The Battle River Railway could be a victim to Ottawa’s imposition of its idea of liberty
By Roger Epp,

Edmonton Journal,  November 10, 2011

Farmer loading producer car

Last week, Engine 5353 pulled another train of grain cars collected from places like Alliance and Forestburg in the picturesque blue-and-gold landscape of east-central Alberta.  It’s been a spectacular fall for harvest, at least in this part of the prairies; the crop is a good one.  But the mood is nowhere near as sunny as you’d expect.

In about the same short time it takes for those grain cars to arrive at a West Coast terminal, Parliament will pass a government bill to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).  The railroad metaphor is an apt one.  So are the dark clouds on the horizon.  They represent much more than the approach of another winter.

By now, it’s a challenge to say afresh why the debate about the CWB’s future matters to Canadians.  Most people in this very urban country tuned out long ago.  The subject is too complex, too polarized, too “rural-retro;” it seems to matter too much to too few people.  You could fit all of Western Canada’s active grain farmers – even the 80-year-olds – inside three or four of our largest hockey arenas or, indeed, inside a single federal constituency.

That’s not just proof of a significant demographic shift. It also exposes the political red herring that western farmers must be getting what they voted for in the last federal election when the Harper Conservatives made no secret of their intentions with respect to the CWB.  Doubtless, many farmers voted Conservative, others didn’t, and for an assortment of reasons; but the truth is that the shrinking “farm vote” was not decisive outside of one or two prairie constituencies.

For the farmers who own Engine 5353, the track and the sidings alongside it where they load the cars, the CWB is bigger than partisan politics.  It is a lifeline.

The Battle River Railway co-operative began as an inspired antidote to the fatalism that has afflicted so many rural prairie communities.  A half-decade ago the conventional wisdom was simply to accept the inevitable: Canadian National would shut down another “inefficient” branch-line and sell the track for steel; farmers – at least the biggest of them – would absorb the cost of trucking their grain over greater distances; and communities would continue to bleed people and wealth.  That was the market logic.

As the co-operative’s leadership learned, to defy that logic was to encounter financial, regulatory and political obstacles that ought to have exhausted them – the real risk-takers, with $4 million of members’ own money at stake.  The railway was finally cleared to begin operations in late 2010.  In its first year it filled almost 800 cars.  It paid a promised dividend of 3.5 per cent, won awards and good publicity, and encouraged people to imagine what else this important piece of regional infrastructure might support.

“It’s a miracle in this day and age,” says its president.  But the railway’s success, and that of others like it in Saskatchewan, will be short-lived if Parliament strips the CWB not just of its “single desk” monopoly for the marketing of prairie wheat and barley, but also of its authority to ensure access to the grain trade for small players. That includes such things as allocation of grain cars and terminal space to farmer-owned enterprises.  There is no other balancer left in the system.

Needless to say, the Harper government in its postelection haste has shown no interest in contrary arguments and no political need to soften its core ideological instincts on this issue.  The prime minister has had the CWB in his personal sights for a long time.

Bill C-18, the Marketing Freedom of Grain Farmers Act, plays the trump card of “choice” and “freedom.”  For that reason, the government can disregard the clear, consistent majority preference for a single-desk CWB that farmers have expressed in director elections and a recent plebiscite. For that reason, too, though the big international grain companies and the Board itself have made serious economic impact studies, the government is content with recycled ministerial talking-points about innovation and value-added processing. The numbers are irrelevant.

Renata Salecl, author of the acclaimed book, The Tyranny of Choice, argues that “idea that everyone is a maker of his or her own life” not only obscures “the reality of the social situation.” More than that, it “actually pacifies people and makes us constantly turn criticism toward ourselves instead of organizing ourselves and making a critique of the society we live in it.” In other words, if I fail it can only be my failure – not the way in which an economy is structured and the rules are made.

Battle River Railway co-operative members get that. They inherited enough of the idea that their well-being sometimes means working with their neighbours to tilt the landscape in their favour – even if it means countless meetings, building an organization and expertise, dealing with bureaucrats and bankers. That’s old-fashioned economic citizenship.

In the first half of the 20th century, co-operation was the dominant agrarian idea. Wheat pools, dairy co-ops and other collective enterprises were built from scratch and sustained by the first farm generations. Curiously, they called their grain elevators statues of liberty.

Loading producer cars at Alliance

The old co-ops’ relatively rapid disappearance from the landscape is a complex story involving the same cultural shifts and economic forces that have buffeted the rest of us. Two intertwined vocabularies figure prominently in that story. One is the vocabulary of competitiveness, economies of scale, efficiency and inevitability. The other is more seductive: choice, freedom, mobility and opportunity – always the property of individuals alone.

The Battle River Railway embodies a genuine, alternative freedom: that of people doing a new thing together. It is both real and precarious; and Bill C-18 will make it more precarious still. Which is why the language of liberty cannot be left to the self-styled emancipators in Ottawa.  Their defence of choice, paradoxically, will crowd out some of the last, best choices available to prairie grain farmers.

Roger Epp is professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

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