The current iteration of the Canadian Wheat Board was established in 1935, during a period of regional emergency. Prairie farmers struggled amidst the difficult circumstances created by the twin crises of widespread agricultural drought and the Great Depression. The authority of the Wheat Board was expanded during World War II. In 1965, the Board’s governing legislation was amended to remove any time limit, establishing the Wheat Board as a permanent fixture on the Canadian Prairies.
Permanent until now, that is. Through Bill C-18, which gained assent 15 December 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eliminated the Wheat Board’s monopsony as the sole buyer of Canadian prairie grain. Those who think like Prime Minister Harper see economic freedom in this move; others fear the elimination of what they see as the advantages the Board offered to Prairie farmers.
While the legislation governing the Board has been amended over the years, the major principles governing its operation have endured through seven decades. As a drastic transformation of the agency takes place, it is perhaps appropriate to review some of the changes in prairie agriculture that have occurred during the agency’s tenure.
The difficulties of the 1930s were a final illustration of some of the mistakes made in the period of prairie settlement, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Land had been occupied without adequate consideration of its environmental characteristics, and inappropriate agricultural techniques were widespread. On the Canadian Prairies as elsewhere, the conclusion of World War II saw the application of wartime technologies to peacetime pursuits. While the era of industrial agriculture started decades earlier, it was the post-war years that brought the large-scale adoption of new agricultural machinery. Tractors, trucks, and combines became more common, with numbers increasing at a great rate in the period immediately following the war. At the same time, chemicals became more widely available for agricultural purposes, with many prairie farmers adopting pesticides and herbicides with enthusiasm. After decades of expanding in geographical extent, from the mid-20th century onward, prairie agriculture was changing in character.
A key change was an expansion in the size of farms and a corresponding drop in their number. Fewer farms meant fewer people, as the rural landscape of the prairies became less populous. At the same time, prairie economies were diversifying, even while extractive industries remained key economic motors. Each prairie province found its own path through these changes, with distinctions in political character and economic orientation becoming more pronounced. Indeed, it became more difficult, in this period, to speak in any meaningful way of the prairies as a coherent region.
The prairies of 2012 are quite different from the prairies of 1935. But these changes do not explain the movement to transform the Canadian Wheat Board. Understanding the motivations of those who think like Prime Minister Harper requires reference to another series of events. Explaining the impending transformation of the Wheat Board means paying attention to the rise of neo-liberal economic thinking in Britain and the United States. Neo-liberalism is a political ideology that emphasizes deregulation of the financial sector, retrenchment of the state through privatization, and constraints on the labour movement. It is associated with the leaderships of Margarent Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States. The Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988 and the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 were Canadian policies in some ways in tune with neoliberalism. Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein (in power from 1992 to 2006) was among the first Canadian politicians in power to wholeheartedly embrace neoliberalism. Over the past 25 years, neo-liberal ideology has come to seem like commonsense to some in Canada. This has laid the groundwork for an assessment of the Canadian Wheat Board as an intolerable incursion on the economic freedom of prairie farmers.
Over the past seven decades, much has changed on the Canadian prairies. Understanding the transformation of the Canadian Wheat Board, however, means looking beyond the borders of the Prairie Provinces, indeed, even outside the Canadian nation. It is in the context of this wider history that it becomes possible to understand the short title of Bill C-18, the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act. The Conservative government is here invoking a particular neo-liberal vision of freedom, one that bolsters the individual’s ability to choose at the expense of the community’s capacity to achieve collective gains. Prime Minister Harper’s actions amount to the wholesale application of the international economic logic of neo-liberalism to agriculture on the Canadian prairies. After decades of dramatic regional transformation, this may prove to be the biggest change yet.