News that MP David Anderson hosted an anti-Wheat Board video on his website until the racist content was exposed comes as no great surprise to anyone who read the collection of myths, nonsense, and hatred vented at our Canadian Wheat Board by Conservative MPs speaking in favour of ending the farmer democracy at our Board.
Mr. Anderson, among others, resorted to historical revisionism to justify destroying our Board. Their most often used piece of historical revisionism is the claim that our Board was imposed on farmers under the War Measures Act to provide cheap grain to Britain. This claim is simply wrong and it is not supported by any peer-reviewed academic histories about that time. Nor is it supported by common sense.
A very brief history lesson about our Wheat Board is obviously needed and any good history lesson starts with how things were.
The Conservatives removed the first single desk CWB in August 1920. The decline in revenue from overseas markets created a flood of Canadian grain into the United States. To protect their own farmers the US closed its border to Canadian grain and cattle in May of 1921.
By 1923 Canadian farmers used their Wheat Pools to set up a Central Selling Agency (CSA). They also defeated every Conservative MP in the west in 1921 and lobbied for the return of the single desk Wheat Board. Their CSA was bankrupted by the 1929 financial crash.
By 1935 times were so desperate Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, from Calgary, finally listened to farmers and passed the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Farmers had lobbied for a single-desk but Prime Minister Bennett gave in to the private grain trade and did not proclaim the single-desk even though it was part of the act. Ottawa also underwrote the costs of the voluntary CWB’s operations.
In 1939 there were several years of wheat production sitting in storage on the prairies because of the great depression. When war broke out, our major markets in Britain and Europe vanished.
Anyone with a basic grasp of economics will not be surprised to learn that the voluntary Wheat Board was as vulnerable to the boom-bust cycle of grain prices as the previous CSA had been. When spot prices were high the private trade got all the grain, and when prices tumbled, the Board was left selling into a depressed market. The details of how the Federal government and the private trade attempted to sabotage our Board makes for interesting reading. Essentially Ottawa prevented the CWB from selling any new wheat for the 1936 to 1937-38 crop years by setting the initial price artificially low.
The Mackenzie King government was finally forced by farmers to set a realistic price of 80 cents a bushel in July 1938. The fall of 1938 saw bumper crops in Canada and Europe. High production made prices plunge and farmers delivered almost 300 million bushels to the Wheat Board. With war and domestic unrest looming, King instructed the Board to sell it as fast as farmers delivered. The resulting losses cost Ottawa almost 10% of its budget. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Alberta Wheat Pool estimated ~300 million bushels of wheat were stored on the prairies. That huge carry-over stock grew during the war and kept prices depressed.
Farmers continued pushing for the federal government to take the last step and proclaim the single desk which MacKenzie King’s government finally did in 1943, a little over 22 years after farmers lost their first Wheat Board in 1920. The main policy concerns from Ottawa were that farmers would simply stop producing grain if prices stayed low and the unsustainable financial haemorrhaging caused by Ottawa effectively underwriting financial speculation by the private grain trade under a voluntary Board. With no end to the war in sight and a US crop failure, the King government was finally forced to declare the single desk. The initial price for the single desk CWB was set at $1.25 per bushel, five cents above the open market. The move was supported by all the Wheat Pools and every major farm group in the west.
The single desk finally gave farmers full control over their grain from the farm gate to the customer. Unsurprisingly, the Wheat Board ran much better once the single-desk was proclaimed since it could then regulate the supply of grain to mitigate the boom-bust cycle of grain prices and could deal directly with customers.
To stabilize prices for farmers, Canada opted for an orderly marketing system while the United States opted to restrict and control the acreage devoted to wheat. Today the US and EU use a combination of export incentives, and direct and indirect acreage controls to stabilize prices for their farmers.
It was not only across the prairies that the single-desk Wheat Board had huge support. The original legislation required that Parliament vote to renew the Wheat Board’s mandate every few years which it did until it voted to make the Wheat Board permanent. 1947 was the only time Parliament did not unanimously support the Wheat Board and those MPs who voted against the Wheat Board were all from Ontario or Quebec. Every prairie MP, no matter their political affiliation, always voted to renew the Wheat Board’s mandate.
Farmers still have control over our grain today but the Harper Conservatives want to deny our democratic vote to keep our Wheat Board and give control of our grain back to the private trade.
Ultimately, the Harper Conservatives historical revisionism and propaganda against farmers and our Wheat Board demonstrates both their ideological foundations and the complete lack of evidence to support their position that farmers and their communities will be better off without the single desk.
This blog is a bit longer today because historical revisionism has proven to be such a dangerous political tool that it needs to be confronted. In the past, re-writing history to support a particular cause has inevitably led to attacks against those who do not support that cause. In the minds of those using revisionism it also justifies violent language and bullying tactics. After all, if history is on your side, why not “run over” those who oppose you as the Prime Minister has said or “blow out” our democratic organization as the Agriculture Minister has said?
At the best, these are the words of people who do not understand that undermining civil discourse and ultimately the democracy which depends upon it is neither a good idea nor good leadership.