(December 12, 2017)  Over the past months the Canadian media has been filled with stories characterizing trade with China as either a golden opportunity or a blind walk into a totalitarian trap.  There is the offensive smell of long standing racism mixed with the patronizing greed that has characterized most western relations with the Middle Kingdom for centuries.

In this country we lack a deep sense of our own history.  Add in a lamentable lack of Canadian academics who actually work on Canadian history and you have a formula for the forgetfulness now on display about trade with China.  The neglect of that history has contributed to the mess facing Canada-China relations today.

After the Korean war America led a boycott and food embargo against China which the grain farmers of western Canada defied.  That food embargo caused wide-spread starvation in China.  You would not know it from the current crop of politicians and commentators, but Canada, or at least western Canada, started developing a mutually respectful trading relationship with China when the CWB ignored the American-led embargo and sold almost four million bushels of wheat to China in 1958.  Then the CWB signed a three year agreement with China in 1960.

Paul Babey FUA President

The American embargo and their pressure on Canada to stop selling grain to China were offensive to Paul Babey, the leader of the Farmers’ Union of Alberta and most of its province-wide membership.  As a young boy I can remember the FUA local members meeting in our family dining room to discuss and ultimately pass a motion to support sending a new trade delegation to Mao’s China to negotiate grain, food, and machinery sales to that starving and recently war-torn land.

The next year Babey and a delegation including the heads of the Prairie Wheat Pool Cooperatives and the Canadian Wheat Board went to China with the blessing of John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government.  They promptly enraged the Americans by signing another sales agreement with China for prairie grain.  That was in 1964 and since then China was one of the Canadian Wheat Board’s most reliable customers – so much so that the CWB developed a full time office in Beijing.

Unfortunately this relationship of mutual trust was destroyed in 2011 when the Harper Conservatives destroyed the Canadian Wheat Board.  China was effectively told by the Harper government to go to the much-disliked private American grain trade to secure its supplies of Canadian grown grain.  As was said here before, “For the Chinese this will represent a betrayal of trust by their Canadian counterparts that they will not soon forget.”

Adding insult to injury, last year when China asked for the same purity standards for Canadian canola as they were accustomed to being guaranteed on Canadian wheat our Prime Minister further insulted them when he took the side of the big foreign grain companies by insisting Chinese expectations were unscientific.

Former Wheat Board staff familiar with trading in Asia – both China and Japan were long standing premium customers – told this writer and many others the key to trading in China was establishing a relationship of trust and respect.

The Prime Minister’s insulting insistence on establishing a one-size fits all free trade agreement with China is simply another example of what I’m sure many in China and elsewhere will see as an arrogant and historically ignorant approach.

Some years ago, the farmer-led CWB pointed out that bi-lateral agreements, modelled on its long experience in China, other Asian countries, the Middle East, and Russia were the much-preferred route for a country like Canada where relationships of mutual trust and understanding were established.

Our good relationship with China is gone now.  Once the Harper Conservatives killed the Canadian Wheat Board, the Chinese government agency China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) transformed itself from a reliable customer for Canadian grain into a major international grain trader.  Within less than three years COFCO shook up the structure of the international grain trade for the first time in over 100 years by becoming the third largest grain trader in the world.

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COFCO changed into a very strong player in the international grain trade for the simple reason that China will never again allow its food security to be threatened by the US-dominated private grain trade.

Ottawa still has the chance to rebuild the relationship with China by re-establishing a farmer-controlled Canadian Wheat Board.  Aside from restoring the full value of Canadian grain to the prairie farmers who produce it, the restored CWB could salvage the relationship it built with China over the 48 years after the Farmers Union of Alberta and the CWB first demonstrated the honesty, quality assurance, and reliability Canadian grain became known for.

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