Written by Paul Penner Tuesday, 22 January 2013 14:20
ow was your trip to Canada? Eh?”
Fine, thanks for asking.
Actually, I rarely received a greeting or any statement from a Canadian that ended with “Eh?” This was my second trip in six years to our neighbors to the north. It was like I was still in the United States, if one doesn’t count the obvious changes like the metric system.
My earlier trip was to visit with Canadian wheat farmers attending their annual winter meetings of the Canadian Wheat Growers. At the time, the Canadian Wheat Board held an absolute monopoly on the sale of all classes of wheat grown within the Canadian border.
Debate over whether they should eliminate or continue the monopoly was already heating up, with farmers voicing opinions for or against moving toward an open-market system. How this would end, whether they would find the political will to bring this to a vote in their parliament, seemed to be a faint notion at best.
Though I received a warm welcome as their guest, I listened as they expressed opinions regarding American, Canadian relations regarding agricultural policy. American farm subsidies, as perceived by most Canadian farmers, unfairly influenced international markets that favored the Americans. Though the Canadian government also provided benefits through income tax breaks that were widely used, they regarded it as inconsequential in comparison.
My conclusions back then were similar to describing a sibling rivalry between two children. Americans were the big brother and Canadians represented the younger, jealous brother.
That was then.
Last week, within minutes of my belated arrival, thanks to a prolonged demonstration by members of the First Nations native tribes while blocking the freeway from the airport to downtown Edmonton, yours truly met with the group’s board of directors.
Following an invitation to describe the function and focus of the National Association of Wheat Growers, the rest of the meeting agenda was a Q-and-A session about issues important to farmers on both sides of the border.
Their youthful attitude, their positive outlook and upbeat demeanor was visibly apparent. No longer burdened by the oppressive CWB monopoly controlling their everyday decisions, these men and women were in a celebratory mood and were wanting to share their exuberance.
Imagine living under an archaic system—developed during World War II and designed to ensure that Canadian troops had enough food to eat—and the only vestige of that wartime program that lived longer than all other restrictions was the wheat board. Violation of the laws included severe penalties and jail time.
Imagine experiencing, for the first time in 70 years, the freedom to sell your own grain in any market of your choosing, at any price. Imagine the freedom to not only to sell your own goods, but to receive the entire price upon delivery, not to be withheld for up to three years, minus costs for administering the burdensome bureaucratic institution.
Their story is nothing short of an excellent example of democracy in action. Of all provinces, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia influenced the national political agenda, even ensuring that the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were unable to achieve credible political power.
That changed slowly over time as the prairie economies, strengthened by emerging as a world-class supplier of oil and gas, and as agricultural production increased in importance as a major supplier of food grains for the world market, not to mention their persistence in building political alliances and increasing relevance in everyday politics that eventually turned the tide in their favor.
Their brand of political conservatism also was influential in returning their national government to fiscal soundness—an admirable milestone in its own right.
Perhaps we in America could learn from this, that political extremism like we are experiencing should become a thing of the past as well.
As an American, one might reserve judgment regarding their brand of politics as it relates to issues like health care and tax policy. Never did I hear anyone voice concern for rising health-care costs or high taxes, though all farmers and wives voiced a brand of fiscal conservatism familiar to their neighbors south of the border.
Little brother is growing up. They like who they are. They are appreciative of potential markets south of the border. They want to maintain and improve dialogue between Canadian and American farmers and their grassroots associations.
They are even working with their elected officials to address issues that unfairly prevents American grain from moving into Canada. Laws currently on the books still require it to be sold as a feed grain. This could be the litmus test that proves their sincerity.
Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to meet people with a common Mennonite heritage. People with last names of Penner and Bender are leaders of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.
I also met other farmers and spouses with the last name of Pankratz and knew members of the well-established Groening family south of Winnipeg, mostly relatives of yours truly.
I won’t hold that against them, though.