Winds of change are sweeping across the Prairies as the Canadian Wheat Board's decades-long monopoly on western wheat and barley sales ends, but opinions differ strongly on whether those breezes will blow good or ill.
The CEO of the board said his agency is facing the future with confidence.
"We will add value to farmers. We have streamlined our operations. We have negotiated new business arrangements that will help us succeed," Ian White said Tuesday at a news conference in Winnipeg.
"We are ready to face this new marketing era."
The federal government passed a law late last year to allow western farmers to sell their grain to whomever they choose. That change kicks in Wednesday with the new crop year.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was in Saskatoon on Tuesday literally counting down the last hours of the wheat board's monopoly. He stood in front of a blue screen that displayed a clock ticking down to midnight.
"Tomorrow the doors to marketing freedom open wide," said Ritz.
But while the Conservative government hailed Wednesday as marketing freedom day, the Opposition NDP disagreed.
"It's nothing to gloat about. If anything it should have been a eulogy for the death of a great Canadian institution," said New Democrat Pat Martin.
"They're doing this dog and pony show to gloat about killing a successful $6 billion a year corporation. The largest and most successful grain marketing company in the world and they've legislated it out of existence with no documentary evidence that farmers will be better off."
Liberal Ralph Goodale, a former minister for the Canadian Wheat Board, said an independent organization should monitor what happens in the marketplace.
Goodale said railways, grain companies and processors, like a pasta plant proposed for Regina, expect higher margins with the end of the monopoly.
"And if all that's true, then you have to wonder who's going to get stuck with the short end of the stick," he said.
Wheat and barley farmers in Western Canada have had to sell their grain through the board since the 1940s. Farmers can still market their grain through the board, but now it will be voluntary.
The change has the support of many farm groups which 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.
Kevin Bender, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said there will be little difference between marketing wheat and barley and what farmers have already been doing with other crops including canola, oats, peas and lentils.
"I really don't see much of an issue there with it at all, so many of us are looking forward to this now," he said from his canola field in Bentley, Alta.
Farmers didn't always know under the old system when the board would call for delivery, Bender explained. The change puts farmers "more in the driver's seat."
The Western Barley Growers Association called it "an historic day."
"It's been a long-standing bone in the craw of a lot of farmers and frankly a lot of farmers gave up the hope that it would ever be changed," said president Doug Robertson.
"It's just amazing how difficult it was, especially when it was put in by government in the first place. It should have been easy to be taken out again, but man alive it was not. And every farmer I talk to just feels so optimistic."
The National Farmers Union called it "a year of infamy in Canadian agricultural policy."
Union president Terry Boehm said last week that the Conservative government launched an unprecedented attack on farmers and democratic process.
"Farmers, as well as all Canadians, have seen Gerry Ritz and Stephen Harper use every tactic in the book to ram through (legislation) ... which is one of the most fundamental changes to agricultural policy in three generations," Boehm said in a news release.
The group Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board said the marketing agency got farmers the best bang for their buck. Group chairman Stewart Wells said changing to an open market could take those dollars away from producers.
"In the long run, this will be the single largest transfer of wealth away from farmers and towards the grain trade that this country has seen since Confederation," Wells said from his farm near Swift Current, Sask.
"It's going to take a little while for the major financial effects to be felt and some of those financial effects are going to be masked in the short-term by the drought that is happening in the States and the short-term rise in commodity prices that farmers are seeing right now."
Wells also brushed aside suggestions that the board could survive with a new business model that has seen it sign grain-handling deals with companies such as Viterra. The deals are necessary because the board doesn't have its own elevators or terminals and needs someone to handle its grain.
"The notion that some voluntary entity that doesn't have any facilities, and has to go around begging companies and railways to handle grain for them, is going to be a strong player or a sustainable player is completely false," said Wells.
White announced in Winnipeg that another major grain handler — Louis Dreyfus Canada — has agreed to handle deliveries to the board. That means the board now has 130 locations across the West where farmers with contracts can deliver their grain.
Although he refused to give details on how many farmers have signed contracts, White said he still expects as much as 40 per cent of prairie wheat to be marketed through the board.He said farmers understand the advantages of the board's close relationships with international clients as well as its practice of pooling wheat prices.
