KINDERSLEY, Sask. -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper has granted pardons to farmers who were convicted in the 1990s for taking their grain across the border to sell in the U.S.
The farmers were trying to get around a law at the time that said they had to sell their wheat and barley through the Canadian Wheat Board or get export permits from the agency.
New federal legislation effective Wednesday strips the wheat board of its monopoly so that western farmers can sell their grain to whomever they choose.
Harper made the announcement on a farm near Kindersley, Sask., where he and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz marked what the government calls grain marketing freedom.
"These people were not criminals. They were our fellow citizens,'' he said to cheers from hundreds of farmers who support the change to the wheat board.
"For these courageous farmers, their convictions will no longer tarnish their good names ... it is to them that much of this victory is owed.''
Harper said the farmers who drove small amounts of grain across the border in symbolic rebellion were responsible for first raising the issue in the minds of Canadians.
The grain growers belonged to a loosely knit group called Farmers for Justice. They would often have their vehicles or equipment seized at the border, and in some cases were charged and convicted for breaking the law. At least one producer spent several months in jail.
"Never, never, never again will western farmers -- and only western farmers -- growing their own wheat on their own land be told how they can and can't market their products,'' Harper said with rolling green fields behind him.
He said the Conservative government had worked very hard to "right this wrong.''
There are farmers who still support the monopoly. They worry that the open market will leave them at the mercy of railways and big, international grain companies.
The true effect of an open market is unlikely to be felt much this year as poor crops in other parts of the world, including the United States, are raising the demand for Canadian-grown grain.
In Winnipeg, the revamped wheat board started the first day of the new crop year with the announcement of another grain-handling deal with one of the country's largest agribusinesses.
Richardson International of Winnipeg will accept grain deliveries from farmers with wheat board contracts at all its locations in Western Canada.
Wheat board president Ian White said the agreement will serve Prairie grain farmers who want the benefits of his agency's pool prices.
"We congratulate Richardson for helping ensure the profitability of farmers and the western Canadian grain industry as we forge ahead into a new marketing era,'' he said in a news release.
With the loss of its monopoly, the board, which does not own any of its own terminals, must sign contracts with companies that can handle farmers' grain.
White said the wheat board now has more than 170 locations across the West where producers can deliver their crops.
New Democrat MP Pat Martin has said the Conservatives are gloating about killing what he calls the most successful grain marketing company in the world.
Liberal Ralph Goodale, minister responsible for the wheat board when his party was in power, suggests an independent organization should monitor what happens in the marketplace to see if farmers are better or worse off.
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