With their appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada rejected, the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board (FCWB) are vowing to continue with a class-action lawsuit, their last remaining legal avenue for challenging the federal government’s decision to end the board’s monopoly last year.
The Supreme Court has refused to hear appeals of the eight former directors and the FCWB. The decision released Jan. 17 ends the effort to reinstate a lower court ruling that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz broke the law when he introduced the Marketing Freedom Act for Grain Farmers to Parliament. That ruling was later overturned on appeal.
Calling the Supreme Court decision not to consider their appeal a disappointment, Saskatchewan farmer and former elected director Stewart Wells said their fight will continue in civil court.
The FCWB, with the support of the former directors, has started a class-action lawsuit arguing the government should either restore the wheat board’s single-desk marketing powers for western Canadian wheat and barley destined for export or domestic human consumption, or pay an estimated 70,000 farmers $17 billion in compensation.
The suit also argues farmers paid for wheat board operations and therefore own the board’s assets, including 3,400 hopper cars, an office building in downtown Winnipeg, which is now for sale, two lakers to be launched next year and the $150 million to $200 million in contingency funds.
Wells acknowledged a favourable Supreme Court ruling would have bolstered the FCWB’s suit.
“It’s not helpful not winning at the Supreme Court but it’s not fatal,” he said, noting the Supreme Court case was about the process used to end the board’s single desk, while the class-action suit focuses on financial losses to farmers.
The single desk provides western grain farmers with between $630 million and $850 million in additional revenue annually, according to Wells.
Ritz and farm groups that had pushed for the change were pleased by the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We are pleased with today’s decision that upheld the right of western Canadian grain farmers to make their own business decisions,” Ritz said in a statement last week. “The overwhelming majority of Prairie grain farmers are already taking advantage of the benefits of an open market.”
Asked if he felt vindicated, Ritz said it was never about vindication but about giving farmers the right to market their own grain.
“All the plague and pestilence and the sky falling that was predicted certainly did not happen,” he said.
Wells still argues Ottawa broke the law. In 1998 the then Liberal government was clear future changes to the wheat board should be up to farmers, he said.
The Conservative party promised to end the monopoly and has done so, Ritz said. “Looking back I don’t think we would’ve done anything differently. I think we had the right and the responsibility as parliamentarians and a government to move forward.”
“Democracy is about having your say not necessarily having your way,” he added.