The Commons: Democracy and testicles

Are the unusual habits of the beaver a metaphor for abandoning the Canadian Wheat Board?


The Scene. Time, once again, to yell about the Canadian Wheat Board.

The first sign that this afternoon would not pass without shouting was the Prime Minister’s right fist, bobbing up and down in front of him as he asserted that “Western Canadian farmers have long been looking for the freedom to market their grain, just like farmers in Quebec and other parts of eastern Canada have, and we are going to give them that freedom.”

This was but the end of his first answer and already he was gesturing forcefully. Usually, at this point, he is all shrugs and up-turned palms. But there would be no conciliatory hand movements this day.

Nycole Turmel stood here and insisted on reading what is written on some piece of paper somewhere.

“Mr. Speaker,” she said, “here is what the law says: ‘The Minister shall not cause to be introduced in Parliament a bill that would exclude any kind, type, class or grade of wheat or barley unless (a) the Minister has consulted with the board; and (b) the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension.’ That is the law of the land. Why will the Prime Minister not respect the law, respect the producers and keep the Canadian Wheat Board in place?”

Here Ms. Turmel pumped her own fist and the New Democrats around her duly sprang up to cheer.

The Prime Minister was thus compelled to raise his volume. “Mr. Speaker, the law of our constitutional system is extremely clear,” cried Mr. Harper, variously wagging and jabbing with his right index finger. “A previous government cannot bind a future government to its policy. This government received a mandate from western Canadian farmers, who did not vote for that party or anyone over there, to make sure that these people have the freedom that other people in this country have long taken for granted and we are going to give it to them because that’s what they want us to do.”

Up leapt the Conservatives to cheer their man.

Over to Ms. Turmel, now chopping her hand and raising her voice. “I just read the law to the Prime Minister. It says that the minister shall not cause to be introduced in Parliament a bill impacting the Wheat Board’s mandate unless the producers have voted in favour of these changes. It has not happened.”

Back to Mr. Harper, first for a Clintonian fist pump, then back to finger-wagging. “Mr. Speaker, this party has for a long time received a strong mandate from western Canadian farmers in a democratic election for the platform on which we are proceeding,” he declared. “That party over there does not speak for those people, does not care about those people, does not represent those people. We do and we are going to act in their interests.”

To this tumult was soon added Pat Martin, waving his arms and accusing the government side of doing the United States of America’s “dirty work.” In response, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was all Harperian shrugs and reassurances.

“The Canadian Wheat Board will survive on a voluntary basis,” he said.

“Yeah, right!” moaned Peter Julian from the opposition side.

“Farmers will be able to move on grains that they are not pooling now,” Mr. Ritz continued, undaunted. “They will be able to broker grains. Everyone will be better off all the way around. Anywhere in the world this has been implemented, farmers have benefited.”

This failed to assuage Mr. Martin even a little bit. And so he was compelled to invoke the most cautionary of tales.

“Mr. Speaker, folklore has it that the Canadian beaver will bite off its own testicles when it is threatened and offer them up to its tormentors,” he explained. “I think that is a fitting metaphor for the way our Canadian government reacts to bullying on trade issues by carving off pieces of our nation and offering them over to the Americans.”

The government side opposite howled with a mix of incredulity, outrage and laughter. Seated a scant few feet from this analogy, Olivia Chow descended into giggles.

His preface stated, Mr. Martin then tabled several questions. Up came Gerry Ritz with a response to none of them and all of them at once.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I think that is a very fitting metaphor because the member for Winnipeg Centre is impotent to stand in the way of farmers getting freedom.”

The Conservatives were delighted. John Baird nearly fell over himself pantomiming a baseball swing (to suggest, you see, that Mr. Ritz had hit a homerun).

Mr. Ritz is more or less right, at least so far as Mr. Martin’s singular inability to prevent the Conservatives from doing what they will to the Canadian Wheat Board. And with that we all be able to celebrate one thing: the existence of one less thing to yell about.


