Back in 2009, when the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board was still just a twinkle in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s eye, work started on a $200-million US grain-handling terminal in the port of Longview, Wash., just south of the Canadian border.
The companies behind the project – which, significantly, will be capable of loading about 200 grain ships a year – are Bunge Ltd. (the giant “Bermudian” agricultural and food products corporation with its real headquarters in White Plains, N.Y.), Japan’s Itochu Corp. and South Korea’s STX Pan Ocean Co.
Fast-forward to the present and the giant Longview grain shipping facility is open for business, Mr. Harper’s dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board as an effective marketing agency for Western Canadian grain farmers is all but complete, and the West Coast Port of Vancouver is happily burbling along on the assumption it will continue to handle about 250 shiploads of CWB grain a year as it does now.
Vancouver’s not alone in this, by the way. About 350,000 grain cars controlled by the Canadian Wheat Board shipped grain not just to Vancouver, but Prince Rupert, B.C., Churchill, Man., and Montreal, Quebec City and Trois-Rivières via the Lakehead.
But will nothing change? As is so often the case with Mr. Harper’s economic export schemes, it’s our economy that ends up getting exported. In this case, what’s good for the U.S.A., Japan and South Korea (and China and Bermuda too, presumably) doesn’t necessarily offer very much to British Columbia or the Prairies.
If we think about it at all, city folks in Vancouver and elsewhere tend to see the fight over the Canadian Wheat Board as an internecine battle among Canadian grain farmers – with those in geographical locations that forced them to rely on the Wheat Board to fetch a good price for their product abroad opposing the Tories’ program, and those adjacent to the U.S. border who saw an advantage in not being restricted by the Wheat Board’s rules supporting it.
The latter group allied themselves with the Harper Government, which mouths market fundamentalist platitudes at every opportunity. Arguably, however, if the government of Canada adopts policies like this one, what it’s really doing is putting economic power into the hands of major corporations and delivering Canadian farmers into the hands of these often-foreign corporate entities.
Most Western grain farmers are not likely to benefit much as the centre of gravity in grain marketing shifts from the Wheat Board to corporations like Bunge and Cargill, but most urban Canadians are not likely to get exercised about it if Canada’s rural population keeps voting Conservative regardless and city folks don’t see any obvious impact on their lives.
Even some of the farmers who now support their “liberation” from the “tyranny” of the Wheat Board will come to regret their enthusiasm, it is said here.
But face it, we’re not likely to know very quickly if the declining quality of our bread, pasta and beer is tied to the import of low-quality grain from elsewhere, another likely impact of the demise of the Wheat Board. After all, it’s been plausibly argued that the end of the Board means it’s much less likely there will be high-quality Canadian grain in Canadian-made products like these as corporate food processors go for the cheapest source – even if it happens to be grain from Ukraine that glows in the dark.
And most of us will likely never make the connection when we’re required to shell out more taxes to support beleaguered farmers through other means, at least enough to keep them voting Tory – plus, of course, to offer big tax breaks to multinational “agri-food” corporations.
But maybe British Columbians at least will figure out the connection between lost jobs on the West Coast and the end of the Wheat Board’s single desk. This will happen because the Board will no longer be able to direct Canadian wheat along Canadian rail lines to Canadian ports, as it has done for years.
In addition to the grain terminal at Longview, Legumex Walker Inc. is also building a $110-million US canola exporting operation in Warden, Wash., which will likely also eliminate a few more Canadian jobs.
There’s nothing the Wheat Board could have done about that, of course, since it never handled oilseeds. Still, this development does suggest the claim that, if only the single-desk were shut down, Canadian companies would start adding value to Canadian produce at plants right here in Canada, is baloney.
Back in Longview, meanwhile, which will certainly contribute to a loss of good unionized jobs in Vancouver, Bunge has engaged in a protracted fight with union workers in the port – almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.
According to the market fundamentalist philosophy that prevails among the Harper Conservatives, however, this is all as it should be – indeed, we’re being “greedy” and anti-free trade if we suggest Canadian work should stay in Canada.
Corporate donations roll in to pay for the slick ads needed to attack parties and politicians that might go to bat for Canadian farmers, working people and economic development.
As for those British Columbians who notice this, if they want economic benefits, they’ll just have to learn to live with a bitumen pipeline or two.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.