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

Alberta NDP face legitimate concerns and kooky conspiracy theories in debate over Bill 6 farm safety bill

Alberta’s NDP government has been in full damage control mode since Bill 6: Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act exploded in their faces late last month. While attempting to bring our province closer to national standards on farm safety – Alberta is currently the only province without occupation health and safety laws and employment standards coverage for farm and ranch workers – the bill sparked two large protests at the Legislature and continues to bring out thousands of agitated rural Albertans to government-sponsored town-hall style consultation meetings across the province.

Commies

No, it’s not.

Bill 6 has been perceived as a threat to what many rural Albertans see as a traditional way of life and business on the family farm, and inept communications by the government only fuelled claims that this was the intention of the bill.

Taken by surprise, NDP cabinet ministers fanned out to the town hall meetings in an attempt to assure angry rural Albertans that they are listening to their concerns.

While the Wildrose, PC and Alberta Party MLAs have taken positions against Bill 6, the biggest advocate for the bill outside of the mostly silent NDP caucus has been Liberal party interim leader David Swann, a Calgary MLA and former medical officer of health of the now defunct Palliser and Headwaters health authorities in southern Alberta.

Returned from her trip to the Paris Climate Change Conference, Premier Rachel Notley published an open letter to reassure the media and the public that this bill was about farm safety, not about destroying the family farm.

Lori Sigurdson, Minister of Jobs, Employment and Labour, introduced amendments to Bill 6 in the Legislature this week.

The amendments, which “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” and “make clear that Occupational Health and Safety standards apply when a farm employs one or more paid employees at any time of the year,” appear to address two of the main criticisms of the bill that many opponents and critics (including myself) have raised as concerns.

Aside from legitimate criticisms that rural Albertans were not properly consulted before Bill 6 was introduced into the Legislature, some opponents of the government have tried to spread the kookiest of conspiracy theories about the NDP’s proposed farm safety law.

Over the past week, I have heard claims that Bill 6 would:

  • allow the government to nationalize farm land to build solar or wind farms,
  • force farm workers to unionize as part of some secret communist conspiracy,
  • mark the beginning of a Stalinist farm collectivization program.

None of these outlandish claims are true. But while these claims largely emanate from the anonymity of Twitter and the internet, other oddball claims are actually being made by opposition MLAs.

In the Legislature on Dec. 1, Rick Strankman, the Wildrose MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, suggested that Bill 6 could lead to OHS inspectors confiscating privately owned firearms if they were found to be improperly stored on farms. Mr. Strankman spared fellow MLAs from hearing his best Charlton Heston impersonation.

But perhaps the kookiest of conspiracy theories comes from Progressive Conservative Party interim leader Ric McIver, who is reported to have claimed Bill 6 was part of the NDP plan to turn Alberta into a “Socialist Disneyland.” According to Metro Calgary, Mr. McIver continued in length to praise the conservatism of Saskatchewan, while choosing to omit the fact that our neighbour to the east has a 5 percent provincial sales tax, a 12 percent corporate tax rate, crown corporations for insurance, power and gas, and… farm safety legislation.

Alberta’s NDP government was caught totally off guard by opposition to Bill 6 and has helped fuel the backlash by being slow to react to concerns about changes to farm safety laws. For this, they deserve to be criticized. This is an important lesson for the new government, and one they should recognized as being lucky took place in the first year of their four year term in government, and not six months before the next election.

What’s next?

Bill 6 is currently in second reading in the Legislature.

This will not be the last time the new government will need to challenge the status quo in rural Alberta. The government’s next challenge to rural Alberta will likely be related to province’s longstanding grazing lease program, which the auditor general reports has cost the government an estimated $25 million in annual revenue and is currently under review.

Changes to Alberta’s electoral boundaries, which could be redistributed before the next election to reflect changes in Alberta’s population, would likely result in a reduction of rural constituencies and an increase of urban constituencies in the Alberta Legislature.

24 thoughts on “Alberta NDP face legitimate concerns and kooky conspiracy theories in debate over Bill 6 farm safety bill

  1. Diane Marie

    Speaking of Disneyland, if Canadians held some sort of Disneyesque stereotypical view of rural Alberta, a lot of rural Albertans have gone out of their way to strengthen it – and not in a good way. Quite a few politicians have been busy rolling out the blue carpet for the Alberta Hillbilly performances.

