OTTAWA - The latest chapter in the long and bitter saga of the Canadian Wheat Board played out Wednesday in the Federal Court of Appeal.
The court agreed to hear Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's appeal of a declaration that he broke the law by stripping the board of its monopoly over western wheat and barley sales.
The Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board and others, including the board's former directors, had asked the Federal Court of Appeal to quash Ritz's motion to appeal a lower court's decision.
Last year, a Federal Court judge said Ritz violated the original Canadian Wheat Board Act, which required a plebiscite among farmers before any major changes were made.
But Justice Douglas Campbell also made it clear that his ruling was just a statement on the government's actions. He said he would not interfere with the legislative process and did not order the government to reverse its decision.
The Conservatives went ahead and passed a law in December to open up sales to the free market and changing the wheat board to a voluntary agency for producers.
John Lorn McDougall, the lawyer for the former directors, argued Wednesday that Ritz ignored the Federal Court's declaration by going ahead with legislation to dismantle the wheat board's monopoly.
"He simply thumbed his nose at the court," McDougall said.
A government lawyer said Ritz did no such thing.
The court's decision on the minister's appeal will come at a later date.
But no matter what the court decides, the fate of the board is pretty much written in stone.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it abundantly clear his Conservative government will not backtrack on its plan to end the board's monopoly over wheat and barley sales.
"It's time for the wheat board and others who have been standing in the way to realize that this train is barrelling down a Prairie track," Harper said at an announcement in Saskatchewan last October.
"You're much better to get on it than to lie on the tracks because this is going ahead. It's time for the wheat board to go out in a dual market environment, to cultivate its customers and provide a competitive service, because those customers are going to have choice in the future."
Former board chairman Allen Oberg said it should have been up to farmers to decide how they would market their crops.
"What's important here is the principle of democracy and the rule of law," he said in an interview.
"It's impossible to know what the results of today are going to be. The principles of democracy are important."
The battle over the wheat board dates back decades.
Since the 1940s, wheat and barley farmers in Western Canada had to sell their grain through the board.
The Conservatives long promised to allow farmers the option of selling their grain independently, as their counterparts do in other regions.
The move has the support of many farm groups, who say producers can often get better prices on the open market.
But supporters of the monopoly say the open market will leave farmers at the mercy of railways and big, international grain companies.
They argue the monopoly prevented producers from competing against each other for sales.
The minister's office put out a statement on Ritz's behalf saying farmers are readying for Aug. 1, the first day they get to decide how to market their crops.
"Our government committed to giving Western Canadian grain farmers the marketing freedom they deserve, and we have delivered," the statement said.