Several years ago over supper, my great-grandfather, Hugh Alexander, told those who were gathered there are “three things which must be protected: the Crow Rate, the Canadian Wheat Board, and universal public health care.”
He went on to say, “The Crow is gone, the wheat board is on its way out, and universal public health care is not guaranteed anymore.”
He didn’t say these things in anger, nor in nostalgic remorse. He said these things in the most matter-of-fact way, as an old Prairie populist farmer would.
I also remember asking him and my grandfather why, in their opinion, the wheat board would be disbanded?
The answer was unanimous: it comes down to money.
The wheat board debate is somewhat convoluted, with consequences that seem to be nonissues to most urban-focused citizens these days. But those who have an opinion on the wheat board generally have a strong one.
It might be important for all Canadians to pay attention to a debate that goes beyond particular farmers to the heart of our political culture.
Often, the biggest argument for the destruction of the wheat board is presented as an issue of maximizing freedom Ã freedom for the producer to market their commodity on their own at the highest-possible price.
Or, to put it another way, the freedom from any institution telling the producer how they can market the product they have taken the risk to produce. According to this argument, the wheat board does not allow the producer to find the highest possible price for their product.
Nobody would dispute this, and to make it absolutely clear, the wheat board restricts certain producers from marketing their product.
But there is a reason for the restriction, as with any in our society.
The mandatory monopoly is not simply an excuse to oppress the average farmer, forcing them to buy into a marketing board. The wheat board was constructed on the belief that, in the long run, working together can often have us farther ahead than if we worked separately.
In its most simplistic sense, the wheat board is an institution that will give a reduced rate in the good times to provide an better rate in the bad times. This simple concept of organization lies at the heart of many government institutions.
We, as citizens, agree to forego some of our individual freedoms, in order to enjoy the stability and predictability that a group can offer.
The wheat board is no different, and can offer stability in an unpredictable world.
The anti-wheat-board advocates want to venture into the instability of the global markets, and expose themselves to the risks, so that they might be able to acquire more when the stars are aligned properly.
This is not a foreign idea.
The world has gotten smaller and capital moves at the speed of light.
Much of the world has adopted this world view, where business rides the waves of the boom cycle, and those who cannot compete are deemed inefficient and wiped out by the lows.
However, this theory is often muddied and misguided in the real world.
Often business hits a low, and depending on the political winds at the time, looks to the taxpayer to bail them out of their misery.
We have seen this in the auto industry, airlines and on Wall Street. And we have recently seen a backlash to this faux free-market piracy from both the left and the right, in the forms of the Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party respectively.
The wheat board was established at a time when there was near consensus on the conclusion markets are not stable, and combining resources and working together can help mitigate the unpredictable markets.
The consumer booms of the 1990s and the mid-2000s encouraged some to believe that the markets have been solved, and will no longer produce wild fluctuations.
Recently, we learned this is simply wrong.
The wheat board is a solution by farmers, composed of farmers, and funded by farmers to assist the farmer when the going gets tough.
How long following the demise of this wheat board will we meet another dip in the markets?
And, what do you think the odds are that those very farmers, who wanted to get rid of the wheat board and expose themselves to the risk of the market, will look to the taxpayer to bail them out?
I, for one, might not be so eager to help those who were too eager to help themselves, at the risk of others.
My great-grandfather passed on a few years ago. He had seen hard times, like many of his generation, and I remember when he shared his stories of the Great Depression with me. These were empowering stories, and ones that I won’t anytime forget. He knew that it was a matter of time before the wheat board would meet its end, and I believe that he had long ago resigned to that fate.
For him and many others who came of age during a time that was more prudent and cautious of an uncertain future, the fight was no longer theirs to take up.
They had passed on what they could to those who came after them, and hoped that knowledge would guide the next generations into a better and more prosperous future.
In conversation with my great-grandfather one slow Sunday afternoon, following the type of meal that only a grandmother could make, he was asked what the difference is between then and now; how are people different?
In his typical matter-of-fact and unemotional style, but with the certainty that only comes from experience, he said most people just don’t care for their neighbour the way they used to.
At the heart of the wheat board is a clash between two very different world views.
One is built upon the individual, and seeks to ensure the maximized pursuit of individual well-being; whereas the other sees the power present in society quite differently, and argues the only way the many can protect themselves and maximize their own freedoms is to organize together.
I am not one to believe this is simply a generational debate.
The future does not look so clear cut.
I am not sure where pensions will be when I come of age to retire.
I do not know if the bottom will fall out of the market in 20 years, or tomorrow.
It is also clear those with the power and expertise don’t know much about the future either, as we seem to have forgotten has always been the case.
But if I was a betting man, I would listen to my elders and understand the blip in prosperity we enjoy is not certain, if left up to the power of the market, and that working together and caring for each other is not an obstacle to freedom, but it is how we can acquire the prosperity we all seek.