Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Why Should I Sell Your Wheat?

On July 17, 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau met with grain farmers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and in the course of his speech asked the question "Why should I sell your wheat?" Trudeau's question was rhetorical. Trudeau immediately went on to offer a spirited defence of the federal government's role in the marketing of Canadian wheat through the Canadian Wheat Board. However, his rhetorical question was almost immediately taken out of context by the media and by his political opponents. They managed to turn a defence of supporting the work of farmers through Canada's wheat marketing system into an arrogant rejection of the concerns of farmers - basically they quoted only the question without the answer, and without even mentioning that there was an answer. That successful (if totally untruthful) spin on Trudeau's intent was one of the prime factors in the West's almost complete rejection of both Trudeau and the Liberal Party - a situation that exists to this day.

Now, fast forward a little more than 32 years.

Earlier this year, a majority of both wheat and barley farmers who voted in a plebiscite voted  to maintain the role of the Canadian Wheat Board as the only marketer of Canadian grain - the very thing that Trudeau had so spiritedly defended in front of the same farmers in 1969, but that others had spun against him. After the plebiscite, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper announced that - majority vote or not - it's going ahead with a plan to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly. Harper has, in other words, arrogantly dismissed the expressed views of the majority of the affected farmers in order to further his own ideological agenda. Essentially he's now the one asking the question "why should I sell your wheat?" The difference is that in his case, it's not rhetorical. He's simply ignoring the democratically expressed views of the farmers affected. In Regina, Saskatchewan on October 7, 2011, Stephen Harper said "It's time for the Wheat Board and others who have been standing in the way to realize that this train is barreling down a Prairie track. You're much better to get on it than to lie on the tracks because this is going ahead." Now, to me that not only sounds arrogant - it sounds like a threat! "Get on board with our plan - or else you're gonna be hurt!" seems to be the message.

There's a huge historical irony here. Trudeau defended the Wheat Board and was accused of arrogance toward farmers who wanted the Wheat Board. Harper is fighting an ideological battle against the very thing that farmers have said they still want and there's very little outrage being expressed about his arrogance.

I don't claim to be any sort of authority on the question of grain marketing. I've never lived on a farm in my life. But I recognize historical irony when I see it. Why is no one condemning Harper for something he is insistent on doing even though the farmers don't want him to do it, when everyone condemned Trudeau even though he supported the farmers and didn't do what Harper is now doing? Who really was more sympathetic and responsive to the concerns and opinions of western Canadian grain farmers: the Quebecker Trudeau, or the Albertan Harper? The answer is Trudeau. Interesting and ironic stuff!

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