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Judge to rule Wednesday on Canadian Wheat Board fight

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz holds a news conference in Ottawa ahead of the final House of Commons vote on eliminating the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over western grain sales on Nov. 28, 2011.

FRED CHARTRAND/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

A Federal Court judge is to rule Wednesday on whether federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has broken the law with his reform of the Canadian Wheat Board.

Mr. Justice Douglas Campbell said if he rules in favour of the wheat board, his decision may have little impact.

"It's up to the minister how he takes it," Judge Campbell said Tuesday. "It's a statement that the court makes."

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Lawyers for the wheat board argued Tuesday that Mr. Ritz is breaking the law by ending the board's 60-year monopoly on western wheat and grain sales without first holding a plebiscite among producers.

"This is all about fairness. The minister's conduct, in my submission, was unfair and contrary to law," John McDougall told the court in Winnipeg.

"That decision … was to be the decision of farmers."

Mr. McDougall pointed to Section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act, which states that changes to the agency's handling of wheat and barley cannot be made unless "the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension."

Government lawyers argued the case should be dismissed because the courts have no jurisdiction to override legislation being debated in Parliament. Governments are free to amend or repeal laws as they see fit, the lawyers told the court.

"This is an improper attempt to interfere in the legislative process," Robert MacKinnon told the court.

"Parliament never intended to restrict the ability of Parliament to amend this act or change this regime."

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There are other arguments being put forward in the case. The wheat board says even if the court finds that the government did not break the law, it should rule that the government has a duty to hold a plebiscite because it promised one.

Matthew Fleming, another board lawyer, pointed to several public statements from Mr. Ritz and previous agriculture ministers that indicated farmers would get to vote on any changes.

"Farmers were promised a vote. The minister himself made that promise," Mr. Fleming said. "In my submission, the minister should be held to his promise."

If the wheat board wins, it hopes it would at least put pressure on the Conservatives.

"There is at least a possibility that the government may reconsider the bill," Mr. McDougall said.

The government's plan to end the wheat board monopoly by next Aug. 1 has divided farmers. The board was set up following the Great Depression in an effort to have farmers band together and seek higher prices. Supporters say the single desk prevents producers from competing against each other for sales.

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Detractors say they want the freedom to seek better deals on the open market. They point out that producers of other grains, as well as wheat farmers in other parts of Canada, already have that freedom.

The Canadian Press

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