01/17/2012 12:30 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Former wheat board directors want to stop government changes to agency

WINNIPEG - Former directors of the Canadian Wheat Board have asked a Manitoba judge to stop the federal government from removing the board's monopoly over western wheat and barley sales.

Their lawyers appeared in Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Tuesday to argue the government violated its own law — The Canadian Wheat Board Act — by not holding a plebiscite among producers before making the change. The government amended the law in December and wheat board supporters want that amendment declared invalid.

"Courts do have the jurisdiction to determine the validity of legislation once passed into law," Colin MacArthur, a lawyer for the former directors, told court.

"The (agriculture) minister did not hold a vote among producers prior to tabling that bill."

This week's hearing, which is scheduled to continue Wednesday, is to determine whether the court should issue an injunction to prevent the government from making any changes until the case can be heard.

MacArthur faced tough questions from Justice Shane Perlmutter about whether a Manitoba court was the proper place for the hearing.

"Wouldn't a Federal Court judge be able to deal with this effectively?," Perlmutter asked. "You want me to take steps to enforce another judge's order."

The battle over the wheat board dates back decades. Since the 1940s, wheat and barley farmers in Western Canada have had to sell their grain through the board, which has been federally-backed but governed by a board consisting mostly of elected producer representatives.

The Conservatives have long promised to allow farmers the option of selling independently, as their counterparts in other regions do, and changed the wheat board act last December. A section of that act required a plebiscite to be held before any major changes, but the government says Parliament has the right to change its own laws.

The government is aiming to have an open market for wheat and barley by the next crop year, which starts Aug. 1.

Last month, former wheat board directors won the first round of the court battle. A Federal Court justice ruled the government's bill to amend the wheat board act violated the law because no plebiscite was held.

But Justice Douglas Campbell also made it clear that his ruling was 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 directors are now hoping to use Campbell's ruling to get another court order that would force the government to withdraw its changes.

"You have unlimited jurisdiction ... to consider the validity of legislation," MacArthur told Perlmutter.