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Monday, June 11th, 2007

Wheat board to ask court for legal opinion on removal of barley monopoly

Canadian Press

WINNIPEG (CP) - The Canadian Wheat Board is filing its own court action against the federal government over the removal of the board's monopoly on western barley sales.

In documents filed Monday, the embittered board asked a Federal Court judge to rule on whether Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl's changes to the way barley is marketed are legal. The legal challenge is about democracy and ensuring the rule of law is followed, said board chairman Ken Ritter.

"You just can't say 'I want to make changes' in a democratic country without following the legal process to get to that point," he told reporters in an afternoon conference call.

"An election platform doesn't become the laws of the country until it's executed in a way that is deemed legal by our democracy."

But Strahl dismissed the challenge as an expensive ploy that will only create uncertainty in a barley market which is on the rise right now.

"I do think it is unfortunate for the farmers who are telling me how eager they are to make money on this," he said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.

"We'll have to defend our position, certainly, and we're confident that we've taken the right route."

Ritter said it's hoped the federal government will co-operate and the application will be heard quickly by the court. Strahl agreed that it is in no one's interest to have a process which is drawn out.

The governing Conservatives have been promising since before they were elected in 2006 that they would give western farmers a choice in how they want to market their wheat and barley. Last week, Strahl announced that the board's monopoly on western Canadian barley sales will end Aug. 1.

The government cites a plebiscite held earlier this year in which 62 per cent of the 29,000 farmers who voted were in favour of ending the monopoly.

But wheat board supporters say the question asked of farmers in the vote was misleading. They argue that any changes made to the board must come through Parliament and not by amending regulations at the cabinet level.

Ritter said the decision to proceed with legal action was not unanimous, but was the wish of a majority of the board's directors.

Strahl added that the monopoly will be removed Aug. 1 regardless of the board's legal challenge.

"She's full speed ahead," Strahl said. "Farmers have already changed how they've been planting and what they've been planting in accordance with these regulations."

The wheat board's legal action is separate from a lawsuit filed against Ottawa by a dozen barley producers who call themselves the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board.

That lawsuit is being supported with $20,000 from the Manitoba NDP government and $30,000 from the NDP government in Saskatchewan.

It's outrageous that the board, whose job it is to pay returns to farmers, would use its own money to initiate a legal process which runs parallel to a suit already filed by private citizens, said Blair Rutter, executive director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, which supports the board's monopoly being removed.

"We don't understand why the wheat board would spend farmers' money launching this legal challenge when there is already one out there," Rutter said.

"That's the real concern here. They are spending farmers' money - our members' money - pursuing a court challenge that we disagree with."

But lawyer Anders Bruun, who acts on behalf of the Friends of the Wheat Board, said the two cases will likely be merged at some point.

"Certainly the court doesn't like to have two similar cases out there where you might get different results from different judges," said Bruun.

"I think it helps. You have two different teams and two different approaches coming at the same problem and that increases the likelihood that you will come up with a successful solution."

- By Tim Cook in Regina

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