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question period

It started as a rant against the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board but quickly went south.

Pat Martin, the expressive New Democrat MP from Winnipeg Centre who often relies on colourful analogies to make his point, blasted the Conservative government during Question Period Wednesday for its determination to remove the board's monopoly.

As a follow-up, Mr. Martin suggested that the dismantling of the wheat board means Canadian agricultural business will go to the United States. In doing so, he referenced the private parts of one of Canada's most beloved icons.

"Folklore has it," Mr. Martin told the Commons, "that the Canadian beaver will bite off its own testicles when it is threatened and offer them up to its tormentors. I think that is a fitting metaphor for the way our Canadian government reacts to bullying on trade issues by carving off pieces of our nation and offering them over to the Americans."

Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz could not resist continuing the in the same vein. "I think that is a very fitting metaphor," he replied, "because the member for Winnipeg Centre is impotent to stand in the way of farmers getting freedom."

With the Commons in an uproar, it was up to Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae to ask his first question. Mr. Rae is rarely thrown off guard but there was a pregnant pause before he proceeded.

"Mr. Speaker, on the same subject, with a slightly different tone..." he said before asking why the government would not have a plebiscite to let the Prairie farmers decide the wheat board's fate.

That sent the ball bouncing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Mr. Speaker," the Prime Minister said doing his best to control a sly smile, "I cannot let go of the earlier exchange. I just hope the member for Winnipeg Centre's bark is not as bad as his bite."

Asked afterwards about his decision to go with the beaver tale, Mr. Martin credited writer Margaret Atwood. It was part of a presentation she made to a parliamentary committee in 1987 about the free-trade agreement, he explained.

In fact, beavers do not bite off their own testicles, but they do mutilate themselves, Mr. Martin explained. "Apparently the story started because beavers are one of the only mammals that carry their genitals – their male genitals – within themselves. There's no exterior presence as it were," he said.

So "it doesn't exist in nature," Mr. Martin said, "but it does exist in Margaret Atwood's very colorful presentation. ... Canada, when cornered and bullied in trade agreements, tends to bite off a chunk of itself and offer it up to its tormentor, in this case the United States – in this analogy, the agri-food giants and the American agri-food business."