Industry lynch-pin or a case of l’etat c’est CWB?

The best part of being a journalist is that you get to look at various questions and not have to have or evolve your own positions. You get to talk to people smarter than yourself and hear their opinions on critical matters, and since they generally see things differently on most things, you get to witness a wide waterfront of views and get to appreciate the complexity of the issue.

Obviously a loud, opinionated yackety-mouth like me likes to have and vomit-forth opinions, but on most things I enjoy not having a set view if it seems clear that the reality is unclear and can’t yet be known.

That seems to be the case with the argument over whether the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopolies will cause the unravelling of the Winnipeg and Canadian grain trade, or will hardly affect its survival at all.

People from the board and with Manitoba’s provincial government have been saying for months that the end of the board monopolies will cause the Canadian industry – now based in Winnipeg and heavily Canadian – to be taken over by foreigners and that they will pull most present industry functions from Winnipeg back to the foreign abodes. Because of the complexities of the CWB system, companies and organizations have needed to have offices here in Winnipeg, and many foreign firms have not been willing to enter the business at all, leaving most of it in Canadian hands. Without the wheat board there, why wouldn’t the industry get gobbled up by the global players and the Canadian/Winnipeg industry disappear? Without the board, what is holding the industry here?

People from many of the grain companies, industry associations and farmer advisories I have spoken to in the past couple of days disagree with this view. They say the grain trade has been here for over a century – much longer than the wheat board – and that industries like canola and the pulses are growing and getting more complex without any need for a customized regulatory structure. They think the board vastly overrates its importance. With the grain companies (mostly) based here, with the railways based here, with oodles of industry, farmer and research groups here, there will be a critical mass to carry the Winnipeg grain trade forward, they are saying.

So the crucial question to be answered is: Is the CWB the crucial lynch-pin of the Canadian industry, or is the board in the situation of French king Louis XIV, declaring “L’etat, c’est CWB.”

The only conclusion I have drawn on the matter is that no one is really going to know until the changes have been made. And then they will be irreversible. So there’s a lot at stake. Sure, other industries are growing and are based here, but there aren’t really other places in the world where the grain industry is this concentrated, and the reason it’s probably so solid here is because of the wheat board. The CWB system is uniquely complicated, so people have really had to have boots on the snowy Winnipeg ground to deal with it. Without that there, why wouldn’t it move in 100 different directions?

But it is undeniable that there is a big pile of grain industry talent and infrastructure here, so why wouldn’t others move here to take advantage of that? Some of the grain companies and other organizations are adding staff and bulking up to deal with the post-CWB world, so that’s proof that they aren’t looking to go away. Just because the grain industry isn’t centralized elsewhere doesn’t mean Winnipeg is an unsustainable anomaly. Perhaps this is a unique competitive advantage. So maybe the board is seeing itself in too grand a light.

I don’t have a clue how this is going to work out for the grain trade. The more opinions I hear the more I realize no one else is sure either. And that tells me that this is going to be a story I will be covering for years.

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