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Keep Karl on Parl

From here in the city, it almost looks as if rural Alberta has worked itself into a full-blown tantrum over Bill 6, the NDP government’s legislation to require basic health and safety mechanisms and workplace rights for farm and ranch employees just like every other province in Canada.

At a small demonstration on the steps of the Alberta Legislature Friday the claim was heard repeatedly that Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, will “destroy the family farm way of life,” and if coffee shop chatter is anything to go by, many Albertans are persuaded this is true.

There were about 150 people at Friday’s demonstration — augmented by curious civil servants, passers-by, NDP politicians like Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson, and a large media contingent. Protesters cleverly brought along two ponies, a very sweet Border collie and a noisy and healthy looking turkey, proving someone knew a thing or two about how to attract journalists to an event.

Since the protesters didn’t just hop off an LRT car — in some cases they drove many kilometres to take part — we can assume that in rural Alberta this issue has legs, quite often four of them, although perhaps not universal support among farmers.

So you can expect there to be a bigger crowd, and one that’s easier for the government’s opponents to hijack, at Westerner Park in Red Deer tomorrow, where a “town hall” meeting on Bill 6 is scheduled.

Several factors have contributed to the current state of affairs, including:

  1. A full-blown campaign of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) in rural areas by the Wildrose Party and professional far-right agitators from extremist political groups like the so-called Rebel Media operation.
  2. A serious communications breakdown by an inexperienced government that didn’t talk first with the people impacted, can’t seem to explain why the legislation is needed let alone how it works, and has an agriculture minister who is keeping too low a profile for the circumstances.
  3. The fact the government can’t just waltz away from this because it’s become a political hot potato — both the courts and natural justice demand basic workplace safety, collective bargaining and insurance protection for agricultural employees whether some farmers like it or not.
  4. The reality that notwithstanding the hair-on-fire hysteria by some people in the farm community, opponents of Bill 6 have highlighted legitimate problems with the legislation that need to be corrected, and can be.

In other words, this mess needs a reboot, but not one that involves a lengthy delay or hands an apparent victory to an essentially irresponsible opposition.

If the changes needed are made and the legislation is then passed expeditiously, this problem can be smoothed over — although the opposition will do its best to keep people stirred up with endless truckloads of FUD until the next election.

The best answer to the FUD Factor would be some clarity from the government about how Bill 6 is supposed to work, which they haven’t provided up to now. Everyone who has followed this brouhaha, opponents and supporters alike, is confused about some aspects of Bill 6. This has aided the opposition campaign enormously, and the government has no one to blame but itself.

One thing is clear, though, and this is that the claim Bill 6 will destroy the traditional “family farm” and its way of life is nonsense, no matter how passionately it is believed in certain quarters. The proof of this is simple enough: if it were true, the family farm would no longer exist anywhere else in Canada, because everywhere else in Canada has similar legislation.

Moreover, some opponents of this legislation — who may be associated with large agricultural operations closer to factories than farms and which often hire unskilled workers from nearby cities or even other countries to work with large, dangerous and aggressive animals — are intentionally fudging the definition of “family farm” for self-interested economic reasons. And don’t forget private insurance providers and ambulance-chasing lawyers who stand to lose money if Workers Compensation Board no-fault insurance comes into force.

The main argument for Bill 6 is the obvious need for no-fault Workers Compensation to protect both agricultural workers and their employers, enforcement of basic occupational health and safety rules in agricultural workplaces that have paid employees, and recognition of the right of paid workers on agricultural operations to refuse unsafe work. Those workers’ constitutional right to bargain collectively must also be recognized before the courts step in and force the issue.

Why the government hasn’t successfully communicated these points is something of a mystery. Surely it could have made the case that without WCB coverage injured employees could sue their farmer-employers for everything they own or leave them facing the costs of their legal defence.

This, presumably, is why farmers in other parts of Canada aren’t particularly unhappy with this arrangement. The NDP should have banged away on this point: “We’re protecting rural job creators from frivolous and expensive lawsuits.”

Most large agricultural operators in Alberta, such as feedlots, already have disability insurance and other benefits because they have to compete with the oil and gas sector for workers. But this is no argument for not making such coverage a legal responsibility, because there are irresponsible employers in every business.

Since farmers can’t pass on extra costs the way other businesses do because markets over which they have no control set agricultural commodity prices, they have a legitimate concern about the potential extra costs Bill 6 may entail. But the government could address that cost concern.

As for enforcing workplace safety rules, as a farming acquaintance of mine says: “Big deal! In practice all that means is if I actually hire a person to run the grain truck or combine, I have to go over how to operate it safely and they can refuse to work with equipment that does not have the safety shields in place, and I have to provide basic safety equipment like ear protectors and dust masks. Basic common sense and Darwin in action if I don’t do it for my own family.”

However, the fact farmers have to read at least 10 complicated facts sheets published in different places on the province’s website to understand this amounts to a major communications failure that has helped the opposition.

So now we get to the hair-on-fire bit, which the ‘Fuddites” of the Wildrose Party are fanning effectively: the need to exempt from WCB requirements immediate family members and non-wage helpers who lend a hand on a good-neighbour basis.

This is the basis of the emotional claims the family farm and the way of life associated with it are threatened, and it is a legitimate concern with Bill 6.

The bill should be amended to fix this, and easily can be with an exemption announced loudly and proudly by the government. Paid employees, though, obviously need to come under this requirement.

When the legislative dust has settled, farm children are still going to be able to do their chores without having to be covered by Workers Compensation.

And if the family farm way of life is threatened, it won’t be by Alberta’s Bill 6, but by policies like the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board and the planned elimination of egg, poultry and dairy supply management by the unlamented Conservative federal government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...