Op Ed - Backlog in Grain is Connected to Backlog in Democracy

by Jan Slomp

Believe it or not, there is a relationship between the backlog in prairie grain and the “Fair Elections Act.” Here’s how.

As prairie farmers wait anxiously for the backlog in grain transportation to be resolved and for prices that at least cover cost of production, Minister Ritz and friends continue to meet with devotion in the sanctuary of “free-dumb.” Farmers on the prairies can no longer afford these bizarre ideas from Ritz and Co.

One of their proposed solutions is to lift the revenue cap for rail companies, which are required by law to move grain. As a constrained, monopolized system, railroads would enjoy even higher profits if allowed to create a bidding war that would have farmers paying even higher freight rates.

It has always been clear that mountains and long distances to ports have stopped prairie farmers from receiving the full world market price of their grain. In the early 1900s, Western grain farmers’ outrage, indignation and frustration with the monopoly power of the CPR, grain dealers and millers spurred them to demand a stake in the game, to organize themselves and work cooperatively to form the prairie pools. The Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), created in 1912, had the power to enforce regulations governing grain movement from farm gate to loading point. When farmers demanded fair and stable prices and protection against exploitation by grain traders, the federal government created the Canadian Wheat Board. Farmers lobbied hard to keep the Crow Rate to maintain equity in grain transportation costs. These and other mechanisms helped to ensure that land-locked prairie farmers could compete successfully in the world market. Western anger and frustration is rising again because apart from a greatly diminished CGC, these hard-won institutions have been demolished by Minister Ritz and his ilk.

The current chaos in grain transportation is caused by the loss of the CWB’s coordination at port terminals, as well as by the lack of enforcement of the statutory obligation for rail companies to move prairie grain. The Canadian Wheat Board, with its single desk authority over sales and over railroads and port facilities, ensured the system was orderly and worked efficiently to achieve premium grain prices and minimize transportation costs for prairie farmers for more than 75 years.

Why should we believe that the very people who have dismantled a system that functioned well would have the knowledge and the wherewithal to fix it?

Now to the “Fair Elections Act” and its relationship to grain transportation: Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, who currently reports directly to Parliament, exposed the unethical interference of the Conservatives in the lead-up to the last federal election, for which their knuckles were soundly rapped. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives’ “Fair Elections Act” will disempower the Chief Electoral Officer by turning his investigative powers over to a commissioner appointed by the director of public prosecutions. This commissioner will report to the Prime Minister instead of to Parliament as a whole.

The government’s undemocratic behavior regarding the new Elections Act is something prairie farmers have seen before. Even though prairie farmers repeatedly elected a majority of directors who supported the single desk Canadian Wheat Board, the Conservatives blatantly disregarded the requirements of the Canadian Wheat Board Act for a producer vote and unilaterally dismantled the single desk. The farmer-elected board was terminated. Likewise, the Chief Electoral Officer – the protector of Canada’s democratic processes - has been stripped of power and his former authority given to a puppet of the Prime Minister. It is not clear how accountability to Canadian citizens will be handled – if at all.

If Minister Ritz wanted to improve transportation and farmers’ grain prices, he would consult with Allen Oberg and other former directors of the farmer-elected CWB board, who not only made grain move well, but also managed to sell several classes of wheat for premiums that have since vanished. He would also talk to Adrian Measner, the CWB’s former CEO, who was muzzled and forcefully removed by the Conservatives – brought to heel in much the same way as the Chief Electoral Officer has been.

According to the proposed 2014/15 budget, the federal government is using $349 million to help sell what is left of the CWB to the private grain trade. Conservatives also appropriated about $200 million of farmer-owned CWB assets when they ended the single desk.

What would happen if Ritz and Co. gave farmers that $549 million to create a farmer-controlled agency to coordinate prairie grain transportation – with the authority to discipline railroads – and to buy or build port facilities to export prairie grain? Just imagine that! 

Jan Slomp is the President of the National Farmers Union and an Alberta dairy farmer.