CWB elections may be most important for its future

Another Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) director election period is upon us and it seems a bit quiet so far. Considering the acrimonious position of the Conservative government on the CWB and its past meddling in CWB affairs, one almost expects some more political mischief from them sooner or later. On the other hand if they do keep quiet, I expect the National Farmers Union and their single desk allies will probably accuse the government of an insidious conspiracy of silence that undermines the democratic will of grain growers.

The ideological battle lines were drawn a long time ago and that hasn’t changed. All that seems to matter in CWB elections is whether a candidate is for marketing choice or for maintaining single desk marketing. There does not seem to be any other CWB issue worth mentioning during the election, or that anyone can remember after the election. That’s too bad because the CWB is more than just a battle over how grain is marketed.

First some full transparency: in another life, I was a CWB permit book holder in the BC Peace River area, but I never grew or sold grain. My background is in animal agriculture and I came to believe that the CWB was instrumental in high feed grain prices for my livestock. Also, for a number of years I worked for a large multinational grain company whose unofficial perspectives on the CWB were clear. My early views of the CWB were not exactly favourable and some of my columns in the distant past reflected that view. But even an old dog can learn something new, even begrudgingly.

Those of us long in the tooth can remember decades of statistical battles in the media and at meetings between the anti-board folks and the CWB. It was quite amusing to watch the skirmishes between the two forces in the letters to the editor section of various publications. Each side was trying earnestly to massage the nuances of various price statistics or markets to their favour, if one was to believe it all then it seems both sides were absolutely right.

Markets and prices are of course important to producers, but in the long war between the opposing sides, I have found one CWB activity that seems to be overlooked by both parties, but curiously is expected by both.

I cite the critical role of the CWB in fighting off trade challenges, almost all of them instigated by American protectionist organizations and US government agencies. These challenges go back decades and are sure to come around again. I recall at least nine trade actions, all of which the CWB was expected to fend off on behalf of Canadian grain producers. The CWB spent millions of dollars and endless hours of staff time defeating these nuisance challenges. I understand they still maintain their expertise on high alert and a war chest in anticipation of the next trade battle.

My question is who is supposed to do the trade challenge work if there is no CWB as the anti-board forces so fervently wish. The western wheat and barley producer groups come to mind, but with all due respect, with little money and staff they are hard pressed to run an office and annual meeting. I am always amazed at the sound of silence when this concern is brought up during any discourse on the fate of the CWB. Perhaps the CWB has not done itself a favour by quietly doing its other job of fighting trade challenges without any fan fare.

The anti-board forces have no response as to who will fight the challenges and who will pay for them. There seems to be the naive assumption that once the CWB is gone, the Americans won’t have any reason to launch trade actions against wheat. I expect hog, cattle, potato and a host of other producers would, from painful experience, say that American protectionists will gleefully launch any trade action for the slightest excuse. In fact, they may become more emboldened to launch another trade action against Canadian wheat if their most formidable foe, the CWB, is gone.

Sure, each side in the CWB election debate will marshall its market and statistics ammunition to fire broadsides at each other, that is to be expected. But I suggest that the trade challenge matter is a sleeping elephant that needs to be recognized and appreciated. For that reason alone we have to keep the CWB in place.

Finally, I have over the years had the opportunity to meet American and European trade officials who have all expressed disdain, fear, anger and even admiration for the CWB. When our competitors express such emotions over a Canadian institution, that is a clear message for Canadian producers. Just some food for thought at CWB election time.

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