POLITICS
12/07/2011 02:29 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Gerry Ritz, Agriculture Minister, Broke Law With Wheat Board Decision, Judge Rules

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WINNIPEG - A defiant Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz insists Ottawa will not back down on changes to the Canadian Wheat Board, despite a federal court ruling against him.

Ritz said the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, which will end the board's marketing monopoly, won't be stopped.

"We will proclaim it into law before the end of this year to bring certainty and clarity to farmers, to the industry overall and to, of course, our customers domestically and abroad," Ritz said in a conference call.

"We want this in place so that farmers can take advantage of it and make use of the coming crop year August 1st of 2012. Nothing has changed."

The minister's comments came after Justice Douglas Campbell said in a written ruling that Ritz breached the Canadian Wheat Board Act by making changes without talking to producers.

"I find that the act was intended to require the minister to consult and gain consent where an addition or subtraction of particular grains or types of grain from the marketing regime is contemplated, and also in respect of a change to the democratic structure of the CWB," wrote Campbell.

Lawyers for the wheat board had argued that Ritz broke section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act.

The section says changes to the agency's handling of wheat and barley cannot be made unless "the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension."

The argument was that the purpose of section 47.1 was to ensure that "farmers, not government, would be in control of any future change to the (CWB's) marketing authority," including the implementation of dual-marketing and the elimination of the single desk.

Campbell said the board and its supporters made a compelling case.

The judge also said "simply pushing ahead without engaging such a process" is what led to the matter going court.

"Had a meaningful consultative process been engaged to find a solution which meets the concerns of the majority, the present legal action might not have been necessary," wrote Campbell.

Government lawyers had argued the section refers only to the addition or subtraction of particular grains from the marketing regime. They said it leaves the future of the single desk as a matter for Parliament to decide.

Ritz said the government will appeal the ruling.

"Let me be clear, we will never reconsider western wheat and barley farmers' fundamental right to market their own wheat and barley. Not only is our government convinced that we have the right to change legislation, we have the responsibility to deliver on our promises and give farmers in Western Canada the right to market their own grain," said Ritz.

"The Parliament of Canada alone has the supremacy to enact, amend or repeal any piece of legislation."

The board was set up following the Great Depression to help Prairie farmers band together and seek higher prices.

According to the board's website, it arranges for transportation from thousands of farms to customers in 70 countries. About 21 million tonnes of wheat and barley are marketed by the CWB each year.

Supporters say the single desk prevents producers from competing against each other for sales. But opponents say they want the freedom to seek better deals on the open market. They point out that producers of other grains and wheat farmers in other parts of Canada already have that freedom.

Ritz's stance drew quick criticism from the board and political opponents, who called on him to respect the court decision.

Former Liberal agriculture minister Ralph Goodale, who wrote section 47.1, said "the court did not mince words."

"They said clearly and unequivocally, repeatedly throughout the judgment, that the way the minister of agriculture has behaved in dealing with the Canadian Wheat Board and the Canadian Wheat Board Act is an affront to rule of law," said the Regina MP.

Goodale said Ritz's stance puts the Senate in an awkward position as a standing committee holds talks on the bill.

"And furthermore, it could put the governor general in the absolutely preposterous position of signing into law something that is illegal," he said.

Pat Martin, the NDP critic for the Canadian Wheat Board, said the government should "put the brakes" on the bill if it has "any respect whatsoever for the parliamentary process."

He didn't know if the government could legally proceed.

"They've demonstrated throughout their mandate that they'll do whatever they damn well please whenever they damn well please, regardless of what the law says. I mean if they're willing to break the law to fulfil this ideological free market flight of fancy, then I have no doubt that they are willing to defy this court order," said Martin.

Board director Stewart Wells said the government created a mess for themselves. He couldn't say what might happen next.

"The courts are always reluctant to try to tell the government what to do, but any responsible government would be ashamed and just wouldn't forge ahead with the notion that it's broken the law and it's proud of it," said Wells.

"They have ample time to go back, follow the law, let the farmers affected vote on the changes that they're considering."