"We'll be offering them something other companies aren't offering, and we will be there to service farmers as their business partner rather than just as one of the other grain companies in the space."
Ritz noted that the board has a five-year window during which the federal government will "backstop" it financially. But the board also has to come forward with a plan in the next two to three years on how it will move ahead, he said.
"We've already had a couple of entities come forward saying that they would love to buy up the CWB already. You know they have a tremendous ... marketing around the world and they wanted to capture that," said Ritz.
"We're not prepared to entertain that takeover that quickly. I think there's some great roles for the CWB to play in the next two to three years and we'll analyze it at that point, so there's no rush."
The end of the monopoly has led to several court battles.
Board supporters are asking the Supreme Court for leave to appeal a lower court ruling on the way the Harper government stripped the agency of its marketing monopoly. They argue the federal government didn't follow a law that required it to let grain farmers vote on the future of the wheat board.
A Federal Court judge ruled in favour of those who wanted such a vote.
But that ruling was overturned in the government's favour by the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled that Ottawa did not break the law. The Appeal Court said there is nothing to prevent the government from changing its own law in Parliament.
Have The Tories Kept Their Promises?
The Conservative election platform in 2011, "Here for Canada," featured many campaign commitments.<br><br>One year into Harper's "strong, stable, majority Conservative government," how much has been accomplished? What still remains to be done?<br><br><em>With files from CBC</em><br><br>(Getty)
What They've Done
The next five slides provide a list of what the Tories have accomplished in their first year.<br><br>(Getty)
Budget 2011 Measures
Budget 2011 measures (rolled into the election platform after the original March budget did not pass, and all delivered again in the June budget):<br><br> - Hiring credit for small business -- offering a short-term break from EI payments for those who increase payrolls.<br><br> - Extension for: work-sharing program (helping employers avoid layoffs by providing part-time EI benefits); the "targeted initiative for older workers" (programs to help older unemployed workers); temporary accelerated capital cost allowance rate for manufacturing equipment; mineral exploration tax credit; ecoENERGY retrofit program for homes (one more year only.)<br><br>- Funding for: Canadian youth business foundation; Canada student loans program; 30 new industrial research chairs at Canadian colleges and polytechnics and ten new Canada excellence research chairs for universities; northern adult basic education program in territories; student loan forgiveness for medical professionals willing to work in rural/underserviced regions.<br><br>- Funding for: all-season road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk (to complete Dempster highway); two new national parks in Labrador and urban Toronto; snowmobile trails; small-craft harbour repairs; plus support for an agricultural trade commissioner and market access secretariat to "expand international markets for farmers;" as well as funding for an "agriculture innovation initiative."<br><br>- Funding for: Royal Conservatory of Music (to launch a national examination system); Canada periodical (magazines) fund; "youth gang prevention fund" to support projects in high-need communities.<br><br>- Tax credits: children's arts (up to $500/child in qualified arts/culture programs); family caregiver tax credit ($2,000 for those caring for an infirm family member); volunteer firefighters; plus a top-up for guaranteed income supplement for low-income seniors.<br><br>- Phase-out of taxpayer subsidies to federal political parties.<br><br>(CP)
Other Economic Measures:
- Government-wide spending review, as reflected in the 2012 budget, implementing over $5 billion in spending and job cuts across all federal departments and agencies, representing some 6.9 per cent of total government spending.<br><br>- Repeal of legislation forcing mandatory retirement at a specified age for workers in federally-regulated industries (effective Dec. 2012).<br><br>- Financial assistance (loans) to help immigrants get foreign credentials recognized (pilot announced Feb. 2012).<br><br>- "One-for-one" rule for business regulations arising from work of "red tape commission," now requiring government to eliminate a regulation for every new regulation implemented (effective April 1).- Successful bidders chosen for shipbuilding procurement strategy (Oct. 2011).<br><br>- "Single desk" monopoly of Canadian Wheat Board dismantled and farmer-elected board dismissed, enabling an open market for Prairie wheat and barley effective 2012 crop year.<br><br>- Pooled retirement pension plans implemented (Nov. 2011).<br><br>- "Helmets to hardhats" program to help military veterans find civillian work after deployments (announced Jan. 2012).<br><br>
