Federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl came to the cold prairie Tuesday afternoon and put his strongest critic on ice.
Strahl did what many expected Tuesday, firing Canadian Wheat Board president and CEO Adrian Measner. But he surprised his critics when he appointed Greg Arason, the boss of the wheat board from 1998 to 2002, to his old post on a 90-day interim basis.
Standing in a large farm shed six kilometres west of Headingley and surrounded by more than 200 supportive farmers, Strahl said the Harper government is committed to revamping the wheat board and giving farmers the opportunity to market their grain independently instead of being legally compelled to sell it through the board as they are now.
“I appointed a new president and CEO today to make sure that happens,” Strahl told reporters following the rally with farmers.
Measner received official notification of his termination in a one-page fax from Strahl’s office just 10 minutes before the minister spoke to farmers.
But Measner said he has no regrets for his stand against the Conservative campaign promise to move to open marketing of wheat and barley — a stand that ultimately ended his 32-year career at the CWB.
“There were not a lot of options here for me. I work for farmers, and there was no way I was going to change that,” Measner said in an interview.
Measner’s firing wasn’t unexpected. Strahl had put him on notice at the end of November with a formal letter after Measner publicly criticized the Conservative government’s plan to end the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on the sale of western wheat and barley.
Not even the board’s vote of confidence in Measner could alter his fate.
Western farmers appeared to have rejected the Conservative agenda two weeks ago when they elected four of five directors to the board who support maintaining the wheat board’s monopoly. Farmers who support the wheat board’s monopoly now control eight of the 10 elected seats on the CWB. Ottawa appoints five other directors.
But yesterday, Strahl was surrounded by farmers who repeatedly cheered and applauded his every reference to ending the wheat board monopoly. The rally was held at the farm of Jim Janzen, a vice-president of Western Canadian Wheat Growers, an organization that strongly opposes the CWB monopoly.
Strahl described Arason as an experienced wheat board executive who supports the Conservative government’s plan to revamp the wheat board.
“(Arason) knows that all of us, including the wheat board, have to change with changing times, and he supports a vision of marketing choice for grains producers,” Strahl told the farmers.
He defended his move to fire Measner on the grounds that Measner had become too preoccupied with challenging the government’s plan and was not spending enough time selling grain. But Arason’s appointment threatens to bring the work of the wheat board to a halt as the pro-monopoly directors challenge the government-appointed CEO.
Wheat board director Bill Toews, a Kane-area farmer, said Arason is a good choice for the interim position, but added he’d be surprised if Arason wants to end the wheat board’s monopoly.
Toews, speaking for the majority of the CWB directors, said they will want to meet with Arason as soon as possible to determine how he’ll guide the wheat board in the coming days.
However, Toews said the directors would insist that Arason be responsible to the farmers, not to Strahl or the government that put in him charge.
Measner said Arason always backed the single-desk selling status of the CWB when he previously headed the agency, and he fully expects him to continue supporting that view, which is held by a majority of its directors.
Measner made clear the fight over the CWB’s future will not end with his sacking and called on the Tories to listen to what farmers are saying.
“I would hope the government would quit interfering and deal with the issue,” he said.
In addition to the pro-farm crowd, Strahl was also supported by the appearance of several Manitoba Conservative MPs, including Justice Minister Vic Toews, Rod Bruinooge, James Bezan, Steven Fletcher and Brian Pallister.
Rolf Penner, a Morris-area farmer and the agriculture fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, said Measner’s firing should ensure the wheat board concentrates on its job of selling wheat, but added the debate on the CWB’s future will continue.
“The debate can continue within farming circles and the wheat board can get back to work,” said Penner, who attended the rally.
Former CWB executive Bill Spafford, a vice-president of sales and marketing, attended the rally and was critical of Arason’s decision to come back at the behest of the Harper government.
“I’m surprised that Greg Arason would take the job, because he knows what the wheat board is all about and he’s going to be paid, essentially, to dismantle the wheat board,” Spafford said.
Spafford, who was constantly heckled by Strahl supporters at the rally, said the wheat board won’t be able to survive the changes the Conservative government wants to impose on it.
Strahl said the government will proceed with plans to hold a plebiscite for barley producers in the new year, adding he’ll work with Arason to bring other changes to the wheat board.
The agriculture minister said he doesn’t expect Arason will be a candidate for the permanent CEO position, and added that he’ll deal with the board of directors on finding a permanent CWB chief.
Measner will be discussing a severance package with the board and said the Tories should be picking up the tab, not producers.
“The government should be accountable for this, not farmers.”