The Alberta government needs to rethink its approach to overhauling safety laws on family farms and ranches. Since it was introduced in the Legislature on Nov. 17, confusion about Bill 6: Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act has triggered a significant backlash from Albertans in rural communities across the province.

Bill 6 would expand sections of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Workers’ Compensation Act, Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code to apply to farm worksites. If Bill 6 is approved by the Legislature, WCB coverage will be mandatory and farms and ranches in Alberta will no longer be exempt from OHS laws. Alberta is currently the only province without employment standards coverage for farm and ranch workers.

Around 200 protesters gathered at the Alberta Legislature on Nov. 27, 2015.

Around 200 protesters gathered at the Alberta Legislature on Nov. 27, 2015.

Nearly 400 angry farmers showed up to voice their concerns about Bill 6 at a government-organized town hall meeting in Grande Prairie last week. The event was hosted by public servants and consultants with no MLAs in attendance. Western Producer reporter Mary MacArthur reported this week that MLAs will be present at future town hall meetings planned for Red Deer, Okotoks, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Leduc, Vegreville, Olds and Athabasca.

Close to 200 people, along with 2 ponies, 1 border collie and 1 turkey (see above), staged an afternoon protest against Bill 6 outside the Alberta Legislature on Nov. 27, 2015. To their credit, Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson and Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee waded into the crowd of protesters at the Legislature to hear their concerns.

Lori Sigurdson waded into the crowd of protesters outside the Legislature.

Lori Sigurdson waded into the crowd of protesters outside the Legislature.

It is clear that there are some changes that do need to be made to farm safety laws in Alberta. As is the case in every other province in Canada, the government has a responsibility to ensure that safety standards exist for all worksites in Alberta, including agricultural work environments.

But this is where the New Democratic Party government may have put the cart before the horse. It is unfortunate that the government did not choose to hold these public consultation meetings before introducing the bill. It seems that the NDP could have saved themselves a lot of grief if Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, Premier Rachel Notley, Ms. Sigurdson and other NDP MLAs had started this process by travelling to the rural areas of the province to ask farmers and ranchers how changes could impact them.

Danielle Larivee waded into the crowd of protesters outside the Legislature.

Danielle Larivee waded into the crowd of protesters outside the Legislature.

Under current safety laws, provincial officers are not allowed to conduct investigations when a workplace fatality takes place on a farm or ranch. The WCB is a shield to protect employers from lawsuits in case of workplace injury and should probably be extended to cover all actual employees of farms and ranches. And farm workers should not be exempt from being given the choice to bargain collectively, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

But legal changes also need to reflect the uniqueness of family farms and ranches.

Unlike other worksites, farms rely heavily on incidental and seasonal help during spring and fall from family, friends and neighbours. And by definition, work on a family farm will include work done by family members, some who will not be paid a regular salary and some who will be under the age of 18. It has not been clearly communicated by the government how these changes would impact the day to day operations of these family farms or whether exceptions will be made for smaller farming operations.

While some of the criticism of Bill 6 is rooted in hyperbole and hysterics generated by opponents of the government, it is clear that there is much confusion around this bill, which is a communications failure on the part of the government.

Ms. Sigurdson released a statement following yesterday’s protest at the Legislature trying to clarify the government’s position. “A paid farmworker who is directed to do something dangerous can say no, just like other workers in Alberta and Canada. And if they are hurt or killed at work, they or their family can be compensated, just like other workers in Alberta and Canada,” Ms. Sigurdson said.

The debate around Bill 6 also highlights a political divide between rural and urban Alberta, neither of which are monolithic communities. It would be easy for us city dwellers to cast rural Albertans opposing these legislative changes as being backward or uncaring when we read media reports of workers or young children killed in farm accidents. And comments by MLAs like Liberal leader David Swann that the current legal framework would make “Charles Dickens blush” probably do not help foster a feeling of collaboration, even if there is a hint of truth to how far behind Alberta is in farm safety rules compared to other provinces.

Alberta is an increasingly urban province. According to Statistics Canada, in 1961, 53 percent of Albertans lived in rural areas. As of 2011, 83 percent of Albertans lived in urban centres with only 17 percent of our province’s population living in rural areas. This is a massive population shift.

The recent provincial election marked a rare moment in our province’s history where MLAs from rural Alberta do not have a large voice in the government caucus. Twelve of the 53 NDP MLAs elected in May 2015 represent rural or partially rural constituencies. Most areas of rural Alberta are represented by Wildrose Party MLAs, who have taken every opportunity to attack the new government and advance the narrative that the NDP do not understand rural Alberta.

As most of their NDP MLAs were elected in urban centres, they should heed the advice that MLA Hugh Horner gave Progressive Conservative Party leader Peter Lougheed more than forty years ago.

David Wood observed in his biography of Mr. Lougheed, the Lougheed Legacy, that “Horner made one point that Lougheed and his colleagues have never forgotten: when you start believing that the people in rural Alberta are somehow different than the people in the bigger centres, you’re making a mistake. Rural Albertans come into the cities, go to concerts, shop in the malls: they’re as sophisticated and as aware of the rest of the world as any of their city cousins.”

Ms. Notley grew up in the northern Alberta town of Fairview. Her father, Grant Notley, was elected and re-elected as the MLA for Spirit River-Fairview four times between 1971 and 1984. Coming from rural Alberta, Ms. Notley should have an understanding of these changes could impact farmers and ranchers.

The government has a responsibility to ensure that safety standards exist for all worksites in Alberta, including agricultural work environments. It also has a responsibility to clearly communicate to Albertans why these changes are needed and how they would be implemented. The NDP would demonstrate good will to rural Albertans by slightly tapping the breaks on Bill 6 and restarting this process with a thorough and meaningful consultation about improving farm and ranch safety in Alberta.

Update (Dec 1, 2015): The government announced it is proposing amendments to Bill 6 that would:

  • make clear WCB coverage would be required only for paid employees, with an option for farmers to extend coverage to unpaid workers like family members, neighbours and friends;
  • make clear that Occupational Health and Safety standards apply when a farm employs one or more paid employees at any time of the year.