The Stats. The Canadian Wheat Board and trade, seven questions each. The economy and the G8 Legacy Fund, four questions each. Small business, three questions. High-speed rail, gay rights and immigration, two questions each. Crime, bilingualism, Canada Post, Nova Scotia, pensions, shipbuilding, search-and-rescue and the Supreme Court, one question each.

Stephen Harper and John Baird, six answers each. Jim Flaherty and Ed Fast, five answers each. Gerry Ritz, Denis Lebel and Maxime Bernier, three answers each. Jason Kenney, two answers. James Moore, Steven Fletcher, Ted Menzies, Rona Ambrose, Keith Ashfield and Rob Nicholson, one answer each.


The Commons: Democracy and testicles

  1. A previous government cannot bind a future government to its policy.
    That sounds GREAT! There’s hope for this country then, to set things right when Steve is gone.

  2. I’d make a joke about beavers, testicles, and honourable members, but it’s just too easy.

    Can someone please give Nycole Turmel a crash course in parliamentary democracy?  She seems to think that the government can’t introduce new legislation that supersedes existing legislation.  The NDP would probably be more effective in opposition if they understood stuff like this.

    • Technically, you’re correct. Of course, given this reasoning, the government may then unilaterally amend the constitution, as it’s also just a piece of paper passed by previous governments regardless of what it says on it about how it binds the government to certain means of amendment.

      And of course the provinces may then completely ignore what it says, because it’s just a piece of paper and they can’t be bound to it either if they have a mandate.

      The only way this stops, of course, is with the direct application or threat of military or economic force, where the federal government threatens the provinces with the use of the military or monetary restrictions if the province does not toe the line. But if we’re back there already, then we might as well just get rid of government altogether because we really don’t have one.

      If the rule of law is to mean anything then it has to mean it all the time and on everyone.

      • Of course, given this reasoning, the government may then unilaterally amend the constitution

        No, it can’t, nor does this follow in any way from what I said.  You really, really, REALLY need to learn about Canada’s constitution, including its constitutional conventions. Your whole line of argument here is incoherent and confused.  I don’t know why you’re going on about “pieces of paper”.

        Existing legislation, brought in by previous governments, gets superseded by new legislation all the time.  Making new laws is precisely what Parliament (the legislative branch of our federal government) exists to do.  Old laws routinely get replaced with new ones. It has nothing to do with “respecting the rule of law”.

        • Of course it gets superseded, but how often does existing legislation contain specific language as to *how* it can be superseded.. and have that summarily ignored? That’s the critical difference here, and it’s a difference that’s only in a few pieces of legislation.. such as our constitution.

          If the CPC can ignore one piece of legislation, why not any other? Seriously, if they can ignore what one law says because they have a mandate, what makes constitutional law any different? After all, the only thing that gives it authority is whether we agree it has authority.

          Now, if they get that vote of the farmers and it succeeds, then they can change it however they like and, among other things, take out the requirement that it be voted on. But until they do, it’s the law of the land, and one that they are violating by simply introducing the new bill. This is I expect where the court battle is going to be on, that they didn’t even have the authority to enter the new bill, restricted as they were by the old one.

          • @GreatWallsofFire

            That makes sense. Thanks for clarifying.

          • A different category altogether? Kindly tell me how. Sure, you can wax poetic about it, but at the end of the day does god come down and smite those who change it improperly or something?

            The only thing that keeps them from changing it unilaterally is the people’s belief that it shouldn’t be done that way, and that if they *did* do such a thing, people wouldn’t listen.

            A previous government isn’t binding a future government to its policy. The LAW is binding a government to a specific course of action. They can come along and say, “We don’t like that law, so we’re going to change it” but they have to do so within the confines of the law. In this case, the law themselves dictates those confines and they’re trying to ignore that. That’s illegal under current law.

            And you’ll note that changes in the law do not retroactively apply. So when they break the law in tabling the bill, then even if their bill passes, they’ve still broken the law as it was at the time.

            This has significant legal precedent behind it, as societies and corporations often have language in their bylaws and policies restricting how they may be changed, and if a board tries to ignore those restrictions they can be taken to court for it, and generally lose.

