“…when our case goes to court and the judge agrees with us the only remedy for the judge is to overturn the election…”
– Stewart Wells
Nineteen farmers are running for five Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) directors’ positions this fall in an election many believe will be the most important since CWB governance was changed in 1998.
The mandate and perhaps the very existence of the CWB hangs in the balance as farmers vote in Districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10.
But there’s confusion over who is and who should be on the voters’ list, there’s controversy over the form used to get on the list, and a court case pending that could result in the election results being thrown out and another election called.
Farmers are being advised to check with the Canadian Wheat Board election co-ordinator before Nov. 14 to determine whether they are on the list of eligible voters.
All farmers are eligible to vote if they have land in an even-numbered CWB district and during the 2007-08 or 2008-09 crop year produced one or more of the following crops: wheat, oats, barley, rye, flax, rapeseed or canola. (Landlords, vendors or mortgagees entitled to a share of those crops are also eligible to vote.)
But some eligible farmers will have to apply for a ballot if they want to vote. Only farmers with CWB permit books who delivered grain to the CWB during this and the last crop year will automatically receive a ballot in the mail following a controversial move by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz earlier this year.
Last month the Federal Court rejected the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board’s (FCWB) request for an expedited hearing into whether Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz illegally removed thousands of farmers from the voters’ list.
Federal Court judge James W. O’Reilly granted FCWB a judicial review into allegations Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz illegally instructed the wheat board to remove farmers from the CWB election voters’ list.
However, O’Reilly turned down the group’s request for an expedited hearing into the charges and rejected a request to put the altered list on hold pending the outcome of the judicial review.
Stewart Wells, president of the National Farmers Union and member of the FCWB said that means potentially thousands of farmers won’t receive the ballots to which they are legally entitled.
The coalition of farmers and citizens in support of a farmer-controlled CWB accuses Ritz of manipulating the voters’ list so fewer CWB supporters vote, making it easier for candidates that support an open market to be elected.
Farmers on the voters’ list automatically get a ballot and Ritz has sent letters to farmers, many of whom don’t have permit books and are anti-CWB, telling them how to get a ballot, Wells said.
“The people I’m most worried about are the people most directly affected who have permit books, by law should have had a ballot and have been cut out of the loop and nobody is making any attempt to talk to them,” Wells said.
CWB spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry says the CWB and the election co-ordinator will issue press releases and step up advertising to make farmers aware that they need to check the voters’ list and might have to apply for a ballot. But the CWB will not notify one specific group of potential voters, she said.
“We have an obligation to treat all the potential voters in the same way,” Fitzhenry said.
This year’s elections are potentially a crucial turning point for the board.
Currently eight of the 10 farmer-elected directors support retaining single desk selling at the 15-seat board table. At least four of the five federally appointed directors back its open market agenda. If open market candidates are elected in two of the five districts, the balance of power shifts.
In southwestern Alberta’s District 2, currently held by James Chatenay, a Penhold, Alta. farmer and long-time “marketing choice” advocate, two candidates are running to replace him:
Olds, Alta. farmer Jeff Nielsen, a former farmer-director with UGG and Agricore United and now president of the Western Barley Growers Association; and
Gerald Pilger of Ohaton, Alta., a full-time farmer and farm writer for publications including Grainews and Country Guide.
District 4, which straddles east-central Alberta and west-central Saskatchewan, is currently held by Ritter, a Kindersley, Sask. farmer and the board’s chairman until March this year. This year’s three candidates are:
Sam Magnus of Luseland, Sask., who helped found North West Terminal at Unity, Sask., and is also a former member of the national councils of the federal Reform/Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties;
Walter Suntjens, a grain farmer and cattle producer from Hanna, Alta., delegate to Alberta Beef Producers and acting chairman of Chinook Applied Research Association; and
Bill Woods, a grain farmer from Eston, Sask. and founding member and current director of the West Central Road and Rail producer car loading organization.
In Saskatchewan, District 8 incumbent Rod Flaman has four challengers; two support the single desk, as he does, and two want an open market.
In Manitoba’s District 10, incumbent Bill Toews, a single desk advocate, faces three staunch open market advocates – Rolf Penner, Curtis Sims and Barry Reimer, plus Harvey Vaags who wants more marketing flexibility without threatening the CWB’s viability.