Since the announcement of Bill 6 in November, farmers across the province have been expressing concerns as per an ‘attack on their lifestyle’.
On Tuesday afternoon at Westerner Park in Red Deer the heated discussions came to a pinnacle boiling point. Over 500 people packed the room of the meeting held by the NDP framed as an opportunity to consult with farmers and ranchers. In fact, the room was so packed those late to the ‘party’ were turned away due to the room being filled.
Prior to the meeting the parking lot was packed full of picket signs and shirts bearing the slogan ‘Kill Bill 6’.
Mike Ammeter, Chairman of the the Alberta Barley Commission and Sylvan Lake grain farmer was in attendance at the meeting. He explained there were few other words to describe the emotion of those in attendance aside from ‘rage’.
“It was pretty heated,” said Ammeter. “It was so highly charged and there was a lot of emotion. Some of the comments were fairly harshly worded.”
The original legislation proposed in October combined four bills into one ‘omnibus’ bill. It stated as of January 1 farmers would now be required to adhere t0 Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act regulations as well as be required to instate Workers Compensation packages to their employees. In the spring of 2016, farmers would see Labour Relations and Employment Standards impact their operations and in 2017 they would be subjected to OHS safety code.
Another local farmer, Jennifer Johnson, was in attendance at the meeting on Tuesday and explained to Sylvan Lake News she felt the omnibus bill did not properly consult with farmers and ranchers prior to releasing the legislation.
“None of us, not even those who released the Bill, know how it is going to affect us and that’s scary and it’s a problem,” said Johnson prior to the meeting. “How do you pass a bill and say they don’t know what it’s going to look like – that’s so backwards.”
The crowd’s concerns during the meeting did not completely fall to the wayside, with Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier stating during the meeting he ‘heard them loud and clear’. He went on the say they were ‘sorry’ that the government did not provide more detail on how they plan to protect farm and ranch families. He added his government had not properly conveyed the implications of the bill.
“I would have to be made of stone to sit here and not hear the passion in this room,” said Carlier.
Following the meeting Lori Sigurdson, Minister of Jobs, Skills and Labour, announced the government had heard farmers and will be exempting family farms without employees from the legislation. She stated the changes will mean WCB regulations will only apply to paid workers meaning children, family friends and neighbours who help occasionally on the farm will not be subjected. She added she intends to introduce the legislation this week or next.
The amendment also implies safety inspectors will not be able to enter a farm where there are no paid employees regardless of any deaths or serious incidents.
“We have listened to farmers and ranchers about the need for greater clarity,” said Sigurdson. “It has never been our government’s intention to interfere with what family members, friends and neighbours have always done on the family farm.
“That’s why we will amend Bill 6 to make clear what was our intention all along– that farm families would be exempt from those laws,which were designed to protect paid employees.”
Carlier added, “We appreciate the concerns farmers and ranchers have raised. To be clear, Bill 6 is not in any way going to affect children doing their chores, participating in 4-H, or learning the family business. It does not prevent neighbours, relatives and friends from helping each other out during busy times. It does not apply to recreational activities such as riding horses or hunting on farmland. What Bill 6 does is bring Alberta farm and ranch safety standards in line with other provinces, and ensure that if a wage-earning employee is injured or killed on the job, that person and their family have the same access to financial supports as employees in other sectors.”
Ammeter, who has been involved with the Alberta Barley Commission for five years and chairman for one year, said this legislation has been on the radar of both this government and the past two Conservative governments for some time now.
He explained the P.C. government of Jim Prentice approached the Commission asking for their input on proposed legislation.
“We [as the Alberta Barley Commission] supported the inclusion of agriculture in the OHS legislation only to the extent that fatalities and serious incidents should be investigated,” said Ammeter. “Probably close to a year ago we started this process and that’s what we were comfortable with and the other components of Bill 6 that was not something we endorsed.”
He explained it was brought to the attention of the Commission that Alberta was the last province to not have agriculture included underOHS legislation.
“The way they framed it, it was really at the international level – when the federal government was negotiating some of our multi-national trade deals the comment was that Canada was one province where farmers and ranchers don’t fall under OH&S legislation and that was a bit of an issue and we were getting that message,” said Ammeter of conversations with Notley’s predecessors.
In the last 10 years, Notley and the NDP weren’t the only one’s with this legislation on their radar.
Four years ago, Alisson Redford made a comment. A subtle one, while on the campaign trail. When asked whether she thought farmworkers should be included under OHS, she responded she felt farm workers deserved the same rights. She did little to see her campaign promise be fulfilled.
Following Redford, Prentice announced last fall he would consider extending OHS legislation to large-scale farms but wanted to see more research. Following his announcement, research from Professor Jennifer Koshan at the University of Calgary showed excluding agricultural employees and farm workers from OHS and WCB legislation was in some cases unconstitutional.
She stated in her research, done in the winter of 2014 that this exclusion violates the workers’ rights to freedom of association, security of the person and equality.