          • So, just to clarify…was the old legislation (or at least the section that mentions the ‘amending formula’) actually illegal, or would it be better to classify that section as unenforceable.

            Either way, I assume that that section was ‘DOA’ even when it was passed, or has something else occurred in the meantime that changed the obligations that a government can impose on subsequent governments.

            Which leads to why bother to include such a section at all?  What were they thinking?

            Even without a legally binding requirement to consult farmers, why not support the intent of that section, why not explicitly get an okey-dokey from the farmers?

          • Having no legal expertise whatsoever, I have to agree with CR that existing laws cannot be formulated to prevent future governments from changing them or even proscribing the means of change.

            Otherwise, a government that wished its legislation to remain unchanged could simply add a clause that says no future government may alter this law. That stipulation would clearly be beyond enforcement, as the will of Parliament is supreme.

            Wasn’t that rather what the previous Speaker, Peter Milliken, insisted in his recent ruling on the provision of government  documents to parliament.

            In a majority government situation, the governments position is, therefore, supreme. No amount of yelling is going to change that fact.

          • @Thwim:disqus 

            You clearly need to read up on the constitution if you don’t think it belongs in a different category than legislation.

            A previous government isn’t binding a future government to its policy. The LAW is binding a government to a specific course of action.

            Um, that’s the same thing.  The previous government can’t create a law that the current government can’t change.  That’s one of the fundamental principles of Parliamentary law.  The only way to bind future governments to changes is by amending the constitution itself.

            You claim there is “significant legal precedent”, but you can’t come up with any examples that involve legislation passed by Parliament.  Parliamentary supremacy is a basic principle.  The examples you give (societies, corporate bylaws) are completely out of scope.

          • @PhilCP:disqus 

            Hi Phil,

            I’m no expert, so I’m not sure if that section is “illegal” or merely unenforceable.  The section was probably DOA from the beginning.

            Why does the section exist at all?  Probably as a hollow reassurance to stakeholder groups.  Certainly, the government of the day would have been expected to abide by its own “amending formula”.

            By all means, farmers, experts, stakeholders, etc. should be consulted, but it makes no sense to have a “legally binding requirement” to consult with a group.  To require the approval of an unelected body to change a bill is a clear violation of Parliamentary supremacy.

          • Sounds very plausible….!@#$% hollow reassurances, not even worth the paper they are written on, that’s what I always say!!

            Hopeuflly as this bill moves its way through Parliament/Senate, the views of all stakeholders are given genuine consideration, and as much as possible, the legislation is amended to maximize the benefits to all (not sure that the proposed legislation does that).

            I look forward to seeing the relevant Senate committee at work on CPAC – in my opinion they do some pretty good work (often without due recognition I will add).

          • “I’m no expert, so I’m not sure if that section is “illegal” or merely unenforceable.  The section was probably DOA from the beginning.”
            The section was not illegal, nor unenforceable, nor DOA from the beginning.  However, it’s legality/enforceability/life was, like every other non-constitutional law, subject to the section continuing to represent the will of parliament.  The moment it didn’t, it became essentially a dead letter.

          • Gah. You’re right, I’m wrong.

            My examples and knowledge are from boards of non-profits primarily. Parliament, apparantly, doesn’t have to abide by the same rules.  As looking into it more, I find this: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/392/agri/15evb-e.htm?Language=E&Parl=39&Ses=2&comm_id=2

            Which pretty much explicitly says that though they can’t change the regulation around the CWB without the measures listed, the law does not suggest they can not change the entire act.

            My confusion on this issue stems from a few things, the first being a simple misreading. I hadn’t looked at it deeply enough to see what exactly it was restricting, and was going by Turmel’s assertion that “It says that the minister shall not cause to be introduced in Parliament a bill impacting the Wheat Board’s mandate unless the producers have voted in favour of these changes. It has not happened.”  When that’s not, in fact, what it says.

            Second was my my previous experience, as I’ve already noted.

            Third, however, was my understanding of what gives a law force.

