Canadian Wheat Board

Ms. Elizabeth May: Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from Winnipeg Centre for seconding my amendments. I am also proud to have seconded his.

As we begin this discussion over the next 10 minutes of my portion of the debate, I want to concentrate on what our amendments are actually about and then address the larger issue of why I personally, as the member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands where we actually do have some wheat farmers, very small levels of crops at this point, but there are people in Saanich—Gulf Islands–

Hon. Vic Toews: How many under the Wheat Board?

Ms. Elizabeth May: I am sorry, I am unable to answer the hon. minister across the way as I explain our amendments.

We have put forward amendments to Bill C-18 that deal very specifically with changes to the sections of the bill that relate to the election of the board of directors.

It has been part of the Wheat Board ever since it was created in 1935 that the members of the Wheat Board’s board of directors were primarily elected by farmers. It has been a 15 member board of directors, 10 board members elected by farmers, who themselves then are represented in a single desk marketing system, which is of course to the benefit of farmers, and that is why they were electing their board of directors.

The amendments we are putting forward at report stage of Bill C-18 are to revert control over the board of directors to the Canadian Wheat Board in whatever new position it is able to exert itself after passage of this legislation in order to ensure that it has representation elected by farmers.

The bill, as currently drafted, would eliminate board members elected by farmers and move to a five person board, all appointed through the governor in council, and of course the governor in council is essentially the cabinet, so it would remove the democratically elected portion of the board of directors, and that is a very serious matter.

I would love to take the temperature down on this matter this morning in the House. It is not an issue which is often debated in the House where it is somehow freedom versus oppression, or that there is this dreadful oppression from the Wheat Board and that all farmers wish to be freed from these shackles, from this terrible yoke.

The wheat and barley farmers in this country are clearly divided on the pros and cons of the Wheat Board in 2011. Clearly, we need to think about modernizing. Initially, the Wheat Board was created before 1935, which is the date we usually choose because that is when it came out in statute federally. Going back to the 1920s, farmers first formed co-operatives. They had every reason to be concerned. When my hon. friend from Winnipeg Centre referred to the robber barons, he was referring to those of the early part of the 20th century. Farmers had every reason to be concerned about whether they could they get a fair price.

When farmers were put in a circumstance of being at the mercy of large corporate buyers, what would that mean? Farmers were competing against other. Each one would lower their price to get the sale with the big conglomerate, and in that situation it was a buyer’s market. It could pick off the farmers. Farmers could go bankrupt if they kept reducing their prices to get the deal. That is why co-operatives were formed. That is why the Wheat Board was formed in 1935 to ensure that, with single desk marketing, the Wheat Board would buy and guarantee the farmers a liveable price for the wheat and barley they grew.

It is not easy being a farmer in this country. Goodness only knows that the average farmer in this country is unable to make a living on the farm. Most of the income, increasingly, has to be made off the farm, and that applies not just to grain farmers, of course, but to farmers of fruit, vegetables and livestock.

Being a farmer in this country is difficult. We need a food strategy. We need to support our farmers. We need to support locally grown food. In this context, eliminating the Wheat Board is highly controversial.

We have large conglomerates today, and my hon. friend referred to one of them, Viterra, and there is Cargill. They are in a good position if farmers do go back to what happened in the early 1900s, competing against each other to get a price from a big buyer. That is why there is so much concern from farmers who want to keep the Wheat Board, that they will be exposed to the vagaries of a marketplace in which competition means undercutting each other.

The heart of the co-operative movement was to support each other so that through collaborative efforts, whether in the fisheries, grain farming or in milk and dairy products, farmers could get a fair and livable wage out of a very competitive marketplace. Therefore, it is not without its controversy.

The one vote that the Wheat Board undertook showed 62% of farmers wanted to keep it. That means a not insubstantial number of farmers want to do away with it. In fact, if the percentages are right, there are more farmers who want to do away with the Wheat Board than citizens who voted for the governing party in the last election. That is not a small group of people, so the farmers are divided on this.

This bill would have been better contemplated with respect to how to modernize the Wheat Board rather than how to destroy the single desk and expose the farmers who are so very concerned, as well as those who think the change would do them well.

No one really knows how this will go.

I did want to express concern because in the category of what we do not know are the costs. In terms of costs, we know that the Canadian Wheat Board has determined that an auditor will be brought in. The auditor winning the contract has been reported to be receiving between half a million and a million dollars to figure out employee severance costs, pension costs and the potential legal costs for breaking long-term contracts.

The analysis was carried out by the reputable accounting firm, KPMG. It concluded that the costs of eliminating the Wheat Board will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This cost of course will be paid by the taxpayers, but in whose interest is this really? Some critics have pointed out that essentially paying hundreds of millions of dollars should be seen as a disguised subsidy to the Cargills and the Viterras because they will be the beneficiaries of this change.

It is clearly not an easy issue. I have talked to many members on the government benches who have told me that some of their farmers are terrified of getting rid of the Wheat Board. It is generally reported that the younger farmers are more prepared to innovate and figure out how to do without it.

There is no question that the Wheat Board could do a much better job helping farmers who are growing organic grain, but doing a better job should have been the goal. Getting rid of single desk marketing is a radical and dramatic change from what farmers in barley and wheat have known for years. The division, and the fact that the majority of the wheat farmers who have expressed themselves on this issue want to keep the Wheat Board, should have injected some caution into how this legislation will move forward. It is the absence of caution that is so deeply concerning to the members on the opposition side of the House. We need to protect the interests of Canadian wheat and barley farmers.

I know that members on the government benches honestly believe that they are acting in the interests of their constituents who farm wheat and barley. We on the opposition benches honestly believe that there are huge risks in moving so dramatically.

It is interesting that the Conservative members use the word “conservative” to describe themselves. They are really very radical. They are making radical changes to our criminal justice system, to prairie farming, and across the board, particularly in immigration. I do not think they like the term that they are the radical party, but that is much more the essence and substance of the changes we are seeing.

Therefore, in putting forward these amendments we are asking for one dose of caution: please allow these amendments to go through. Allow the farmers in the country to continue to elect members of the Canadian Wheat Board to represent their interests. With board members elected democratically by farmers, we could continue to allow all voices in the agriculture community to be heard. We could try to find the mechanisms that protect the farmers, after Bill C-18 passes, from the worst aspects of a competitive cutthroat market dominated by a handful of multinational corporations.

We must find a way to ensure that prairie farmers make a living wage and that they are not exposed to the kinds of practices that gave rise to the need for the Canadian Wheat Board in the first place.

I urge members opposite to consider these few amendments and to allow them to go through.