A historian says there was strong support for a mandatory board

By Allan Dawson
Manitoba Cooperator
October 20, 2011

Regardless of how western farmers feel about the Canadian Wheat Board’s (CWB) single desk today, the vast majority strongly supported it when it was created in 1943 and for years after, says Duke University history professor, John Herd Thompson.

The Manitoba-born academic accuses Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz of trying to rewrite history by claiming otherwise. “It’s completely inaccurate,” Thompson said in a recent interview.  “It’s a fabrication.”

In a recent letter to the editor, Ritz said by bringing in legislation to end the single desk, farmers will get their wish to be rid of the board’s monopoly 68 years after it was “imposed” on them.  “Ritz’s letter suggests either its author’s absolute ignorance of the history of the CWB or deliberate falsification of the historical record in the service of an ideological objective,” Thompson said in an email.

Western farmers had been lobbying for a monopoly wheat board since 1919, following the success of a short-lived board created to deal with wheat speculation near the end of the First World War. “The first Canadian Wheat Board was a striking success,” Thompson wrote in a 1998 paper on the board’s history. So successful that when farmers couldn’t convince the federal government to bring it back they created a voluntary board, through the Prairie Pools.

Political suicide

A dramatic drop in world wheat prices and the Great Depression bankrupted the Pools, forcing Ottawa to create the wheat board in 1935 to dispose of millions of bushels of wheat in an “orderly” way.  Originally Prime Minister R.B. Bennett planned to give farmers the monopoly board they demanded, but relented due to pressure from the Liberal opposition and private grain trade.

The next Prime Minister, Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King, wanted to kill the board, but there was too much support for it.  It “will cost us many seats in Western Canada… it will be a sort of suicide to proceed with it,” King wrote in his diary.

Thompson said King reluctantly created the single desk because operating the board in an open market was costing Ottawa too much money — farmers only delivered in a falling market when the initial payment was higher than the cash price. The government also feared not being able to meet its wartime commitment to supply England with wheat following a poor crop in the United States.

He said the Prairie Pools hailed the move as “a complete vindication of the attitude of the organized farmers,” and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture similarly voted its approval. Farmers continued to support the single desk after the war ended. In 1951 Manitoba farmers voted 89 per cent in favour of adding of oats and barley to the board.

The board’s mandate was renewed by Parliament in 1950, 1953, 1957 and 1962, without a single vote in opposition.

Bad book

Thompson said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visceral disdain for the wheat board stems from misinformation in Don Baron’s book Canada’s Great Grain Robbery.  He said the book claims the board’s creation was a communist plot to enslave Prairie grain farmers.

“I’m sad that it’s (the board) gone,” Thompson said.  “I think it made a difference. It was an effective way to market Canada’s wheat. In the United States the government massively subsidizes grain farmers in a different way. This was a way Canada could afford and a way I don’t think hurt any grain farmer.”  But he noted that the Conservatives won overwhelmingly in most of the seats where the wheat board farmers are located.  “To put it into Canadian terms, what can you do eh?”