            When you think about it, a law is just a code of standards that some group of people agree to abide by, and agree to support the use of force (whether economic or physical) in the enforcement of that code upon others. In the end, however, the only force a law has is that which we provide — ie, it’s all made up. This includes parliamentary law, our constitution, and everything else.

            So if parliament can legally violate any particular law, there is nothing that says they can’t violate any law at any level. However, since they’re not in fact doing that here, that point is moot.

            On the bright side, being wrong means I learned something, so thanks!

          • @Thwim:disqus 

            Thanks for providing the Peter Hogg link, and for admitting your error.  I’ve been wrong plenty of times, so I agree that being wrong is a great learning opportunity.  

            Now, if you could just email Nycole Turmel…:)

          • Funny! That wasn’t even the link I was trying to provide. 

            Here’s the one I actually meant: www.cwb.ca/public/en/hot/legal/barley/pdf/022608_facjudgement.pdf

            Page 10 of 12 is what spells it out.

        • Hey, so setting aside all of these issues about who can do what, and when, and who has a mandate and what that mandate does or does not explicitly mean and blah blah blah…..

          What is your take on the CWB issue from a pure public policy POV?  Will all farmers gain from eliminating the CWB monopoly?  Most farmers?  Just a few farmers?  Any farmers?  Will consumers benefit?  Will this speed the demise of the “family” (ie two adults, with or without children, 1 to 2 sections of land), strengthen them or nave no effect?  Is a lesser number of larger farms beneficial to society or should we try to move the other way?

          Those are the questions that should drive this discussion and then the decision.

    • I am not a Conservative but I have to agree with Crit_Reasoning. A previous Parliament cannot force a future government on certain policy changes. If so, in theory, the Conservatives could put the following in EVERY piece of their legislation: “This Act may not be amended or repealed unless it is done so by a Conservative government” etc.

      The Constitution is in its own category. It is not simple legislation, it was a document agreed to by 9/10 of the provinces and is binding on the Courts and ALL legislatures. It’s difficult to change for the reason it is the highest law of the land.

    • True. New legislation will supersede existing legislation. But the point here is that the existing legislation is still in force until the new one is passed and the rules of the existing one have been broken.

  3. All the serious problems we have in this country, and our Parliament is discussing beaver balls?

    And you wonder why people have lost interest in voting…..

    • Actually, they’re not discussing beaver balls, at least not to the extent that Wherry would have us believe. It’s just Wherry’s obsession with the quirky garbage that comes from parliament. He even has another blog post today about beaver balls.

      In my opinion, if the public has lost interest in voting/politics, it’s not solely the politicians that are to blame. It’s also due to journalists like Wherry who selectively choose to publish such trite nonsense rather than more important stuff (for example, the recently-awarded shipbulding contract).

      • Well Mike, actually I was being facetious…this is a blog you know, not a news site.

    • Very intersting reading.  The testimony from the wheat farmers about their dislike of the wheatboard is very telling.

      • Love Hate Love Hate.

        Either way it looks like a done deal to me.   There’s precedent. Of course, I thought Linda Keen had a sniff. Coulda been the lawyer but I was dead wrong.

  4. As always Harper is at his worst[ or best depending on your pov] when he’s obfuscating. The claim to not be bound by previous govts seems to be right but his next comment is pure bunkum; his majority mandate was not a specific mandate to blow up the WB. Farmers who are opposed to it the idea may well have voted for him for a variety of reasons. A mandate to govern doesnot contain one single ballot question;  neither is it a a mandate to assume your minority faction[ farmers who are pro open market] has somehow magically  morphed into a majority of farmers – the only way to know that for sure would be to hold a vote of some kind. Which the Harperites would no doubt have held if they could be sure they’d have won it.

    • Read the information in the link Geiseric provided above.  It has the testimony of some wheat farmers with regard to their feelings about the Canadian Wheat Board and just how well it has worked for them.  I think just maybe those conservative MPs from Alberta and Saskatchewan, where all the wheat is grown, actually listened to their constituents and they are following their instructions.

