POLITICS
04/03/2012 03:39 EDT | Updated 06/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Former wheat board directors appeal court ruling over future of industry

WINNIPEG - Eight former directors of the Canadian Wheat Board fired another legal salvo Tuesday in the ongoing war over wheat and barley production in Western Canada.

The former directors announced plans to appeal a court ruling regarding the federal government's move to strip the board of its monopoly over wheat and barley sales in the four provinces. It's the latest in a string of court battles between those who say the monopoly helps keep prices high and those who say farmers deserve the right to sell to whomever they want.

"Farmers are telling us to keep fighting for our rights," Bill Toews, a farmer and former wheat board director, said in a written statement.

The federal government has already moved to strip the wheat board's six-decade-old control over western wheat and barley sales for the start of the new crop year Aug. 1. The government passed a law in December to open up sales to the free market, and changed the wheat board to a voluntary agency for producers.

The eight former directors, who were elected by producers, have continued to fight the government's move.

In December, Federal Court Justice Douglas Campbell ruled Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz violated the original Canadian Wheat Board Act, which required a plebiscite among farmers before any major changes were made.

But Campbell also made it clear that his ruling was just 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.

Armed with that ruling, the former directors then asked Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Shane Perlmutter to suspend the government law until a full hearing on its validity could be held. But Perlmutter rejected the request in February, saying the directors failed to prove that they would suffer harm under the open market.

It is that decision that the directors are now appealing.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz called the appeal "unfortunate".

“This attempt to stop western Canadian farmers from marketing their own grain is neither logical or practical and it’s disappointing that the former directors can’t move forward along with the rest of the grain industry," Ritz said in a written statement.

There are other legal actions underway. A group called the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board has filed a class-action lawsuit in Federal Court, asking the court to restore the board and give farmers $17 billion in damages.

There is also a lawsuit filed by wheat board supporters last month, which seeks $15.4 billion in damages.

The battle over the wheat board dates back decades.

Since the 1940s, wheat and barley farmers in Western Canada had to sell their grain through the board.

The Conservatives long promised to allow farmers the option of independently selling their grain, as their counterparts do in other regions. The move has the support of many farm groups, who 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.