WINNIPEG - Legislation that will allow the federal government to wipe out the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board is to be introduced Tuesday, but the board says it won't go down without a fight.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Monday that the bill, long promised by the Conservatives, will be passed through the House of Commons before the end of the year. But the timing was about the only concrete thing he offered at the announcement on a farm near Acme, Alta. He took no questions from reporters who dialled in for the conference call.
He repeated the government's mantra that dismantling the monopoly is all about free choice and will be good for farmers.
"The Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, born in different times to meet different needs, has cast a chill on key parts of the grain sector in Western Canada," the minister said.
Ritz pointed to a recently announced pasta plant in Regina as an example of the kind of value-added business that the wheat board's single desk stifled in the past.
"Marketing freedom will unlock new value-added investment, new jobs and new growth for Canada’s economy."
Wheat board chairman Allen Oberg responded quickly in Winnipeg with a renewed declaration of war.
"This is not over. We cannot in good conscience give up the fight," he said.
"We believe the government's actions are illegal, that the act clearly states that this government has to hold its own plebiscite and consult with farmers before making changes, and that's why we intend to put this issue before the courts."
It's expected the new legislation will remove the requirement for a plebiscite.
A group called Friends of The Canadian Wheat Board has already gone to federal court asking for a judicial review of the government's plan. Oberg said as soon as the legislation is tabled, he will call for a meeting of the wheat board's directors to look at another legal challenge.
For about 60 years, the board has had a monopoly over exports and domestic sales for human consumption of western wheat and barley. It sponsored its own farmer vote on its future over the summer. The results indicated support for retaining the monopoly, but Ritz had already said he would ignore the outcome.
On Monday, the board released a list of six elements it says it needs to enable a transition once the monopoly is lifted. The board said it told the government about the steps during the summer. Among other things, it wants Ottawa to provide $225 million to secure grain and continue to conduct business and another $200 million to subsidize risk guarantees.
But Oberg showed no appetite for such a future and continued to predict that Canadian farmers would be the ultimate losers if the monopoly is gone, since the North American Free Trade Agreement would prohibit the government from bringing it back.
Without the monopoly, he said, farmers would be at the mercy of American-controlled grain companies.
The board has few tangible assets. It doesn't own terminals to collect and store grain like private grain companies do, and has instead relied on its guaranteed supply of western wheat and barley as its main bargaining chip in business.
Oberg said the board invited Ritz to sit down with its directors last week to discuss plans for the future, but he couldn't make it.
A statement from the minister's office said he was in Russia at the time and offered David Anderson, parliamentary secretary for the Canadian Wheat Board, in his place. The board declined the offer.
"The government has always said that we want farmers to have the choice to market through a voluntary entity, so we will continue to work with those at the CWB who are focused on the best interests of farmers in an open market," Ritz said in the emailed statement.