      • Are you saying the vote that was held – the only one that is ever likely to be held – was somehow not listening to farmers too?
        The weakest part of the CWB’s arguement seems to be why a monopoly is justified in the west when farmers in the east do as they please and seem to be content.
        None of this changes the fact that the govt’s approach has been an idealogical one; one that they may well come to regret further down the road.   

        • You mean the farmers in the east who grow perhaps 1 or 2% of Canada’s wheat, the majority of it being winter wheat which is not grown much on the prairies?

          • There’s something i didn’t know.

          • Okay, so now you know that all this grain is grown in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Northern BC….most of these areas voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives.  Now do you believe they want the monopoly of the CWB abolished?

          • healthcare insider –

            Would you care to tell me why the farmers did in fact vote to keep the WB? As i said above a majority mandate is not simply made up of one ballot question. Obviously farmers are deeply ambivalent toward the WB. 

    • For the purposes of legislation, kcm2, it’s largely irrelevant whether the affected group approves or disapproves. The government has a every right to make changes to marketing boards and is not obliged to hold a referendum to provide legitimacy. This change was explicit in its platform prior to the May election, and in 3 elections prior. 

      If it were the case that all legislation requires direct thumbs up by specific groups, every bit of legislation ever passed by the House of Commons would require that affected individuals gave it approval. By that standard, the long gun registry have never been enacted, unemployment insurance eligibility requirements would only ever go down and and payments would only ever go up, there would be no GST, etc.

      As noted about above, Parliament is supreme in lawmaking, short of infringing upon  Constitution obligations. And for those cases, conveniently enough, there is even a Notwithstanding Clause to override Charter restrictions.

      In fact, the Notwithstanding Clause was included precisely to indication the supremacy of Parliament, even over the courts.

      • As far as i know the notwithstanding clause provides only a temporary relief from any exemption it may offer a govt from charter or constitutional obligations; it has no validity after 5 years – i’m not sure what happens after that. Presumably the SCC gets its say again – the charter cannot be arbitrarily ignored, politically there would be hell to pay. Which is why it has only been invoked once of twice[ once by Quebec anyway]. Presumably this is why Trudeau did not support the concept of a NWC. The nightmare scenario would be that a province or federal govt used the clause controversially, it then gathered some political popularity and we eventually have a constitutional crisis with the populists on one side and the constitutional law side on the other. 
        Noone is claiming the govt is bound to hold a referendum or even have the majority consent of any particular group before passing legislation. That doesn’t give the govt leave to claim it has consent where it clearly does not.

        • Correct, there is a sunset established for use of the Notwithstanding clause that requires review every 5 yrs, which is not the same as saying that the law would be invalid after 5 yrs. The Notwithstanding clause can be repeatedly invoked, the purpose of the sunset is merely to reflect on the laws necessity.

          As for the role of the SCC in this process…none that I can see! The whole point of the Notwithstanding clause is that it is above charter restrictions.

          In any case, the discussion about the WB has nothing to do with the Charter or with the SCC.

          With respect to referendums, the WB is claiming that they have 51-65% support for maintaining the their marketing monopoly. This may even be true, however the government does not need their consent, only that of the voters which have already obtained.

          Keep in mind that the government is not abolishing the WB, merely its monopoly powers. Therefore farmers are free to continue using the board if they, but dissenting farmers will no longer be penalized or face jail time.

          Sorry, but despite my ignorance of farming relating issues, I am seriously having trouble seeing this as unfair to farmers.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_Thirty-three_of_the_Canadian_Charter_of_Rights_and_Freedoms#Function

            The NWC can indeed be repeatedly invoked IF the electorate agree – not quite automatic, On reviewing the history of section 33 i can see why Pierrre was pissed that Chretien negotiated it. Still, it is likely to remain a check on an idealogical court and nothing more.

            The fact that the govt is not abolishing the WB[ for now] is cold comfort if the boards prediction proves to be true – that they cannot operate effectively without a defacto monopoly.

  5. When I was growing up, Beavers didn’t have Balls.

    Sigh, I’m so hopelessly lost in this transgendered world.