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  2. manifesto2000

    It is long over due that Alberta have a government that understands that economic democracy is not something to treat like radioactive waste. A decade ago, when I lived in Alberta, I recall a case of a farm worker near Turner Valley being murdered by a farmer who was in a violent rage. This maniac was given, if I recall, 2 years in jail for committing the homicide. This provoked a large number of protests and got the Alberta Federation of Labour interested in the situation.

    I have first hand knowledge of registered caregivers who are providing personal supports for disabled farmers, having to stay on the job for months on end after quitting – because to abandon someone who is at risk could create liability for the care worker. Possibly now that Alberta has a government that has some understanding that there needs to be a culture of fairness when dealing with farms as work sites. Otherwise, the situation can be a powder keg of emotional tension.

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  3. Jerrymacgp

    I’ve been wondering whether the blame for this can truly be laid at the NDP’s feet. When they took office, they made the (unwise, IMHO) decision to forego a wholesale purge of the senior government bureaucracy, as had been predicted by some when they won the election. Could this fiasco have been a subtle form of sabotage by a partisan public service?

    Deciding that experience in government was more important, they totally ignored the fact that the top tiers of the provincial public service had been in the service of a 44-year entrenched PC Party that had a well-documented difficulty understanding the distinction between Government and Party.

    While it is not in the Westminster parliamentary tradition to fire the entire bureaucracy when a new government takes office, as they do in Washington DC, I had felt that in the Alberta context there should have been an exception made. All the Deputy Ministers, most if not all of the ADMs, and all of the ABCs (Agencies, Boards & Commissions) should have gone to the chopping block right off the hop.

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    1. Jpk

      Not likely the bureaucrats that screwed this up. There had been discussions with parts of the Ag sector for the past 2 years and even a farm safety panel report. Most of sensible agriculture leadership expected changes and improvements to workers safety rules, work rules and insurance coverage. Progress was a bit slow because the election, but it was occurring.
      The Bill 6 though did not come out of that process. It seemed driven by communications not by agriculture bureaucrats or even the more sensible of the employment ministry’s Bureaucrats. Seemed that ideology and checking off campaign promises drove the process rather than farm saftey

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    2. Angela North

      I’m with you on this one. I think there are plenty of PC bureaucrats that should have been fired. Including the ones involved in setting up Redford, the ones that told staff they had to disclose who they were campaigning for if they were volunteering during last election… just to name a couple of issues.

      The consultations with farmers also had been going on under Redford, but my understanding was that the farmers refused to come to the table. Stelmach also tried… and they kept pushing back. I agree the NDP screwed up a little, but the reality is the consultations for regulations is where they belong. There are no consultations needed to remove the exemptions of farm workers from WCB and OH&S. The regulations are how those will be applied are important. The shouting from the Wildrose and the purpose FUD campaign from them is not helping! This is a human rights issue, one legal option came back saying that paid farm workers being exempt from standard labour laws is unconstitutional.

      Also I had already argued with one farmer that was convinced that the owner of the frame WAS NOT exempt from WCB and I told her twice that WCB was optional for owners (just like for all other business owners), but she wouldn’t listen. And that is where the hysteria has gotten us. Farmers need to realize they are looking like they are selfish and don’t care for their workers.

      Lastly… I find it disturbing that after four children have been killed on these family farms where “parents love their children and keep them safe” that the NDP are backing down on children not being part of this legislation. Children on farms die at a rate 82% higher than non fair kids. They are often taken out of school and they are also used as manual labour at a young age. I really want to know how man kids “love it.” consider many leave farming as soon as they can (including many Hutterite kids) i really hope that something can be done to ensure that kids are better protected on farms. Traditional way of life be damned. It used to be traditional that I was a mans property, it used to be traditional to be uneducated chattel if you weren’t rich. Agriculture and society have entered the 21st century its time these farmers wake up and come to the future with the rest of us.

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      1. Fep

        Obviously there needed to be some form of legislation regarding paid farm workers. I agree some farms are taking advantage of not having to have coverage feedlots, large grain farms. Dr. Swann cited Mexican Mennonite children being used as slave labour in southern Alberta but I am not sure what he was making reference too. If that is happening then yes those things need to be addressed. I think the point of the outcry has been lost in the media frenzy.
        This government mishandled it right from the start, they can’t answer questions on how everything is going to be implemented nor what this means for the farmer to comply with OH&S. Ministers giving conflicting info and not one having a clue. To say the industry was consulted was misleading as well, some were some weren’t and their recommendations were not implemented. Other provinces do have this, some but not all and it would have been better had they brought in legislation similar to sask.
        To say we family farms (mom, pop, kids) use our kids for slave labour is ridiculous and tells me you know nothing of rural living. I would say that the majority of kids leaving the farms is a reality of the financial profits that aren’t in farming/ranching and has nothing to do with how we whipped and beat them to go feed the calves. For mom and pop to stay on that farm more often then not means taking off farm income to make it survive, and that’s fine, that’s where we have chose to live.
        Would this Bill have saved those kids? Maybe, maybe not, it would have added to the parents anguish by imposed harsh monietry penalty for sure in an already horrible accident. But maybe that’s what they deserved.

