The battle over the future of the Canadian Wheat Board has turned into a constitutional fight over how much power the federal government has to arbitrarily change laws.
The issue surfaced in a key court ruling Wednesday, when Federal Court judge Douglas Campbell ruled the Conservative government broke the law in recently introducing legislation to end the Wheat Board's 76-year old monopoly over the sale of all wheat and barley grown in Western Canada.
The government has argued wheat farmers should be free to sell their own grain in the same way canola and other crops are sold. Supporters of the board argue wheat is different from canola and the board offers farmers more clout in international markets.
In his ruling, Judge Campbell noted that while a majority government has the right to introduce and pass legislation, it must still follow rules established in laws set by previous Parliaments. In the case of the Wheat Board, those rules date back to 1998 when the Canadian Wheat Board Act was amended to increase farmer control over the agency. The amendments included provisions requiring consultation and a vote by farmers before any major changes were made to the Act or the board's operations.
The government's legislation, Bill C-18, would effectively gut the board altogether. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has argued a vote by farmers isn't required under the law because the government isn't making changes; it's replacing the Wheat Board Act and the agency. And he has argued the Tories won a majority government, giving them the authority to make the change.
Judge Campbell disagreed and ruled that the government is bound by the democratic process established in 1998. "This fact requires that, in proposing that a fundamental change be made to the [Wheat Board's]structure, the Minister must act democratically. This is what [the amended Act]says. Not adhering to these values is not only disrespectful, it is contrary to law," the judge said in his ruling. Parliament's intention, he added, "is not to alter this structure without consultation and consent." Judge Campbell added that the government's actions were an affront to the rule of law, which was a fundamental constitutional imperative.
"It confirms what we've been saying all along," Wheat Board chairman Allen Oberg said Wednesday. "When the minister introduced legislation on Oct. 18 he broke the law."
Mr. Oberg said the government should hold a binding vote among grain farmers as required under the existing legislation. A recent poll organized by the Wheat Board found 62 per cent of 40,000 farmers surveyed supported keeping it in place for the sale of wheat. Barely half supported keeping it for the sale of barley.
Mr. Ritz said the government will appeal the decision and press ahead with the legislation, which it hopes to have in place by August. "The Parliament of Canada alone has the supremacy to enact, amend or repeal any piece of legislation. This is a fundamental feature of democracy," Mr. Ritz said Wednesday.
He added that at the end of the day the ruling "will have no effect on continuing to move forward for freedom for Western Canadian farmers. Bill C-18 will pass. Even the Wheat Board's own lawyer said that all it could possibly do is have us reconsider. We are not reconsidering the rights of Western Canadian farmers. We understand their fundamental rights. We will appeal this, but we will carry on with C-18."