Canada's Great Grain Robbery

198 pages,
ISBN: 1550565451

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Board games
by John Muggleridge

"Wheat Board becomes voluntary. Go ahead four spaces." I passed on to my kids the politicized Snakes & Ladders "board" game that arrived in the mail at our farm magazine's office the other day from the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. The kids pay more attention to going up ladders and down snakes, but the promotion piece from this group of renegade grain growers who are out to break the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on selling their wheat and barley was another reminder that all is not well in Canada's Bread Basket.

A maple leaf may unite us. But on the Prairies, an eighteen-inch-high stalk of wheat with kernels on top divides us right down the middle of the political spectrum, or so argues the Regina-based farm writer and broadcaster, Don Baron, in his new book on the history of Canadian wheat marketing, Canada's Great Grain Robbery.

"We have two diametrically opposed philosophies," says one grain farmer in this brash critique of Canada's bureaucracy-ridden wheat marketing system. "Some groups are passionately committed to supply management, which brings marketing boards, government controls, and a tangle of bureaucratic regulations. Other groups.want producer freedom which leads to a market-oriented approach and an expanded industry."

With the subtlety of a Prairie dog on a T-bone, Baron makes his point in the title, and shakes it between clenched canines over the ensuing 190 pages: Government and grain simply don't mix. "Canada's grain industry has been mired in politics almost from the beginning," he writes in the prologue. "A century of mismanagement and missed opportunity with one of the world's great resource areas," he writes in the postscript.

A dry, dispassionate high school history text this book is not. With all the rough edges, healthy mistrust of government, and low-bullfeathers-tolerance of the people on the ground in the Canadian grain industry, it gives a fascinating background on what went wrong down on the wheat farm; and how and why the farm functionaries in Ottawa spun out of control to the absurd degree of imprisoning a man for selling his own grain.

Even the most concrete-bound Canadians gagged on their cappuccinos when the rum case of the Manitoba farmer, Andy McMechan, hit the urban headlines in 1996. McMechan, who was jailed for five months (or "martyred", as Baron prefers it) for selling his grain directly to a North Dakota miller and circumventing the Canadian Wheat Board, quickly became a civil rights hero. The National Citizens Coalition took up his cause, and continues to lobby for the end of the board. You might have seen NCC billboards targeting the Wheat Board minister, Ralph Goodale, with the two O's in his name as handcuffs.

Just what is the Canadian Wheat Board, which Baron argues costs Western farmers $600 million a year in lost grain sales? And just how did it gain the power to imprison its suppliers? To find the answer, Baron delves deep into the rich soils of rural Prairie history, with its Klondike-esque boom-bust wheat prices, its clogged transportation systems, and its blockbuster international sales deals behind the iron and bamboo curtains.

There's a dizzying array of names and a handy chronology at the end to sort them out: Ed Partridge, W. R. Motherwell, Tom Crerar, and others who laid the foundations for the wheat marketing and transportation network that would become the country's economic spinal cord. No stereotypical dour farmers here. These blazing farm firebrands whose passion for agriculture glares from the book's black-and-white photos remind one of Canada's early hockey stars: One-Eyed Frank McGee and the Boston Bruins' bruiser, Eddie Shore. This was firewagon farming.

Like other co-operative "single-desk" farm marketing systems across Canada, the Western wheat pools and the Canadian Wheat Board that followed them were born of hard times on the farm. Wheat prices were low and unscrupulous sales agents at the grain elevators cheated farmers on prices and lowballed crop grades. Once the crop left the farm, there was more heartache for farmers, thanks to a cozy relationship between the railroads and the Winnipeg-based grain companies. "Farmers had become pawns in a cruel game," Baron writes.

For the fatcat grain merchants, however, it was boom times on the turn-of-the-century Prairies. Winnipeg was said to have nineteen millionaires, two fewer than Toronto. Five companies controlled the grain export business. It was an inequity that rankled with the Manitoba farmer, Ed Partridge. Baron describes him making a fact-finding trip to Winnipeg in 1905, bankrolled by twenty disgruntled neighbours each paying five dollars and, on his return, enraging farmers with colourful accounts of "The House with the Closed Shutters" and grain company executives' "palatial homes facing the Assiniboine River.with massive stone walls screening themselves not only from their own ilk, but also from what they considered the lesser breed."