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  4. TommyP

    Having lived in other NDP provinces I’ve witnessed how mistake free the government needs to be in order to avoid such hysterical criticism. You don’t have to subscribe to a conspiracy theory to realize how the corporate media, in this case Post Media, has set a double standard for the Notley government. Hard questions come with the democratic territory, but to gin up the debate to ‘Tea Party’ levels is not the Alberta way.

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  5. Clark

    We need farm safety laws now. The hillbilly climate change denying Wildrose party would drag Alberta back into the 19th century. keepup the good work NDP!

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  6. Joe

    I applaud Ric McIver for stating the truth: the NDP is trying to turn Alberta into a socialist Disneyland. This is hardly a “conspiracy theory”, it is a fact. We must take up our arms against the oppression of socialism before our way of life is completely gone.

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    1. Maria

      Joe, you, along with Mr. McIver already live in Disneyland – or in Trump Tower – if you believe this is a conspiracy. I can’t believe that grown men come up with such crap particularly since Farm safety legislation already exist in other Provinces. The Wildrosers and Cons continue to play to the conservative base – i.e. ignorant people who can’t bother to think for themselves – in the hope of winning the next election. Wake up! that’s 4 years from now. A better way to demonstrate capability to govern is to come up with positive suggestions. I am closely affiliated with several farms, and my friends have no problem with the legislation; in fact, they already look after the safety of their workers.

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      1. Smokey

        The NDP base is no more brilliant then the Conservative base. At least the Conservative base have life experience other the pizza shops and their mothers basement. If you wanna dish out fallacies of uneducated farmer or rural types, the reality is you have deluded yourself into believing the Liberal mindset is more intelligent. When you have done that it’s apparantly that you don’t critically think.

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  7. William Munsey

    Dave, to say the Alberta Party is against the Bill isn’t exactly fair. As Greg said at the outset of his address, all of us want to enhance farm safety. It was the nature of the confusion caused by the vagueness and it’s lack of consultation with rural people (like was done on the Climate Bill). The Alberta Party is not opposed to a sound, flushed out farm safety bill at all.

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    1. Dave Cournoyer Post author

      Will Greg Clark be voting against Bill 6? If so, then he’s taken a position against Bill 6. He may have different reasons than the Wildrose Party for opposing this legislation.

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  8. David

    I don’t think the farm safety bill is a top of mind issue for Alberta voters, most of who live in urban communities. I wonder by the time of the next election and after the dust has settled whether it will even be an election issue, except in some rural areas where the NDP will not win anyways.

    If the NDP is smart (and they have made some early mistakes on this, so some of the damage so far is self inflicted), at this point they will continue to try sound reasonable and be a bit flexible by making changes to address some of the concerns expressed. By doing this, they may be able to win over urban voters, which is the real electoral prize.

    I am not surprised that the Wildrose party has tried to make hay from this issue. Their base of support is largely rural. However, it presents more of a problem for the PC’s. If they press too hard on this issue, they could risk alienating their remaining urban supporters. The Alberta Party, also has this problem to a lesser degree.

    In the end this could work out exactly the way the NDP wants, with them on one side as the main voice of a more progressive and urban Alberta and all of the main opposition parties (except the Liberals) on the other side.

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  9. Sam Gunsch

    David Roberts’ blogpost today has some relevance for Alberta?

    “Why conspiracy theories flourish on the right”

    http://www.vox.com/2015/12/10/9886222/conspiracy-theories-right-wing

    excerpt:

    One of the more striking developments in US politics in the Obama era is the increasing prominence of conspiracy theories on the right.

    excerpt: Turn on a conservative talk radio show and there’s probably a new one floating around as we speak.

    excerpt: Some new research in political science helps home in on the circumstances and character traits that allow conspiracy theories to flourish — and casts a fairly grim light on the direction of American politics.

    excerpt: First, it’s pretty obvious that conservatives are less likely than liberals to trust the political system. It’s built into the ideology. What’s more, conservative anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment has become more and more virulent over the past several decades. This lack of trust is not only directed at Democrats; the conservative base tends to scorn all professional politicians, including those in the Republican establishment.