  6. Western grain farmers have been thrown in jail by Ralph Goodale for selling their grain outside the monopoly.
    Why were Western farmers treated like criminals when:

    ”..In Ontario,
    wheat may be marketed through the provincial Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board (OWPMB), but selling through the board is not mandatory.
     Three-quarters of Ontario wheat is marketed off-board, and from the growers’ perspective the board is simply one marketing option.
    In Quebec,
     all wheat for human consumption, except for small amounts of organic product delivered to micro-enterprises, is pooled and marketed through the Federation de Producteurs Cultivateurs du Quebec (FPCCQ). Feed wheat is marketed by the growers themselves
    Almost all of the milling quality wheat in Atlantic Canada is grown in PEI, where there is a voluntary wheat pool. There is a market with local flour mills. ”

    • And 98-99% of Canada’s wheat is grown in the prairie provinces.

  7. Parliament has the power to repeal any act or section of an act. One would assume that any legislation passed to remove the Wheat Board’s monopoly would include a section repealing the section Turmel quoted. If necessary, they could do it in two stages; first pass a piece of legislation specifically repealing that limitation, and then once the limitation is gone, passing another with the desired changes.

    So it seems like a pointless argument – though you’d think if Harper was so confident that this is change desired by the majority of farmers as he claims, he’d obey the law as it stands just to make a point.

    • “they could do it in two stages”

      makes me wonder why they aren’t taking that approach in the first place.  They must know this if a hack amateur like me can drag up notes from the internet on what took place down the hall.

  8. Maclean’s fire this hack. He damages your publication’s journalistic integrity.

    • Should they also fire everyone else you disagree with?  Maybe you could put out your own magazine, then you’d agree with everything. 

      • Whether or not I agree with him is irrelevant. It’s Wherry’s vitriol; it’s his use of loaded language, that I am at odds with.

        I would be equally disgusted if a right-wing commentator described Turmel by saying something like “Turmel stood there her head bobbling to and fro as if it were on a loaded spring…”

        Such language may be acceptable for the hyper-partisan journalists of America but it has no place within the Canadian political discourse.

  9. I’m not a farmer but I grew up on one. I feel for the many (the majority?) farmers who want the CWB. In my opinion, this is a very real slap in their face. My experience with the farming community is that folks are pretty open to new ideas as long as they are respected enough to be included in the visioning process. I’m sure some of you will disagree but this feels like both sides of the arguement are being dictated to. Putting cooperate, share holder interest over the residents voice, in my opinion, has the potential to go very wrong. I would have thought that a party that got it’s start as a prairie grass roots movement would have been more considerate and less venomous towards the people that helped them get to where they are. Is freedom and democracy what this Prime Minister and his IMF colleagues really want? Or is Harper’s definition of ‘freedom’ more akin to a spoiled teenager who just wants to get his way? My two cents

  10. Some great comments being posted on this article. Thought you all may be interested in a contest involving the CWB and Christmas jingles. You can check it out at our page, www.facebook.com/agfinity.  First prize is $300, then $200, then $100.

  11. The simple moral fact is that those who grow a legal product should be be able to sell it to whomever they wish. That until now, farmers in all but the prairie provinces could sell such a product is outrageous. That farmers in the prairie provinces went to jail, in a supposedly free country is beyond shameful. 

    I don’t care if every farmer in Canada, save one, voted to retain the CWB and its monopoly, the one remaining farmer has the absolute moral right to sell his wheat to whomever he or she wishes. If the law says otherwise, the law must be changed. I speak as one who left farming  partly because of constant government interference in everything I did.

  12. Although I retired from farming this spring, I am very pleased that the Government plans to abolish the Wheat Board monopoly. If the Wheat Bard is a viable operation, it will survive not being a single desk buyer.  It only makes sense that the producer of a product has the ability to sell to whom ever he wants.  The Wheat Board held me back during my career as a wheat farmer.  I feel that it became a detriment to the value-added industries that could have been developed on the prairies over the last several decades.  It makes no sense to not refine the product that we grow here in the west, locally.  The processing plants should never have been concentrated in the east, especially as we were forced to pay the shipping of our wheat to them, have them process it into the end-product and then ship it back to us.

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