Classic class-struggle stuff, fuelled both by bona fide corporate corruption and by Marxist platitudes from itinerant Protestant preachers-from the U.S., in true Canadian fashion. Borrowing from a 1992 Ph.D. thesis by Paul Earl of the University of Manitoba, Baron gives a fascinating account of carpet-bagging "social gospeller" pastors travelling north, whipping up the locals into an anti-capitalist frenzy and cheering the Bolshevik Revolution at a meeting in Winnipeg in 1918.

For cash-strapped farmers looking for better prices, it was a seductive blend of Christianity and left-wing egalitarian ideology. "We are going to put fur coats and silk stockings on every farm woman," vowed one fellow-traveller farmer in the 1920's.

Here, on the Canadian political stage, are the roots of the Canadian socialist movement, the CCF and the NDP; and here, argue Paul Earl and Don Baron, are the roots of centralist Canadian grain policy. "It was a microcosm of the left-right struggle in Canada," Baron writes.

As for the Canadian Wheat Board itself, like that other great Canadian institution, income tax, it was brought in during World War II, as a temporary measure, of course.

For anyone but the most ardent Prairie historian, the detail in this self-published, under-edited book borders on overload. The author leans heavily on Paul Earl's work, almost too heavily: one keeps wanting to hit the archives at the U. of M. for the real thing. Coverage of the United Grain Growers is overplayed at the expense of equally important grain pools in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Baron runs long, transcribed quotations from Mac Runciman, UGG boss in the 70's, who also happened to be his boss at UGG's magazine, Country Guide.

Baron could have improved on the readability and shelf life of this book by paraphrasing some quotations (at least twice he repeats these), sifting facts, untying tortuous timelines, and introducing new sources.

Nor are things down on the farm quite as black and white as Baron would have it. The big agri-companies, which salivate at the prospect of ditching the Wheat Board, get off far too easily. When covering UGG's joint venture with the Illinois-based food company, Archer Daniels Midland, for instance, Baron neglects to mention ADM's recent conviction in U.S. and Canadian courts for price-fixing on animal feed ingredients-just the sort of corporate shenanigans that got farmers pooling their grain in the first place. Fearing a return to that "house with the closed shutters" in turn-of-the-century Winnipeg, old-timers on the farm sigh that today's young free-marketer farmers have short memories going back only as far as this morning's prices.

Critics such as Baron and urban business columnists castigate modern farm marketing boards for having become bloated, bureaucratized monopolies, and in some cases they have. But they didn't start out that way. All the boards, co-operatives, pools, and other group marketing efforts, whether pork, dairy, poultry or wheat, were begun by farmers determined to make themselves price-setters, not price-takers; to close up, as one character in Baron's book says, "the wide chasm between the wheat dollars and the bread dollars."

Whither the Wheat Board? Buoyed by the groundswell of support around the jailed barley bootlegger, Andy McMechan, Baron believes it will eventually be ploughed under like a field of wheat stubble. He cites the meteoric rise of the oilseed crop canola, Canada's so-called "Cinderella crop", which isn't handled by the board. He sees Canadian agricultural policy jumping on the worldwide deregulation bandwagon, killing in 1996 the century-old Crow rate, which subsidized rail transport for wheat across the Rockies to Vancouver. He hails a new streamlined transportation system, thanks to new investment from the grain companies. And while the free marketers lost a 1997 producer referendum to remove barley from Wheat Board jurisdiction (they said the question was rigged), Baron is buoyed by the results: "An astounding 37 percent voted for the open market, even if it meant ending the Board which many growers considered almost sacred."

In the end, events will overtake the Wheat Board, as they did the Communist regime (which Baron argues helped get it off the ground). Since his book was published earlier this year, another nail was driven into the board when Parliament passed legislation requiring elected directors. Across Canada, farm marketing boards are in their twilight years. The Prairie provinces have killed their pork marketing monopolies, and Ontario pig farmers are pondering shipping theirs off to the abattoir as well. Border controls protecting dairy and poultry boards have been converted to tariffs, which will eventually fall as world trade frees up.

As the pendulum swings back, and farmers relinquish control of their marketing systems, agri-business companies lick their chops at the prospect of once again dividing and conquering their suppliers-negotiating prices with farmers individually, rather than as a bloc. For sorely needed capital to compete in the global economy, farmers for their part will turn to the very companies they fought so hard to rein in a generation ago. The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, among the Wheat Board's most ardent historical allies, recently entered a joint venture with the U.S. grain giant Cargill, and, following UGG's lead, is now publicly traded on the stock market.

Like hockey, farming has become big business. The ghosts of Ed Partridge and Eddie Shore are fading. 

John M. Muggeridge is executive editor of Farm & Country magazine.


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