Want political change? Talk to a farmer - Macleans.ca

Want political change? Talk to a farmer

It’s worth remembering that the moral case against the CWB was driven home by civil disobedience

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In parks and public squares across the land, Occupy protesters are bivouacking in the name of social justice as the mercury dwindles. On Parliament Hill, MPs are battling in comfort over the fate of a bill to chop up the Canadian Wheat Board’s “single desk” control of wheat and barley exports.

Unrelated phenomena? Maybe. But it’s worth remembering that the moral case against the CWB was driven home by civil disobedience—in particular, by Manitoba farmer Andy McMechan’s 1996 cross-border protest trip with a wagonload of his own wheat. That jaunt fuelled the growth of activism against the Wheat Board and inspired dozens of imitators (among them a pro-liberalization CWB director, Jim Chatenay).

When it comes to Bolshevik-like bloody-mindedness, there probably isn’t an Occupy protester on the continent who can hang with McMechan. Other farmers had been thumbing their noses at the board and accepting small fines for a while; before McMechan the whole thing was almost an intramural game, a kitten-fight between anti-CWB farmers and authorities who were still improvising a hitherto-unneeded enforcement system. The Wheat Board, the feds, and the Mounties were itching to make an example out of somebody. McMechan gave them one, crossing the border and refused to surrender his tractor to customs officials. He was arrested, convicted, and, after some unseemly judge-shopping by the prosecution, jailed.

He spent 155 days in prison, living on a cell block with murderers. When the Crown brought him to his bail hearing with shackles around his ankles and wrists, he made sure the photographers could see them. He counted every strip-search he suffered in prison; there were more than 50. Every little humiliation was faithfully recorded and passed along to the Farmers For Justice group (along with Amnesty International, though they never took much notice), and from thence to the western media.

It has taken a long time for the political preconditions for a voluntary Wheat Board to come about. McMechan’s gesture of civil disobedience, along with the many that followed, ensured that the issue would stay at the top of the agenda throughout the intervening years. Have you been wondering why the issue of dairy supply management doesn’t bestir Conservatives the way the CWB does? It’s because nobody’s going to jail anytime soon in the name of slightly cheaper cheese.

McMechan pulled back the veil of Wheat Board monopoly power and demonstrated the violence behind the “single desk” euphemism—inflexible, exaggerated violence, delegated to a secretive, unaccountable enterprise left over from a forgotten era of protectionism and paternalism. It exposed the absurdity of neighbours coercing neighbours into a politicized marketing scheme. And it thus put the liberalizers on the moral high ground, where they have remained. No one can take any pro-board argument seriously unless it deals straightforwardly with the individual farmer’s claim to dispose of the fruit of his labour as he likes: this is the McMechanist legacy. Imagine yourself in the boots of a moderate pro-CWB farmer watching the Wheat Board’s new “Steamroller” ad:

It is not as though the CWB supporter is entirely without intellectual ammunition. Certainly most of us would concede that a country has the right to police its borders and to regulate exports. But when the Wheat Board complains of oppression and coercion, of rough handling by the state, even the board’s advocates must feel a pang of embarrassment when they remember McMechan’s ordeal. The steamroller metaphor is self-mocking.

There are lessons in this history for the leftist protester. The Occupy movement is bristling with changes it wants made (I’m told we’re not supposed to call them “demands”); these changes won’t, and shouldn’t, happen outside the ballot box. The goal of protest in a liberal-democratic society must therefore be to advance one’s pet issue further ahead on the agenda of the sympathetic, for when they do attain power, and to weaken the morale of moderates on the other side. One must locate specific injustices rather than nebulous cosmic ones, confronting them and defying their perpetrators directly. Deeds will accomplish more than any amount of eloquence. And it should not be necessary to claim to be a majority (let alone a majority of 99-to-one); one individual suffices, where he has a true claim to our attention.

It’s not really clear, anyway, how an “Occupation” that is meeting no serious resistance from authorities anywhere is supposed to elicit sympathy. The main effect of the movement so far seems to have been an elaborate proof-by-demonstration that Canadian municipalities are incredibly respectful of political protest and fawningly deferential to the Charter of Rights. So…hooray?