Case underway: Farmers ask judge to suspend CWB law

A Manitoba judge questioned on Tuesday whether he, and not another court, should rule on whether to suspend a law that will end the Canadian Wheat Board’s grain monopoly.

The case, brought by eight farmers who were directors of the board until Ottawa took control last month, is one of the final attempts to save the world’s last major grain monopoly.

A Conservative government bill to end the CWB’s marketing monopoly on western wheat and barley became law in December, and the board’s former directors are seeking to have it struck down on the grounds that proper procedures were not followed.

If a court grants their request, the law would be suspended until another court rules on whether the law is valid.

The former directors’ case leans heavily on a Federal Court ruling in December that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz breached existing law by not consulting with the board or holding a farmer vote before introducing the legislation.

For that reason, it might be appropriate for the same federal judge to consider whether to suspend the new CWB law, said Judge Shane Perlmutter of Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench.

"Why not go back to the original judge?" he asked lawyer Colin MacArthur, representing the directors.

MacArthur told the judge that he must honor the first ruling.

Farmers in Western Canada have been required by law since 1943 to sell wheat and barley for milling or export to the Wheat Board. The new law takes effect in August, allowing farmers to sell to whomever they choose, but grain handlers, millers and farmers are already signing contracts to deliver crops after the monopoly is gone.

Even so, legal entanglements have left the industry cautious about signing contracts and many are watching the court case for clarity that the law will stand. In mid-December, the same Manitoba judge rejected the farmers’ request for an immediate suspension of the law, but set this hearing to hear lawyers’ arguments.

The former directors say their case, which continued Tuesday afternoon, is pressing because farmers and grain companies are making deals under a law that may not be valid.

"It’s urgent because forward contracts are being written and it may be difficult to turn back the clock," said Allen Oberg, an Alberta farmer and the former CWB chairman, outside court.

The CWB began downsizing Monday, laying off 23 employees, with more job cuts to come in the coming months, said spokeswoman Maureen Fitzhenry.

The case is before Manitoba’s court because the former directors want the law suspended as quickly as possible and because they were concerned a federal court might not have jurisdiction, Oberg said.

While the Federal Court ruled in December that the agriculture minister had failed to follow the old law, it did not stop the new law from taking effect. The government has appealed.

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