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For Churchill MP, scrapping Canadian Wheat Board is a big fat headache

October 27, 2011: NDP MP Niki Ashton poses for a photograph at a farm in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Niki Ashton went from her big fat Greek wedding this summer to a big fat political headache.

The 29-year-old NDP MP from Churchill, Man., was married in Greece – 165 people, a white dress, lots of ouzo and wedding vows exchanged in the church where she was baptized.

But the post-wedding bliss did not last long as she returned to the House to find herself embroiled in a fight with the Harper government over its contentious legislation to scrap the Canadian Wheat Board.

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"People are scared," Ms. Ashton says. "It means the loss of jobs, families having to be uprooted."

Dismantling the 76-year-old agency will deal a huge blow to Churchill – 95 per cent of what goes through its deep water port is wheat board grain and 200 jobs are at stake in a community that has a population of about 1,000.

As difficult as the NDP argues this will be for rural Manitoba, party MPs also say it affects the urban Manitoba economy.

Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin says his riding will lose 430 jobs; he estimates 3,000 indirect jobs will be lost across the  province.

"It is ripping the heart out of the corporate community in my riding," Mr. Martin says. "It [the CWB]is one of the largest corporate head offices at the corner of Portage and Main. They [the Conservatives]are legislating a successful $6-billion-a-year corporation out of existence."

Ms. Ashton and Mr. Martin  are the only two NDP MPs in Manitoba. There's no other New Democrat until the Alberta border – Linda Duncan in Edmonton.

The NDP prairie troika is overwhelmed by a block of Conservative blue – MPs who argue their May 2 mandate gives them the go-ahead to take down the wheat board.

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That's the fight Ms. Ashton is up against.

"We were aware of Stephen Harper's agenda certainly in the overall sense," she said in an interview this week. "We didn't know how ruthless he and his government were planning to be."

Last week, the government introduced legislation to dismantle the agency and its decades-long monopoly over Western wheat and barley sales. Then, it choked off debate on the legislation, hoping to get it passed into law by Christmas.

"It's shocking to all of us who live across the West," she says.

But it shouldn't be.

Stephen Harper has never made a secret of his views. As head of the National Citizens' Coalition lobby group in the 1990s, Mr. Harper wrote harshly about the monopoly.

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And so this new legislation fulfills his long-held vow – and that of others in his caucus – that a Conservative government would get rid of the agency and allow the free market to work.

"The Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, born in different times to meet different needs, has cast a chill on key parts of the grain sector in Western Canada," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has said. "Marketing freedom will unlock new value-added investment, new jobs and new growth for Canada's economy."

In dismantling the board, however, the government is not immune to the impact to communities. In Churchill, for example, it has pledged $5-million for five years.

Ms. Ashton, however, says that in "no way, shape or form, makes up for any potential loss of the wheat board."

Sure, further development and diversification would be good for the port but, she says, "we're saying hands off the wheat board because this is the key piece of the economic puzzle for Churchill."

She contends the move will only help big agribusiness, companies like Cargill and Viterra, and she has been demanding the government at least allow farmers to vote on whether they want to disband the monopoly.

Earlier this week, a slim majority of wheat board directors announced they were taking the government to court, arguing that any changes to the board require a vote among Western grain farmers.

The Tories have been dismissive of this, saying the government has the prerogative to change, repeal or enact laws.

Ms. Ashton believes the government is "taking Western Canada for granted."

First elected in 2008, she grew up with politics. Her father, Steve, is a provincial cabinet minister who was first elected before she was born. His riding is part of his daughter's federal riding.

Her mother, Hari Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton, is from Alexandroupoli, the northern Greek city where Ms. Ashton was married. Her mother had come to Canada to complete her MA in economics and met her father.

So, despite growing up in Thompson, Ms. Ashton's first language is Greek. But she speaks French, too – important since she is still considering running for the NDP leadership.

For now, however, her focus is on the wheat board. It's a tough battle, given the big fat Harper majority.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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