Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz remained defiant after a Federal Court judge declared he broke the law by introducing a bill to remove the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly without consulting the board or holding a Prairie farm plebiscite.
The ruling was issued Wednesday by Justice Douglas Campbell of the Federal Court of Canada.
Campbell wrote: "Generally speaking, when advancing a significant change to an established management scheme, the failure to provide a meaningful opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard and accommodated forces resort to legal means to have them heard….Had a meaningful consultative process been engage to find a solution which meets the concerns of the majority, the present legal action might not have been necessary."
Following the ruling, Ritz said the government would appeal.
"Let me be clear, we will never reconsider western wheat and barley farmers' fundamental right to market their own wheat and barley. Not only is our government convinced that we have the right to change legislation, we have the responsibility to deliver on our promises and give farmers in Western Canada the right to market their own grain," said Ritz.
"The Parliament of Canada alone has the supremacy to enact, amend or repeal any piece of legislation."
The Tories passed Bill C-18 in the House of Commons and it is now before the Senate.
The legislation, if passed, would enable the government to dismantle the CWB single desk for western Canadian wheat and barley, without first having held a producer plebiscite as required under Section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act.
On Tuesday, the judge heard more than six hours of arguments in Winnipeg from the federal government, the wheat board, a group called Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board and two interveners.
Ritz's stance drew quick criticism from the board and political opponents, who called on him to respect the court decision.
Former Liberal agriculture minister Ralph Goodale, who wrote section 47.1, said "the court did not mince words."
"They said clearly and unequivocally, repeatedly throughout the judgment, that the way the minister of agriculture has behaved in dealing with the Canadian Wheat Board and the Canadian Wheat Board Act is an affront to rule of law," said the Regina MP.
Goodale said Ritz's stance puts the Senate in an awkward position as a standing committee holds talks on the bill.
"And furthermore, it could put the governor general in the absolutely preposterous position of signing into law something that is illegal," he said.
Pat Martin, the NDP critic for the Canadian Wheat Board, said the government should "put the brakes" on the bill if it has "any respect whatsoever for the parliamentary process."
He didn't know if the government could legally proceed.
"They've demonstrated throughout their mandate that they'll do whatever they damn well please whenever they damn well please, regardless of what the law says. I mean if they're willing to break the law to fulfil this ideological free market flight of fancy, then I have no doubt that they are willing to defy this court order," said Martin.
Board director Stewart Wells said the Tories created a mess for themselves. He couldn't say what might happen next.
"The courts are always reluctant to try to tell the government what to do, but any responsible government would be ashamed and just wouldn't forge ahead with the notion that it's broken the law and it's proud of it," said Wells.
"They have ample time to go back, follow the law, let the farmers affected vote on the changes that they're considering."
The chairman of the wheat board’s farmer-controlled board of directors also called on Ottawa to respect the court decision.
"We call on Minister Ritz to comply with the spirit of this ruling and immediately cease actions that would strip away Prairie farmers’ single-desk marketing system without first allowing a vote by affected producers," Allen Oberg said from Ottawa, where he is preparing to address a Senate committee Thursday, asking senators to halt passage of Bill C-18.
Oberg said farmers should have the final say over changes to their grain marketing agency.
"As farmers, we pay for the CWB, we run it and we should decide what happens to it. We are pleased the court has agreed that the minister acted in violation of laws created in 1998 to empower farmers and give them a direct say in any changes contemplated to the CWB’s marketing mandate. In light of this ruling, the government should stop steamrolling over farmers’ democratic rights.
"The minister now needs to do the right thing, obey the law and hold a vote — as he should have done from the beginning."
Oberg said the court ruling brings additional impetus for senators to reject the bill.
Blair Rutter, executive director of the pro-open market Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said Ritz must forge ahead with the bill.
"I think what’s important to note is that (the court ruling) has no impact on the legislation or the implementation of an open market in August of 2012."
The board was set up following the Great Depression to help Prairie farmers band together and seek higher prices.
According to the board's website, it arranges for transportation from thousands of farms to customers in 70 countries. About 21 million tonnes of wheat and barley are marketed by the CWB each year.
Supporters say the single desk prevents producers from competing against each other for sales. But opponents say they want the freedom to seek better deals on the open market. They point out that producers of other grains and wheat farmers in other parts of Canada already have that freedom.
Ritz said the government is working with farmers and their organizations to "ensure an orderly transition to market freedom."
The government has said the CWB’s wheat and barley sales monopoly will end Aug. 1, 2012.
— with files from The Canadian Press