Editor’s note: The following story is an edited version of an earlier story posted online.
By Robert Arnason
The communication team at the Alberta Wheat Commission has a fondness for affirmative verbs.
When employees craft public statements for the commission, they like to “applaud,” “commend” and “congratulate” the federal government or agriculture minister Gerry Ritz for supporting Canadian farmers.
The commission gets a lot of mileage from those words because six out of the 15 news releases posted on its website praise the good works of the federal government.
For example, in late February Ritz announced that Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act, had received royal assent.
Shortly after, the commission issued its own release, commending the federal government for getting the bill through Parliament.
The commission isn’t the only commodity or farm group that has good things to say about the federal government.
When Ottawa announced royal assent for the Canada-South Korea free trade agreement in early December, the Grain Growers of Canada, the Canadian Canola Growers Association and the Barley Council of Canada sent out news releases applauding the government for the accomplishment.
A director with a Saskatchewan commodity group, who asked not to be named, said the cheerleading has become absurd because the organization almost prohibits criticism of the federal government and most board members are subservient to Ritz.
The director said submissive behaviour is commonplace at the board level as many farm groups in Western Canada compete to gain Ritz’s favour.
Allan Preston, former assistant deputy minister with Manitoba Agriculture, said communication strategies have changed significantly since he was in government only four years ago.
“I think the communication now is way too staged, way too orchestrated,” said Preston, a veterinarian who operates Preston Stock Farms near Hamiota, Man.
“The communication folks draft the press release. They put the press release in the hands of the organizations they know are their… allies and they orchestrate that response…. That process wasn’t nearly as ingrained back in the days when I was in government.”
The news releases that the Alberta Wheat Commission posts on its website date back to November 2013 and include the period when western Canadian farmers suffered through one of the most distressing and controversial grain shipping seasons in history.
See related story here.
Only one wheat commission statement in the winter of 2013-2014 mentions the shipping crisis. It thanks Ritz and federal transport minister Lisa Raitt for taking regulatory action to improve rail service.
In contrast, Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and the Alberta Federation of Agriculture issued a joint statement in November 2013 that said “poor rail service is hindering the bumper crop … from getting to market.”
Sinclair Harrison, Hudson Bay Route Association president and long-time farm leader from Moosomin, Sask., said leaders of producer-governed organizations have a responsibility to debate farm issues publicly.
“I was never one to shy away from criticizing,” he said.
“Regardless of what organization you belong to, if (members) don’t see their leadership representing them properly, they’re not doing their job.”
Weldon Newton, a former KAP president, said there’s a difference between criticism and going to war with the government.
“I don’t think we (farmers) need to pick fights with them publicly, that doesn’t do any good. But we’ve got to feel free to criticize them in the appropriate fashion (so) we can actually accomplish something.”