The Canadian Wheat Board

The Canadian Wheat Board

A Distinctly Canadian Institution

By George Siamandas

THE PURPOSE OF THE CANADIAN WHEAT BOARD
The Canadian Wheat Board is Canada’s Wheat marketing organization to the world. It is a centralized marketing organization and the only one that can sell Canadian wheat.

Canadian farmers had begun to join into co-operatives at the turn of the century. When they ran into economic difficulties, they asked for assistance from the Canadian govt. A Wheat Board had been established temporarily in 1919 to help deal with problems after WW1 and it was disbanded. During the depression of the 1930s farmers called on the federal govt to help them out of the environmental and economic disaster of the times. The need was acute and widespread with 300,000 farms in Canada at the time.

Farm income had dropped from about $1B in 1927 to 19% of the same amount in the early 1930s. The price of wheat fell to 37 cents, the lowest it had been in 400 years. Newly elected Prime Minister RB Bennett was not initially sympathetic. But in 1931 he relented and appointed John McFarland to head a temporary commission. Once again it was to be an emergency expedient; an unwanted child of its political father. The agency would buy and hold all Canadian wheat for two years.

JOHN I MCFARLAND
McFarland, born in Winnipeg, was a successful millionaire grain trader who had made a fortune with the Alberta Pacific Grain Co., and a good friend of Bennett. While a successful grain man, McFarland was also known for having the interest of the farmer at heart. He would do the job of selling surplus wheat without pay. And Bennett expected that his job would be to help preside over the demise of central marketing. However once into the job, McFarland began to change his views. He could now see the value of the Wheat Board.

On July 5, 1935 the Canadian Wheat Board came into being with McFarland as Chair. In the fall 1935 election Bennett’s govt was defeated and with him McFarland as the first Wheat Board Chairman. McFarland who had suffered two heart attacks and who was pilloried by his old colleagues at the Winnipeg grain Exchange, would never receive the credit he deserved.

As the thirties came to end and war became apparent, it was clear that the CWB was too helpful to eliminate. And it would grow from a pre WW2 staff of 35 to over 500 people. Over time it became a monopoly. Canadian farmers have to sell their wheat to the CWB.

A CANADIAN INSTITUTION
The Caandian Wheat Board seems to be the Canadian way. Working together. Sharing risk and profit. There is a kind of unspoken social contract between farmers and the Canadian govt. It was farmers after all staking their families’ futures in the west that made western Canada not only part of Canadian soil at a time it could have become part of the US. But it also provided an economic pillar of the western economy. Yet one that occasionally needs the deep pockets of all of Canada with subsidies and relief.

HOW EFFECTIVE IS THE CWB?
A formidable competitor in marketing wheat, in 1984 as the CWB planned its 50th anniversary the Kansas Wheat Commission hoped that it would just take the year off. Australia has a similar marketing organization but it is becoming a private corporation.

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