“Why should I sell your wheat?”

A precursor of things to come in the difficult relationship between the Liberal Party and Western Canadians.  

In 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was meeting wheat farmers at the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) headquarters in Winnipeg. Reacting to heat that farmers were giving him about the low prices they were getting for wheat, barley, and oats that – by law – had to be sold through the federal CWB, Trudeau fumed: “Why should I sell your wheat?” With this toss-off, Trudeau was implying that if farmers thought they could do better selling directly to market, maybe they should be allowed to do so…. if the CWB was abolished. He knew full well that most farmers didn’t want that either.

Trudeau later rephrased his own question as, “What does a sandal-wearing lawyer from Quebec know about selling wheat?”. The answer, presumably, was nothing. And what sandals have to do with the issue remains unclear.

Despite Trudeau’s musings about the CWB, it survived another four decades. However, it was cut down and eliminated in 2012 by the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper. Over 60 percent of wheat farmers voted in favour of maintaining the CWB in a 2011 plebiscite, but their voices were drowned out by a vocal minority of farmers. Those opposed to the CWB tended to have large-scale operations or to farm close to the Canada-US border, which made them well-placed to market their grain privately. 

Trudeau may have avoided abolishing the CWB for fear of fanning the flames of Western Alienation. But Harper had less to lose. His government could rely on the historic animosity towards the Liberal Party in the West to outweigh the votes of some disgruntled grain farmers in the next election.

Besides, Harper likely never wore sandals, which may have made the difference. But have you seen his backwards cowboy hat and tight leather vest?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, University of Alberta Library

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