Saskatchewan agricultural lawyer takes helm of food policy think-tank

‘Contagious enthusiasm’ nets Don Buckingham top job at the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute

One day at the University of Saskatchewan, about 40 years ago, Don Buckingham looked around and noticed something was missing.


It wasn’t bell-bottom jeans or sideburns; there was no shortage of those things on campus back in the 1970s. 


Buckingham, a law student at the time, realized that soon-to-be and practicing lawyers were ignoring an obvious career path in Saskatchewan.


“This (was) very strange. We were in one of the most heavily agricultural provinces and nobody (was) doing agricultural law,” said Buckingham, who grew up on a mixed farm near Lloyd-minster, on the Saskatchewan side. 


After his observation, Buckingham decided that agricultural law was a massive opportunity and something he couldn’t pass up.


He chose to make food, farming and agricultural trade the focus of his legal career. The decision proved to be a wise one.


Buckingham has enjoyed a diverse career for 30 plus years, including stints teaching law, a judge overseeing an agricultural tribunal in Canada and the author of numerous books on farm and food law.


Buckingham’s latest triumph is being named chief executive officer and president of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, a think-tank based in Ottawa. He joined CAPI this summer, taking over from David McInnes.


“During the lengthy search undertaken by CAPI we encountered many highly qualified people,” Ted Bilyea, CAPI chair, said earlier this year.


“But few demonstrated the vision, understanding of issues, organizational strength and contagious enthusiasm of Dr. Buckingham.” 


Buckingham has been an agricultural legal expert for decades, dealing with complex issues like international trade regulations, but he led off a telephone interview by talking about his agricultural roots in northwestern Sask-atchewan.


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“I was a summer farmer,” he said. “Every year for 10 years I came home, in the ’70s and ’80s, and would put the crop in and would try to get the crop off before I went back to university…. So I got a pretty good feel for primary production.”


After earning his degree in Saskatoon and then studying at the University of Cambridge in England, Buckingham worked as a law professor at the University of Western Ontario, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Ottawa in the 1990s and 2000s.


During his academic career Buckingham focused on trade of ag commodities like wheat, but also legal matters closer to the farmgate.


“Supply management, property issues, finance … farm succession,” he said.


  • In 1999, Buckingham co-authored Agriculture Law in Canada.

  • In 2006, he left academia and took a job, for three years, as legal counsel for the federal government within Agriculture Canada. 

  • In 2009, he became chair of the Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal, a body that settles legal disputes within the ag industry.


As an example of a dispute at the tribunal, a hog farmer in Manitoba may have loaded pigs that weren’t in good health onto a truck.


Some of the animals died during transport. So the Canadian Food Inspection Agency fined the producer, say $20,000, for negligence.


However, the farmer could challenge the fine and present his side of the story through the Agricultural Review Tribunal.


“I was the judge on those cases,” Buckingham said.


“(It was) all very interesting. In eight years I saw a lot of Canada, (from) Nanaimo all the way to Bathurst, N.B.”


Buckingham’s latest job, leading a think-tank, diverges from his chosen career in agricultural law but he’s excited about the opportunity.


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He sees CAPI as a forum that brings agricultural leaders together.


“There are a lot of different voices … and those voices need to be heard,” he said from his office in Ottawa, adding CAPI is about generating ideas for Canada’s agri-food sector.


“To look around the corner, to see what is going to be super-important for Canadian producers and Canadian consumers … in the next two to five years.”


Buckingham added that leaders of a think-tank should also ask questions that “are not obvious.”


For instance, economists and experts have said that Canada should try to double its agri-food exports. That might be a worthwhile goal but it also raises multiple questions.


“We’re having trouble, right now, moving grain on the Prairies with our current production levels. What’s that going to be like … if we double it?” Buckingham said.


“And is anybody going to be prepared to buy it? 


“And another question is: what is doubling the production going to do to the water and the air and nutrients in (prairie) soils.”


For the last few years, CAPI has looked at public trust and preserving natural capital, like water, soil and biodiversity, and why those issues are critical for Canada’s agri-food sector.


Buckingham hopes to build on those themes, but also wants to focus on agri-food trade.


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“The whole idea of being 36 million people and producing a lot more food then that … we can’t lose sight of that.”