These activist farmers are still standing, urging us to listen to the backstory and why this class action suit could potentially impact each of us.

I think it is fair to say that family farmers are among one of the most hopeful, resilient, and persevering occupations. 

I am not romanticizing the role of the farmer by any stretch — just stating what I have observed over the last several decades. Stamina!

One example is the longstanding legal battles waged by farmers over the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).

Earlier this month, the Manitoba Court of Queens Bench, certified a Class Action lawsuit brought by Manitoba farmer Andrew Dennis against the Government of Canada and G3 Canada Ltd. The lawsuit alleges financial irregularities occurred during the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board.

“We will, at long last, have an opportunity to ask the Court to rule on whether the Government of Canada or Minister Ritz unlawfully manipulated CWB accounts, depriving farmers of money rightfully owing to them,” stated Andrew Dennis, in an April 9th media release announcing the successful certification of the class action.

The certification of this class action lawsuit has been a long time coming — close to 10 years. It is only the first step in the actual lawsuit. Certification means that Dennis, on behalf of these farmers which forms a legally recognized class, has the right to pursue this lawsuit. The lawsuit itself can now proceed. 

Throughout the past decade there have been several dizzying legal twists and turns. There have also been several appeals, delays, denials and various forms of stonewalling, but these activist farmers are still standing, urging us to listen to the backstory and why this class action suit could potentially impact each of us. 

Meanwhile, neither the former federal Conservative government, or the current federal Liberal government, have wanted to fess-up to what most of us watching this show already know or, at the very least, suspect. 

The saga of the dismantling of the CWB is covered in a column which I wrote in 2019. Read it here for a detailed picture of the importance of the CWB, the legal issues, and how the loss of the CWB is impacting farm incomes and family farms.

There is also a timeline on the CWB Class Action where you can read the Statement of Claim and the April 5 certification of the class action. 

Dennis is the Manitoba farmer who is the face of this lawsuit. He is accompanied by the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board (FCWB) and potentially tens of thousands of grain producers. This suit is the first step in the one remaining lawsuit among the several that were pursued in various jurisdictions across Canada by farmers challenging the privatization of the CWB. Along the way there have been wins and losses.

The certification of this class action will allow the courts to hear the case of potentially 70,000 Canadian farmers. These are farmers who sold grain through the CWB between August 1, 2010 and July 31, 2012 and did not receive full payment for that sale.

The dismantling of the CWB shows just how easily governments intent on pursuing their own agendas, often in the name of corporate concentration and privatization, bend the rules. They exercise authority through very questionable methods despite being holders of a public office and public trust, all the while insisting on the legitimacy of their actions.

It takes hope, and yes stamina, to avoid throwing up your hands in frustration and walk away.

The  FCWB is a coalition of farmers and other Canadians who support a farmer-controlled CWB. In its April 9th media release about the court granting certification, it explained the crux of the lawsuit: 

“The lawsuit alleges former Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz committed misfeasance in public office by unlawfully sheltering $145,000,000 of farmers money into an account that could be transferred to the Wheat Boards purchasers in connection with the Wheat Boards 2012 privatization. The Manitoba Court of Appeal accepted in a 2020 ruling that if this money had not been sheltered by the Government, it would have been paid to farmers.  The claim also alleges that the CWB is liable to farmers by not paying them the full amount required under their contracts.”

Essentially the lawsuit calls for farmers to receive $145 million in moneys transferred from the CWB pooling accounts into a CWB contingency fund, along with $5.9 million used in the CWB transition to privatization. The lawsuit also calls for $10 million in punitive damages plus interest — an amount estimated, after 10 years, to be close to $190 million today. 

In the end, the suit of $145 million might average out to an estimated $2,000 for each farmer. Exact amounts are dependent on the volume of grain each farmer delivered to the board during the 2011-2012 timeframe.

Meanwhile, just as importantly, and perhaps more-so many might argue, are the actions taken by then Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz. This is where this class action lawsuit could potentially affect each one of us and how we are governed. 

The lawsuit alleges that the Minister of Agriculture, who through the use of Orders in Council, transferred farm payments into a general contingency fund, instead of paying out farmer contracts. In his ruling certifying the class action, the Justice’s clarity on the common issues startles. Read the decision here and skip to page 20 to read about the issues related to “misfeasance of public office” by the then Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 

By the way, misfeasance is defined, more specifically, as the misuse of power; misbehaviour in office; the wrongful and injurious exercise of lawful authority.

Basically, the issue at the core of the class action lawsuit is whether then Minister of Agriculture withheld CWB contract payment to farmers using Orders in Council that overrode legislation passed by Parliament. Did the Minister of Agriculture, Gerry Ritz, have the authority to do so, and did he do so knowingly, and willfully?

As Stewart Wells, Saskatchewan farmer and chair of the FCWB notes in a recent interview for this column: 

“There are very important legal questions to be solved, related to the nature of authoritarian governments. This case will turn on whether or not the Orders in Council that Gerry Ritz, then Minister of Agriculture and the rest of the Harper cabinet passed in October of 2011 were legal. These Orders in Council directed the Canadian Wheat Board to put every nickel they could find into the contingency fund –- a fund to be used for whatever they wanted it to be used for later on. If a minister of the government can override legislation passed in Parliament with just a Cabinet Order then you are in a real authoritarian system and laws and legislation are meaningless at that point — that is what we believe was done in October of 2011.”
-Wells, Chair FCWB

While this class action lawsuit is now certified and will be heard in court, there are still miles to go before final outcomes are known.

Meanwhile, Stewart Wells and the coalition of members belonging to the FCWB, understand their role and the importance of persistence on fundamental issues such as this one. Wells explains: 

“Do we live in a democracy or some sort of authoritarian dictatorship, and does anybody have the temerity and perseverance to bring this kind of case forward and get it in front of the courts? Because if nobody had challenged this — and it would have been easy for all of the farmers just to walk away and say well they did it and that is the end of it’ — But at some point you do not have a functioning democracy if people are not willing to stand up to have these matters adjudicated in a court.”

By certifying this class action, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Martin has directed that the questions and actions taken in October of 2011 surrounding the CWB finances must be answered and accounted for.

Wells emphasizes: “We have maintained for over a decade that the Government of Canada and CWB took money that belonged to farmers and sold it as part of the asset base taken over by the Crown and then provided to G3 Canada Ltd. the nominal legal successor to the CWB, and owned by the multinational Bunge and the Government of Saudi Arabia.”

For updates on the lawsuit, follow the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance.

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Lois Ross

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute. Born into a farm family in southern Saskatchewan,...