WINNIPEG — Western Canadian farmers voted strongly in favor of retaining the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board over the selling of their wheat, with the long-standing exception of feed wheat sold domestically, in a plebiscite initiated by the C.W.B. whose results were released Sept. 12. A thin majority of voting farmers indicated they were in favor of retaining the C.W.B.’s single-desk selling system for barley.
The plebiscite was organized in response to Canada’s Conservative government’s claim the national election that brought it to power last May inferred it had a mandate to end the C.W.B.’s 69-year-old monopoly over milling wheat and barley sales. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said legislation would be introduced in Parliament in the fall that would end the single-desk selling system as of Aug. 1, 2012. Single-desk advocates pointed out the Canadian Wheat Board Act requires the government to seek the approval of growers before taking such action, but Minister Ritz has refused to do so.
The C.W.B. said 62% of Western Canadian wheat growers participating in the plebiscite voted in favor of retaining the single desk for wheat, and 51% of participating barley farmers voted to retain the single desk for barley. Sixty-eight thousand producers received ballots, and 38,261 farmers mailed in their ballots, a participation rate of 56%, which plebiscite organizers said was on par with overall participation in the last three federal elections.
“Farmers have spoken,” said Allen Oberg, chairman of the C.W.B.’s elected board of directors. “Their message is loud and clear, and the government must listen. Western Canadian producers have voted to keep their single-desk marketing system for wheat and barley. They cannot be ignored. We will not sit back and watch this government steamroll over farmers. We are going to stand our ground and fight for farmers.”
Mr. Oberg said the plebiscite confirmed the recent federal election implied no mandate to abolish the single-desk marketing system.
“The number of producers who voted shows that they are passionate about the C.W.B. and demand a say in its future. As farmers, the C.W.B. is our marketing organization. We pay for it, we run it, and we have the right to decide its future. The government must now acknowledge this mandate from farmers and respect this decision.”
A couple days before the results were announced, Minister Ritz said the results of the plebiscite are “inconsequential.”
“At the end of the day, the government of Canada will ensure that farmers in Western Canada have the same right to an open market as farmers around the world,” he said.
The C.W.B. said the plebiscite was fair and was administered by an independent third party, MNP, a chartered accounting and business advisory firm. Farmers received ballots if they had a permit with the board in the past two years or delivered wheat or barley within the past five years.
“By any measure, this is a fair plebiscite,” Mr. Oberg said. “This is the clearest expression of what the majority of the farmers are thinking. We asked the minister to conduct his own plebiscite, as required by law, but he chose not to do so. It seems ironic he’s criticizing this very fair and credible process.”
Grower groups opposed to the single-desk system said the government should proceed with its effort to abolish the C.W.B. monopoly.
”The entire design of this vote was geared toward producing a result in favor of the monopoly,” said Kevin Bender, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. “The government should ignore the results and move full steam ahead with plans to give us our marketing freedom.”
Separate from the plebiscite, a growers’ group called the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board in June applied to Canada’s Federal Court for an order to bar the government from abolishing the monopoly without first seeking approval of farmers through a vote. A judge in Winnipeg ruled Sept. 9 that the group’s challenge may proceed.