agribusiness calling the shots and scooping up the profits," predicted Campbell, who is the CCPA's executive director.

This would happen, he argued, "regardless of the impacts on local production, food safety, or the environment, even more of our food would be imported, and Canadians' shaky hold on food sovereignty would become even more tenuous."

If you wonder what those impacts on you and your family might be, consider this: In Canada, bovine growth hormones are still not allowed in dairy cattle. In the United States they are widely used. Without supply management, their widespread use will be inevitable here as corporations scream competitive pressures require their use.

And so we have arrived at the moment of truth for supply management, just as Harper wished from the very start -- even if the timing is not optimal from his government's perspective.

Anyone who imagines the prime minister means it when he assures poultry, daily and egg farmers he will look out for their interests in what's left of the TPP negotiations is smoking agricultural products!

Milestone No. 1: Minimal minimum wage increase takes effect

As of today, Alberta's minimum wage will rise to $11.20 an hour from $10.20, the country's lowest. It's a step -- a minimal step -- in the right direction. That is all. Nothing bad will happen, despite weeks of hysteria from all the usual suspects in the low-wage business community. Anything bad that does happen to business, no matter how unrelated, will be blamed by all the usual suspects in Thinktankistan, business and media on the NDP government and this very modest minimum-wage boost. Anything good that happens -- more local spending by people who don't holiday on the Costa del Sol, for example, will be ignored by the same actors.

Milestone No. 2: Tory hack makes a classless exit

Political appointee Rob Merrifield, chosen as Alberta's economic ambassador plenipotentiary (well, almost) to Washington apparently because he was once former premier Jim Prentice's Conservative bench mate in the House of Commons spent his last day on the job whinging undiplomatically to mainstream media about the NDP. His principal complaint seemed to be that the government is pulling vital resources -- viz., himself -- from a key file. Premier Rachel Notley's normally mild-mannered office zinged him, appropriately enough, in response: "The government thanks Mr. Merrifield for his service … We are looking to replace Mr. Merrifield with a professional diplomat, for reasons Mr. Merrifield has just demonstrated. Alberta's office in Washington is very important to our government. It continues to operate and we will be announcing a new representative soon."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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