Activist farmer Allen Wilford left a Stratford, Ont., jail last week, confident that his eight-day hunger strike finally spurred Parliament into action on farm bankruptcy legislation for which he and his 3,500-member Canadian Farmers Survival Association (CFSA) have been fighting. Wilford gave up his fast—water and Tang only—last Wednesday when he learned that the Commons had given second reading to Bill C-653, a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal back-bencher Ralph Ferguson, which would make a judge arbitrate between the banks and the farmers in an attempt to forestall foreclosures.
The 34-year-old CFSA president was arrested earlier this month at his Allenford, Ont., home on a theft charge stemming from a “penny auction” held at the Perth County farm of John Otto. At the Depression-style auction, more than $100,000 worth of farm equipment was sold for only $19.81 to prevent the Toronto Dominion Bank from seizing it. When Wilford refused to sign a release form pledging to attend his court appearance, he was jailed. He then announced his hunger strike. During the eight days, he lost about seven pounds from his boyish 140-lb. frame. But it was worth it. His protest sparked intense lobbying in Ottawa, demonstrations outside the jail and hundreds of telegrams of support from farmers and sympathizers across Canada. Even the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, which met in Toronto last week, took up the cause. The bishops sent telegrams to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and several ministers urging hasty passage of Bill C-653.
When Wilford walked out of the yel-
low-brick Stratford County jail, pending a preliminary hearing in late June, he went home to his wife and four children, had a bowl of chicken soup and took off on a speaking tour of the West. There, he will run into opposition from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which claims that the bill will hurt agriculture by reducing the pool of farm financing. That opinion was soundly rejected by federal NDP critic Nelson Riis, who called the beef farmers “the agricultural lackeys of the banks.”
The CFSA, born in the depressed beef cattle country around Owen Sound, Ont., has been preaching hope through civil disobedience to farmers for more than a year. There have been heated demonstrations in Ottawa and at Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Blockades went up at the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke to enlist support from truckers. Sympathizers staged “gate defences” at foreclosed farms to prevent bailiffs from seizing assets, then hid barnyard stock and equipment. Such tactics have angered banks and other established institutions. Last week the Canadian Bankers’ Association declared that passage of Bill C-653 would prompt lenders to “exercise additional caution in advancing credit.” But the CFSA has found an ear in a province where as many as 300 farmers will declare bankruptcy this year, compared to 170 last year. Ferguson, the originator of the bill, hopes that it will be enacted before the end of March.
As for his stay in jail, Wilford said it was a debilitating yet enlightening experience: “One of my cellmates was all for the hunger strike, but another—all he wanted to know was if he could have my DESSERTS.”-KEN BECKER in Toronto.
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