OTTAWA — Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin on Tuesday accused the federal agriculture minister of "losing his freaking mind" as rumours swirled the Canadian Wheat Board will be acquired by an American food-processing giant for nothing.
During question period, Martin stood up hoping Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz might shed some light on rumours the CWB and the government are close to finalizing negotiations with Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland to acquire the CWB. The expected deal is an unusual one that would see ADM keep the money it would have spent on the CWB and use it instead to invest back into the company.
"Mr. Speaker, let us see if I understand the Conservatives' business plan for the Canadian Wheat Board," Martin said. "First, they take the largest and most successful grain-marketing company in the world and then they give it away, free of charge, to an American agri-food giant which, until recently, was their greatest competitor. My question is simple, and I ask it through you, Mr. Speaker. Has the minister lost his freaking mind?"
Ritz didn't have to answer Martin's question because Speaker Andrew Scheer cut the exchange off, saying Martin's remark was "extremely unhelpful" and moved on to the next question.
Martin told the Free Press later Tuesday Scheer's move surprised him, but he shrugged it off. He said giving away the assets of an entity that was built by farmers is unconscionable.
"It's appalling, really."
The CWB, Ritz and Archer Daniels Midland have not confirmed any specific deal is in the works. Ritz told the House of Commons agriculture committee last week there was a short list of companies still in the running to partner with the CWB as it prepares for privatization.
"This is not a privatization as much as it's a capitalization," he said last week. "They're looking for a working partner."
In a statement to the Free Press Tuesday, Ritz said the process is not a political one.
"While the NDP want to ignore farmers and bring back the antiquated single desk, our government, along with Canadian farmers, is looking to the future," he said. "The CWB is not being sold — it is working to continue as a viable marketing option for Canadian farmers by partnering with a strategic investor."
The CWB changed fundamentally two years ago when the government made good on a longtime promise to end the CWB monopoly on Prairie wheat and barley sales. It is currently operating under an interim operations act, which allows it to continue marketing grain on a voluntary basis, backed by government borrowing and initial-payment guarantees. It has until 2016 to provide a commercialization plan and until Aug. 1, 2017 to be privatized or it will be dissolved.
A Saskatchewan-led plan to create a farmer-owned entity to acquire the CWB was rejected by the CWB board last month without giving a reason. There was speculation when that bid was denied that Archer Daniels Midland had already been chosen.
The Winnipeg-based CWB is a fraction of its former self, with less than a quarter of the staff. How much grain it is selling, how many farmers are still using the board and how much money is involved is anyone's guess since the company's financials have not been made public since the monopoly ended.