The curious history of the federal government’s bill to alter the Canadian Wheat Board, which received royal assent on Thursday, is a salutary reminder that acts of Parliament should never try to restrict future acts of Parliament.
Until Thursday, the Wheat Board statute set a condition on changes to the board’s monopoly over the sale of wheat and barley in much of Western Canada. It did not allow the minister of agriculture even to introduce such a bill without a vote in favour by the farmers concerned. Nonetheless, Gerry Ritz, the present minister, did introduce a bill to end the monopoly.
The Wheat Board and several of its allies went to the Federal Court to stop the bill. To their credit, they were not asking for damages or an injunction; they just wanted a declaration that Mr. Ritz had broken the law.
Mr. Justice Douglas Campbell agreed with the Wheat Board and ruled against Mr. Ritz. The judge acknowledged the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, but he thought this case fit into an exception for procedural requirements – mistakenly, because a veto by a group of grain producers is much more than, say, rules for the formatting of a bill.
This conundrum is reminiscent of the ambiguously worded Canadian Bill of Rights, brought in by the Diefenbaker government, which appeared to place potential restrictions on all future federal legislation. Eventually, in 1982 the Charter of Rights and Freedom, a clearly constitutional measure, put that perplexity to rest.
Fortunately, the Harper government persisted, the House of Commons and the Senate passed the Wheat Board bill, and David Johnston, the Governor-General, gave royal assent. Parliamentary sovereignty was not hobbled.
Editor's note: David Johnston is the Governor-General. An incorrect first name appeared in an earlier version of this editorial.