Grain giants and family farmers -- the untold story of losing the Canadian Wheat Board

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Wheat hopper in Belleville, Ontario circa 2009. Photo: Robert Taylor/Wikimedia Commons

These are not great days for farmers across Canada. A drought in many parts of the Prairies prompted worried looks and constant gazes skyward for any sign of cloud cover. Then, at almost the final hour for many, it rained -- lots of rain. In some places seeded crops had yet to germinate, but then the rain came. As I write, rain is falling in some parts, but will it be enough?

Would that weather was the only major risk in farming…

A few weeks ago, Statistics Canada released its report on farm incomes, noting that across the country farmers' net income has dropped by 45 per cent, and in Saskatchewan by close to 29 per cent.

All of this is only compounded by the fact that farm policy in this country has been continuously eroded over decades by negligence, trade agreements, lack of foresight, and even, some suspect, outright corruption.

Both Conservative and Liberal governments have removed or ignored the few programs that might have helped farmers gain access to a better market share, a better price for their product, and assure international buyers quality control of the grain purchased. A significant source of support for farmers was the Canadian Wheat Board, a marketing board for grain in Western Canada.

In late May the Friends of Canadian Wheat Board (FCWB) was once again in court, asking that the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench certify a class action lawsuit to regain more than $152 million owed farmers for the final payment from Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) grain sales for the 2010-2012 crop years. At that time the federal Conservatives were dismantling the CWB and apparently diverting funds that were meant for farmers. Farmers never received all of their final payment. The Manitoba court will rule in a few months.

What is the Canadian Wheat Board and what did it do?

The Canadian Wheat Board was established in 1935 as a single selling desk for Canadian grain. Until 2012, it undertook orderly marketing on behalf of farmers. Then it was privatized and its assets transferred to a Saudi agribusiness company and an American-based transnational.

This is indeed a story of David and Goliath -- but as all good stories of underdogs and activism, nimbleness is important. These activist farmers are definitely showing their commitment and stamina. They are also nimble. And they will be seen, I believe, to be on the right side of history.

Since 2011 groups of Prairie farmers who support a farmer-controlled CWB have been working to have the courts recognize that the actions taken by the Harper Conservatives to privatize and transfer assets to foreign corporations were in fact illegal and have cost farmers billions in income. But money is not the only issue -- access to international markets, quality control of export crops, and issues related to seed, genetically modified crops and their impact on foreign sales of Canadian product, are just some of the topics that farmers elected to the CWB engaged on. The Wheat Board worked to maintain decent prices for grain commodities. And that was also in the interests of the country and all Canadians more generally. With the loss of the CWB, I have no doubt that we are losing more farmers.

Since 2012, the FCWB has been walking through the legal maze fighting for justice on behalf of farmers. First, the FCWB fought the restructuring of the CWB, and the dismantling of its farmer-elected structure. Then, it was essentially privatized in 2015 and its assets transferred by the federal government to the G3 Global Trading Group, a company owned by Saudi Arabia agribusiness and an American-based transnational. The FCWB has long maintained that all of the $17 billion in Wheat Board assets were common property of farmers and the Canadian public, and that the federal minister of agriculture at the time -- Gerry Ritz -- overstepped his elected role to destroy the Wheat Board and transfer its assets to foreign ownership.

Multiple legal actions

The court battles to seek approval for a class action suit have been numerous and lengthy -- and along the way there have been wins and losses.

These are chronicled in detail on the site of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, a group which also supports the CWB. Farmers have gone to the courts asking for $17 billion in damages for hard and soft assets (hopper cars, buildings, shipping vessels, and moneys for grain sales) that belong to farmers and were essentially transferred to new owners without proper consultation. In a complicated and narrow decision related to property rights, the Federal Court of Canada determined that only parts of the case might be heard -- and that the assets were not common property. But both courts, the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal, allowed that a suit for farmer grain payments could be heard. Application for that class action is now being heard in the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench. The statement of claim can be found here.

Besides the diversion of crop income away from farmers from 2010-2012, activist farmers initiated legal action in 2011 challenging changes in the legislation governing the CWB and lack of farmer input. Then, in 2012, farmers launched a class action suit against the federal government for selling what farmers claimed were farmer-owned business assets and common property -- the Canadian Wheat Board -- and to reclaim final payments for grain sold on behalf of farmers by the board. The FCWB is adamant that both farmers and the public owned these assets and have actually lost billions in common property in the sale of the CWB.

Lack of federal support

Meanwhile, since the election of the Liberals in fall 2015, the FCWB has been meeting with the federal government, urging a full accounting of what happened to the CWB by the previous Conservative government and its minister, and the reinstatement of the CWB or a similar marketing board.

While in opposition the Liberals dogged the Conservatives over the dismantling of the Wheat Board. But once elected, they went largely silent and have been trying to delay the Manitoba hearings on technicalities, according to the FCWB.

Stewart Wells, Chair of the FCWB, and a former farmer-elected director of the CWB, explained it this way when interviewed by the Manitoba Cooperator on June 7:

"When we started this in February of 2012 we were prepared for a lengthy process," Wells said. "Now it could've all been ended if the Liberal government wouldn't have continued the coverup started by the Harper government. So we find ourselves still trying to get to the truth of what happened in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and get cash back to the farmers that they were deprived of during the transition process."

There are calculations as to how much the sale of the single selling desk is undermining Canadian farmers' income. In 2015 University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Rich Gray published findings showing that up to that point Canadian farmers had lost more than $7 billion in reduced sales and pricing of grain commodities due to the loss of the Wheat Board.

Compound that amount to date and we have one reason why Western farmers' income has plummeted so dramatically. Add to that low prices, increases in input costs and farm machinery costs.

Canadian family farmers have a lot more than just the weather to contend with. So do we all, when you consider that neither Conservative or Liberal governments have ever extended much support to family farmers.

"It's about treating people, in this case farmers, fairly," Wells said. "Some of those same people… would be mortified if somebody stole $5 from them… well this is a little different because these injustices have been delivered by… the federal government."

"It's just not appropriate to walk away and turn a blind eye when you see governments doing something inappropriate," he added.

And when you look at dwindling farm income due to the loss of orderly marketing, farmers and Canadians have lost much, much more.

Those of us who know that the story of the Canadian Wheat Board is unjust and a story that remains untold are hoping that David's slingshot hits its target.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Robert Taylor/Wikimedia Commons

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