- 18 more First Nations signed on to the First Nations land management regime, opting out of land-related sections of the Indian Act (March 2012).<br><br>- Quebec sales tax harmonization agreement (signed in Sept. 2011).<br><br>- Increase health transfers to provinces by six per cent annually until 2017, with the rate tied to economic growth and adjusted for inflation after 2017 (platform pledged to not "cut transfer payments to individuals or to the provinces for essential things like health care, education, and pensions" while working "collaboratively with the provinces and territories to renew the Health Accord and to continue reducing wait times").<br><br>- Loan guarantee for Lower Churchill River hydro project (memorandum with Newfoundland and Labarador signed in Aug. 2011).<br><br>- Legislation to make the "gas tax fund" a permanent form of infrastructure funding to municipalities (passed Dec. 2011).<br><br>- Alberta's elected Senate nominee Betty Unger called to Senate in Jan. 2012 (no other provinces have elected Senate nominees eligible for appointment).<br><br>(Getty)
- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/omnibus-crime-bill/?" target="_hplink">Omnibus crime legislation (C-10)</a>, which included new mandatory minimum sentences, stiffer penalties for drug crimes, stiffer penalties for child sex offenders, an end to house arrest/conditional sentences for a range of offences, elimination or delay in eligibility for pardons, stiffer sentences for repeat or violent young offenders, new roles for victims of crime in parole decisions, measures to protect vulnerable foreign workers, new criteria for the transfer of Canadians convicted of crimes abroad, and new measures to seek justice for victims of terrorism (received royal assent March 2012, within the "100 sitting days of Parliament" deadline pledged in the platform).<br><br>- "Wanted by the CBSA" web site launched, to help find and facilitate deportations of foreign criminals (July 2012, and ongoing).<br><br>- Employment insurance benefits for parents of murdered or missing children (announced April 13).<br><br>- Legislation to end the long-gun registry (received royal assent April 5, but implementation stalled, subject to court injunction in Quebec).<br><br>
- Office of religious freedom created in department of foreign affairs, to monitor and promote religious freedom as part of Canadian foreign policy.<br><br>- Legislation to reallocate House of Commons seats to "restore fair representation" (C-20 received royal assent Dec. 2011).<br><br>(CP)
What They Haven't Done (Or Haven't Finished, Yet)
The next six slides provide a list of what the Tories didn't get done during their first year.<br><br>(Getty)
Trade Deals And International Commitments
- Canada-European free trade deal (pledged for 2012).<br><br>- Canada-India free trade deal (pledged for 2013).<br><br>- New border agreement with the United States encompassing trade, travel and security regulations (negotiations ongoing).<br><br>- Copyright Modernization Act (special committee reviewing C-11 reported back to House on March 15).<br><br>- Maternal and child health initiatives, to be implemented in collaboration with other countries (the "Muskoka Initiative," launched in Nov. 2010 - $82 million for specific Canadian projects announced in Sept. 2011 ).<br><br>- Post-combat efforts in Afghanistan, focused on "the education and health of children and youth; advancing security, the rule of law, and human rights; promoting regional diplomacy; and delivering humanitarian assistance."<br><br>(Getty)
- F-35 stealth fighter jet purchase (a new secretariat will now oversee the procurement of replacement fighter jets for the CF-18s, following controversy surrounding the disclosed costs of the F-35 program).<br><br>- New air expeditionary wing at CFB Bagotville, including 250 new personnel by end of 2011 and 550 stationed there by 2015 (undisclosed number of personnel added last year to "establish core" of new expeditionary wing, minister's office says, and the government is "committed to adding personnel as the operational tempo permits").<br><br>(AP)
