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Wheat Board finally disappears

After a long drawn-out process, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) is finally part of prairie history.

After a long drawn-out process, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) is finally part of prairie history. Last week it was announced that G3 Canada Limited would take over the remaining assets of the CWB. As part of the deal the old CWB name and corporate logo will be replaced with the new name and logo. In a short time all traces of the CWB will disappear from the prairie landscape and the grain marketing system.

It is an ignoble end to an organization that on the whole served grain-growers well during its eight decades of existence. The demise is so thorough that it will be almost impossible to revive the CWB without massive investment of billions of grower and taxpayer dollars – an unlikely event. Opposition parties have steadfastly supported the existence of the CWB, but now that its completely gone even they would be unlikely to re-establish the entity. The political reality is that would take too much taxpayer money for too few voters. Besides, the scope of grain growing has significantly changed through consolidation with fewer but very astute growers. In a word - times and people have changed.

The end of the CWB saw its genesis more than 15 years ago when a younger Stephen Harper, then-president of the National Citizens Coalition, vowed that he would see the end of the state monopoly on wheat marketing. It was one political promise he kept, even though the process was fraught with politics and a convoluted termination process. The incident that drove Harper to that goal was the jailing in 1996 of farmers who were attempting to market their grain into the USA outside of the CWB marketing monopoly.

In sober retrospect, had a wheat marketing compromise been achieved at the time and not the heavy hand of jail terms, the final outcome of the CWB might have been different. But it was not to be.

In the CWB dismantling process the federal government, rather than abruptly terminating the board and removing them from the grain market, chose a more slow death approach by ending its monopoly powers and making the CWB a quasi-grain company. It's been suggested that go-slow approach unnecessarily cost the Canadian taxpayer hundreds of millions in additional severance payments and subsidies to keep the company afloat. On the other hand, Ian White, the CEO of the CWB, skillfully guided the new CWB into being a viable although diminished grain marketer. There were expectations that the new CWB would literally financially crash and implode, but amazingly CEO White expanded CWB grain marketing and increased its handling and asset base. That solid performance made the company more attractive to outside buyers.

In the end, the fate of the CWB was sealed, being that the federal Conservative government was determined to see it sold and disappear forever.

Since 2012, when federal legislation abolished the monopoly powers of the CWB, various groups and producers have launched legal challenges against the federal government to either forestall the process or demand billions in compensation for assets and lost marketing opportunities. It's taken years but most cases have been dismissed in the legal jungle. Some remain to be resolved but may eventually suffer from legal exhaustion and diminishing producer interest. Besides with all the assets now gone along with the legal termination of the CWB, there is probably nothing left to provide compensation outside of extracting it from taxpayers – that has no appeal to politicians. Yet the end of the CWB continues to be lamented, especially when marketing and transportation problems arise. One of the activities that the CWB was very good at was unravelling bottlenecks and making grower access to the system at all times more equitable and honest. It's fair to say that the 2013/14 grain transportation and shipping debacle would have been resolved quicker and better had a regulatory authority like the old CWB been in charge. Without such an entity the federal government had to step in to enforce a resolution. As admirable as that was, there is no indication that approach will solve a similar situation from occurring again.

In retrospect, perhaps the CWB could have been reinvented to provide some regulatory oversight when marketing and transportation problems arise. Grain growers now have their marketing rights, but they are now faced with what seems like quasi-monopolies with only two railways and fewer but larger multi-national grain buying giants. It does cause one to ponder what has really changed.