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Federal judge unties gag on CWB

In deciding how or if the Canadian Wheat Board should promote single-desk marketing of Prairie wheat and barley, the buck stops with CWB directors, not with the federal minister responsible, a federal court judge ruled Thursday.

Federal Court Justice Roger Hughes of Winnipeg ruled that an October 2006 order-in-council, issued by then-federal ag minister Chuck Strahl to prevent the CWB from spending on advocacy for its single desk, “acted contrary to law,” the CWB said in a release Friday.

Providing the CWB with “a board of directors, 10 of 15 of whom are elected by the producers, places the duty to safeguard the producers’ interests with the board, not the minister,” Hughes ruled, according to the CWB.

At a time when there’s “extensive public debate” about the future of the CWB, it’s important that farmers have access to as much information as possible about the purpose, role and value of their marketing organization, as well as the realistic scenarios for its future, said CWB chairman Larry Hill in the board’s release.

“Producers deserve the benefit of a free and open debate,” said Hill, an elected director who farms near Swift Current, Sask. “Instead, while the CWB has been silenced on this issue, others have continued to actively promote their own positions.”

Strahl’s order, commonly referred to as the “gag order,” is “couched in terms of expenditure of funds, however nowhere in the record is there any evidence that genuine consideration was given to the nature or extent of funds that were in issue or at risk,” Hughes wrote in his ruling, quoted in the CWB’s release.

“It is entirely clear… that the directive is motivated principally to silencing the wheat board in respect of any promotion of a ‘single desk’ policy that it might do,” and if cost were the true concern, the minister’s order should have dealt with promotion both for and against the minister’s preferred position, Hughes ruled.

Might appeal

Current federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who replaced Strahl last August, said in a release Friday that the Conservative government was disappointed in the court’s decision and is “assessing the possibility of an appeal.

“The government maintains that the Canadian Wheat Board must focus all of its efforts on marketing grain for western Canadian farmers rather than using its money to advocate its own agenda,” Ritz said.

Farm groups on separate poles of the single desk debate lined up to cheer or jeer Hughes’ ruling accordingly.

“The Harper government has been wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money through these malicious and illegal actions,” said National Farmers Union president Stewart Wells, who also farms near Swift Current. The government has also cost farmers millions in legal fees by forcing them to go to court to fight for democratic rights and free speech, he said in a release Friday.

“If the court ruling is allowed to stand, it means my money can be used, without my consent, to express and promote a political view that I strongly disagree with,” said Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, president of the pro-deregulation Western Canadian Wheat Growers’ Association, in a release Friday.

“This represents a gross violation of my freedom of expression,” said Jolly-Nagel, who farms at Mossbank, Sask. The group urged the government to appeal, and said in its release that Hughes’ decision “fails to take into account the compulsory nature of the CWB.”

Executive compensation

The CWB noted it had also challenged a government directive ordering the CWB to compensate interim president and CEO Greg Arason at a level set by the federal government. Arason was appointed to the interim post after the government fired previous CEO Adrian Measner in December 2006.

In that case, which was heard concurrently, Hughes ruled this issue to be moot, as Arason has since been paid and is no longer employed by the CWB, the board said Friday in its release. Ian White took over from Arason in March as the board’s CEO.

Ritz, in his release Friday, said “the government is pleased that the court supported our position on the remuneration of interim CWB president Greg Arason.”

Wells, in the NFU’s release, said it was revealed during the federal court hearing that the Conservative federal cabinet had planned to fire Measner at least four months before doing so.

“This was a premeditated career assassination,” Wells said Friday, referring to Measner’s dismissal. “The action forced the CWB to spend considerable farmer money initiating a new CEO search, and continues to see the government stealing farmers’ money directly from the pooling accounts” by forcing the CWB, rather than the government, to pay Measner’s severance, he said.

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