- Long-term plan or program, with municipalities and provinces, for building public infrastructure once the Building Canada plan expires in 2014.<br><br>- National securities regulator (Supreme Court ruled in December a national regulator would infringe on provincial jurisdiction, but federal efforts to negotiate a deal with the provinces continue).<br><br>- Income-splitting for families with children under 18 years of age -- allowing couples to share up to $50,000 in income (to be implemented when/if the federal deficit is eliminated).<br><br>- Children's fitness tax credit to be doubled and made refundable (contingent on eliminating federal deficit).<br><br>- Adult fitness tax credit (up to $500 of eligible activities, contingent on eliminating federal deficit).<br><br>- Tax-free savings accounts to see doubling of annual eligible savings, up to $10,000 (contingent on eliminating federal deficit).<br><br>- Employment insurance benefits for parents of gravely ill children (nothing announced to date).<br><br>- Relocation for the head office for the Canada economic development agency for Quebec regions "to a centre or centres appropriate to all regions of the province" (it's still in Montreal, and the minister's office says "we are at the stage where we are considering all of the options").<br><br>- Legislation to implement the Canada-Quebec accord on offshore resources (brief mention in text of 2012 budget).<br><br>- New national farm and food strategy (no announcement yet).<br><br>(Alamy)
- Anti-terrorism legislation to reinstate powers like preventative arrest and secret investigative hearings, and make it illegal to leave Canada to participate in terrorist-sponsored training or other activities (S-7 currently before Senate committee).<br><br>- Legislation to streamline the process for deporting foreign criminals, including the opportunities for appeal (not introduced yet, expected "in a few short months").<br><br>- Doubling of victim surcharge that convicted criminals must pay (bill C-37 introduced April 24).<br><br>- Legislation to combat elder abuse by adding it as an aggravating factor in sentencing (bill C-36 introduced March 15).<br><br>- Legislation to clarify self-defence and property rights/citizen's arrest provisions (bill C-26 concurred at report stage April 24).<br><br>- Legislation to "give law enforcement and national security agencies up-to-date tools to fight crime in today's high-tech communications environment" (bill C-30 introduced Feb. 14, but stalled after receiving negative feedback). The campaign platform pledged to fulfil this within "100 sitting days of Parliament," which suggests a March deadline, now passed.<br><br>- Measures to combat drug abuse in prisons (no announcement yet).<br><br>- End to sentencing discounts for multiple child sex offences and child pornography charges (no announcement yet).<br><br>- Mandatory jail sentences for those with repeat convictions for contraband tobacco, and a new RCMP anti-contraband force of 50 officers (no announcement yet).<br><br>- National action plan to combat human trafficking (no announcement yet, but private member's bill C-310 to amend the Criminal Code to strengthen measures against human trafficking passed at third reading in the House April 27 and is now before the Senate).<br><br>- New law enforcement mandate for Canada's Coast Guard, to allow them to enforce federal laws on oceans and the Great Lakes, including new armed capabilities on board Coast Guard vessels and armed boarding teams (no annoucement yet).<br><br>- Legislation to allow sentencing courts to order the deportation of convicted criminals upon completion of sentence or parole eligibility, and to remove the requirement of the prisoner's consent for transfer to complete a sentence abroad (no announcement yet).<br><br>(Alamy)
Environmental And Community Measures
- National conservation plan (consultations currently underway at Commons environment committee).<br><br>- "Social impact bonds" to help raise money for worthwhile community projects (2012 budget said HRDSC was "exploring social finance instruments" for an announcement at a later date).<br><br>- Funding for a "volunteer-matching" service through Volunteer Canada (2012 budget ends federal funding for the national volunteer community service organization Katimavik).<br><br>- Defibrillators for every hockey rink in Canada, and training for using them (no announcement yet).<br><br>- Hunting advisory panel, to consult with environment minister on issues concerning hunting and fishing (no announcement yet).<br><br>- Review of the Species at Risk Act to ensure landowners receive fair compensation when their property is affected (no announcement yet, however the 2012 budget implementation bill does amend the Species at Risk Act).<br><br>(CP)
Senate Reform And Accountability Measures
- Legislation to set term limits for senators and provide a framework for Senate elections (C-7 introduced June 2011 but has not progressed further -- and on May 1, Quebec government announced a constitutional challenge of this Senate reform bill).<br><br>- Legislation to publish the salaries of First Nations chiefs and councillors (C-27 introduced Nov. 2011 but has not progressed further).<br><br>- Measures to implement Canada's commitment to the "open government initiative" (ongoing).<br><br>(CP)