Though I am the Property Rights Shadow Critic in the legislature, I have to admit that I was over 40 before I fully realized that the term property rights applies to much more than farmland and real estate. My education in that regard started the day I was asked: “Who owns a farmer’s grain?”
Some years ago, Manitoba farmer Andy McMechan went to jail because he believed he owned his own barley. Andy farms in the southwest corner of Manitoba, a couple of miles north of the U.S. border. His wife Pam grew up on a farm a couple of miles south of the border. They married, and in time, ran both farms.
As with any family farm operation, it was pretty normal to take machinery, cattle feed, and one thing or another from one farm site to the other.
To export barley at that time, a farmer was supposed to obtain written permission from CWB bureaucrats and pay a steep fee. Andy, believing the barley belonged to him and not to the Wheat Board, refused to pay the fee or go along. He continued moving barley between his farms.
When Canada Customs tried to seize Andy’s tractor, saying he’d used it to illegally transport grain from one farm to the other, Andy simply drove away. In the end, the government put him in jail for 155 days due to his sudden departure and other related charges.
After Andy’s imprisonment, a group of Alberta farmers realized that the bigger issue behind what had happened to Andy was property rights. “Does a grain grower have a property right in what he grows?” they asked. “And should the farmer control the sale and transport of his product, or should a government bureaucrat do that?”
Believing the federal government had an obligation to declare whether the farmer or the bureaucracy owned and controlled privately produced crops, 13 Alberta farmers took various amounts of grain they’d grown on their farms, and in defiance of the CWB, moved it across the U.S. border. I was one of them. So was Jim Ness, who farms in the Oyen region. Jim carried a sack of barley over the border and then donated it to the 4-H kids in Sunburst, Montana. He and I later shared a jail cell.
Today, the CWB monopoly is gone. The Prime Minister of Canada personally apologized to all 13 farmers for what had been done, and pardoned each one – no criminal records.
Happily, what remains for all Alberta farmers from that time is the assurance that their property rights are secure when it comes to the crops they grow on their farms. No bureaucrats will interfere with them or demand an exorbitant fee when they sell it.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been previewing a soon-to-be-released publication by Grassroots Alberta called Property & Freedom. The publication quotes Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who said: “The power a multi-millionaire might have over me and over my property, whether he is my neighbour or my employer, is much less than what’s held by the smallest government bureaucrat or agent, who wields the coercive power of the state, and upon whose discretion it depends whether and how I am able to live, work, or make decisions.”