Wednesday, November 06, 2002
CALGARY – Thirteen shackled men entered the dark confines of the Lethbridge Correctional Centre last week, dangerous criminals who had violated the laws of society and the morals of civilization as we know it. Their crime? Several years back they took grain grown on their own farms, loaded it on to their trucks and drove it across the border into the United States.
Worse, some sold it to private U.S. grain dealers at market prices. Others gave it away. No matter. By taking wheat and barley outside Canada, they were in violation of the Customs Act. But the farmers, the RCMP, even the customs officers know the Customs Act is a front. Their real crime was defying the bureaucratic sway of the Canadian Wheat Board, the last major remnant of total wartime control of the private sector market in agricultural products.
Western Canadian wheat and barley farmers are subject to a unique tyranny, the worst kind of tyranny, a tyranny without a tyrant, a tyranny of mere rules and faceless bureaucrats for which even Parliamentary oversight is absent. Alone among Canadian farmers, prairie wheat and barley producers must, by law, market their product through the Canadian Wheat Board. They have no choice
The Wheat Board is a compulsory monopoly run by and for the people who staff it. Like CSIS, the spy agency, the CWB is exempt from access to information requests. Unlike CSIS, their adversaries are compelled to pay for the privilege. It is hard for most Canadians to understand the offensive implications of the Wheat Board monopoly. These prairie farmers, private entrepreneurs to a man, cannot sell their own product on the open, or even on a regulated, market. They plant the crops, they nurture them, they harvest them, they assume the risks. But the second their grain moves through the farm gate it belongs to the CWB. This happens nowhere else in Canada — certainly not in Ontario. It doesn’t even happen in Quebec or the Maritimes, which are hardly centres of entrepreneurial marketeers.
Imagine if the government had the right to be the sole agent for every artist, for every writer, for anyone who, by their own sweat, toil, intelligence, or imagination produced a book to sell and earn their own living from the proceeds. All Canadians except prairie wheat and barley producers have that option. Where is Margaret Atwood when she is needed?
Even devout supporters of the welfare state, to say nothing of the great body of ordinary and productive Canadians, believe that individuals have a right to own property and to reap for themselves the benefit of the work they invest in the product of their brains or their back. Not so the prairie wheat or barley growers, held in thrall by a compulsory monopoly since the desperate days of the Second World War.
The Canadian Wheat Board has changed in many ways over the past few years in response to farmers’ demands. The board now operates with a majority of farmer representatives elected to its governing body. Farmers can now choose the international price at which they desire to sell their own grain.
Wheat Board supporters make much of the recent reforms. They also point to the referendums held during the late 1990s by the federal government when a slim majority of wheat and barley growers voted to market their grain through the board.
In fact, those claims are beside the main point, that in no other sector of Canadian society or of the Canadian economy would a majority vote of manufacturers, of merchants, of poets, of fishermen or of any other category of people bind all members of the group against their will. Democracy has never meant the tyranny of the majority, especially a manipulated majority. In practice, the CWB is simply oppressive. The 13 jailed farmers are eloquent witnesses to its despotic power.
This compulsory and geographically discriminatory monopoly is probably the last fundamental human rights issue that remains largely ignored by governments, by the courts, and by the media. An individual who is determined to grow wheat or barley on the Prairies is an economic slave whether he or she favours that slavery or not. The Wheat Board issue is not just about choice. It is not just about secret prices set by unknown bureaucrats.
It is not even about what benefits the farmer and what does not. The basic issue is whether or not a prairie grain producer can be a responsible citizen, and raise and dispose of his own crops as he wishes.
Barry Cooper is with the department of political science at the University of Calgary, where David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
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