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  10. Soberist

    Dear right wingers you are sounding stupid, kooky and crying wolf here. Stalinistic and communistic are really far off non believable terms to your narrative. The greater public will discredit you as conspiracy theorists and paranoid nuts. Please use appropriate labelling when criticizing policies and issues. You ndermine your own cause when you speak this way. This AB, regardless of nds or PCs or libs or we in power, at the end of the day, this province’s citizens are collectively right leaning.

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  11. Marcel Thievin

    I have never considered myself to be right, left, or center. I have tried very hard to look at government policy in terms of whether or not it supports the communities and peoples it represents as a whole. People voted in a different government because they recognized a need for change given the well publicized corruption and sense of entitlement brought with 40 plus years of single rule. Time to turn the page and move on. Time to recognize that it is a different world for everyone. To suggest that things should never change is close-minded and complicit in hindering what our future governments needs to do in order to adjust and change. To imply notions such as Communism is utterly ridiculous and shows why we need to educate. More importantly, time to look at the coming generations and do what we can to support them, their aspirations, and their ability to be successful in this changing world. As a generation we need to focus more on staying relevant. They (our youth) are already far more forward thinking and able to think outside the box than we ever were and their world far more vast.

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  12. Rural gal

    There are many myths surrounding the Bill. When first introduced, it covered all paid and unpaid- I have the documents before they were scrubbed from the website. So there was no misunderstanding- that has been walked back as a misunderstanding. No we understood clearly what we read.
    Myth that workers are not protected- almost all farms and ranches carry insurance for their employees- it is not WCB as in many cases private insurance is obtainable at a lower cost and affords better protection for their employees. It is rather interesting that many of these folks are going to have to tell their employees that they will be forced to accept less benefits and protection at a higher cost to their employers when they are mandated into WCB, (Why was Ms Notley standing in front of a WCB protest by injured workers – more profit, less workers- remember when she was against it)?
    Myth number three- farmers do not care about their employees or family. Per one thousand , Alberta farms are the safest in Canada. And farms are way down the list in Alberta- the highest being the construction industry which has all sorts of OHS regulations. Regulations do not prevent accidents
    tHere were no consultations- the consultations that they purport to have had – ask the commodity groups that attended- they will be the first to state that it wa skin or and they did not listen to them anyway.
    What farmers and ranchers asked for was to sit down face to face and to get this Bill correct. There is an excellent Bill in SK- why would you try and reinvent the wheel? Because this is an omnibus bill and goes much further than any other jurisdiction. It is not about safety- it is about much more. Call it conspiracy theory if you wish, but the effects on the farm or ranch will be quite substantial. we will see farms go out of business- greenhouses will be one of the first- some have already declared they are packing it in- a combination of rising gas price, minimum wage hikes, employment stds imposed. ( cows calve when they want, combines must go day and nite during harvest, and greenhouse plants grow twenty four hours a day, etc). Too bad that fresh local vegetables will be the first to go.
    They can do it cause it is about the ability to attempt to unionize farm workers and farmers constitute a small percentage of voters. But we provide an awful lot of food- agriculture is one of our largest industries. But push the farmer out and corporate farm takes over. and that is ok if that is what the folks want- if they do then all the talk about wanting safe food, local food etc is just that- talk.
    It is interesting that grazing leases have been brought up. How the govt is losing so much money . Poppycock- learn about the system before you make state,nets. Remember the onus of stewardship lies with the lease holder. If the govt wants the lease, they must also take over the liability- fire, weed control, etc. Currently the lease holder is obligated . Ask the ppl in SK how the turnover of community pastures worked out for them?
    Any way just wanted my voice heard as a farmer and rancher. Understand we only wanted to sit down and get a BILL that is right!

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  13. Gerry

    I find the conversation around Bill 6 ridicules in that the farm community rails against having to treat employees with the same respect and rights that the rest of us have enjoyed for decades. The ag business no different than any other small business. Stop standing there with your hand out thinking you are somehow special and deserve the perks you get just because it is traditional.
    Go out to the barn and pull on your big boy britches.

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  14. ray

    when you go to a farm to fill fuel tanks most are 14 to 16 feet of the ground and there diesel the over the ground why don’t have to have enviro guard tanks its unsafe for fuel hauler to be on a ladder 14to16 feet up the sided of a fuel tank

    Reply

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