Witnesses Question Voters List Changes

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

National Farmers Union president Stewart Wells used a Parliament Hill appearance last week to accuse agriculture minister Chuck Strahl of being misleading in trying to justify a mid-election campaign change in the Canadian Wheat Board voters list.

He asked the House of Commons agriculture committee Oct. 26 to investigate the background to the minister’s decision to disqualify 16,000 voters because they have not delivered to the board in the past two years.

They can get back on the list by swearing a legal declaration that they have been in the business during those years.

But Wells said the minister’s statement that the Wheat Board agreed with his order and that it reflected an electoral report to the board last year is wrong. He said the committee should ask the government to reimburse farmers and the board for their added costs because of this order.

“The standing committee needs to investigate in order to ascertain whether the federal government is deliberately sabotaging the director elections, or if the changes are the result of unbelievable incompetence on the part of the government,” said Wells. “The committee needs to figure out which shoe fits.”

Other critics of the government’s plan, including Keystone Agricultural Producers president David Rolfe, Saskatchewan agriculture minister Mark Wartman and Manitoba agriculture minister Rosann Wowchuk, also challenged Strahl’s decision to tinker with the voters list.

Wowchuk called it interference and Wartman suggested it was one of several “questionable practices” the federal government has used to undermine the Board.

Opponents of the CWB monopoly also had a loud voice when they appeared before MPs.

Saskatchewan farmer Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers’ Association, said that unlike many prairie defenders of the Board, she and her husband are trying to make a living growing prairie grain and the board monopoly costs them money. She said if she could sell grain to available buyers at the high prices of the autumn rather than sell it through the board with an initial price and then the prospect of a pooled lower final payment many months down the road, her farm could increase revenues by $46,000.

She rejected the need for a farmer plebiscite, since the issue is not democratic rights but the ability of any Canadian to use their property without their neighbours setting the rules.

Manitoba farmer Rolf Penner, agriculture policy analyst for the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, described the wheat board monopoly as a “wet blanket” stifling western agriculture development, a blanket “that needs airing out.”

Saskatchewan organic producer Boyd Charles described his frustration with the need to buy back his product with a cut going to the pool even though he does the work and takes the risks on his 10,000 acre farm, makes contact with the potential buyers around the world and arranges delivery.

“I don’t know one organic grower who wants to be in the Wheat Board.”

At the back of the room, NFU president Wells grinned and raised his hand. He is a large organic grower in the Swift Current area of Saskatchewan.