Consultations being set to draft codes and standards for new legislation

With help from their sons, Sandra Desmet and her husband operate a grain and cattle farm on roughly 647.5 hectares just outside of Strathmore, an hour east of Calgary.

Theirs is among a large number of Alberta farm families confused and angered by
the recent passing of Alberta government farm safety legislation, known as Bill 6. Desmet is worried that new rules regarding farm work will jeopardize her family’s future involvement in the agriculture industry.

“At this point we are just wondering about what the actual legislation is going to be because they say they are going to consult us and we don’t know what that consultation is going to result in,” Desmet says.

Officially brought into effect Jan. 1, 2016, Bill 6 is the first legislation of its kind applying to farms and ranches in Alberta, and many unanswered questions remain.

Sandra Desmet, a member of Alberta’s agricultural community opposing Bill 6, has roughly 180 head of cattle on her farm that she tends to alongside her family. Photo by Skye Anderson“We don’t know how much casual labour that we’re allowed, (and) we don’t know about custom bail hauling, custom trucking, (veterinarians) coming onto your land,” Desmet says.

“It is the miscommunication all through the whole legislation and bill that’s just been really frustrating.”

Following a month or more of acrimonious protests by Alberta farmers in the weeks before Christmas, Premier Rachel Notley took responsibility for confusion surrounding the bill.

Her government then sought to clear the air and the government website now states that new rules apply only to farm and ranch operations with paid, waged workers and not to owners or family members who work on the farm.

Under the legislation, wage earning farm workers must be registered with the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) by April 30 this year, while basic Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) standards will then also apply to those workers.

Consultation groups to draft specifics

But those two measures aside, the effort to determine the full details of legislation is just beginning and it could take up to 18 months to complete the process.

“There is just so much grey area that we don’t know about yet,” Desmet says.

Desmet, who is one of thousands of Albertans still against the Bill 6 legislation, says that concern remains. Currently, there are over 50,000 members in the Facebook group called Farmer’s Against NDP Bill 6. According to Desmet, there is a circulating petition with thousands of signatures representing Albertans who are opposed to the bill.

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Hon. Oneil Carlier is working to enhance workers’ protection on farms and ranches in Alberta, which would align the province with the rest of Canada.
Photo Courtesy of the Government of Alberta.
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Hon. Oneil Carlier, who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan and spent 20 years with Agriculture Canada, and who became a target of farmers’ anger over Bill 6, agrees there are legitimate concerns among farmers and ranchers. He says there will be various steps in the upcoming process of drafting the detailed regulations.

“We have started the process of populating six different consultation tables,” Minister Carlier says. “These tables will be manned or populated by people from the industry … representatives from labour and workers as well.”

“Health and safety experts [will] start working on the code, working on the regulations, working on all those little nuances in agriculture that need to be taken into consideration as we go forward to make sure that this works, and works for Alberta.”

Minister Carlier further explains that commodity and municipality groups, such as the Alberta Wheat Commission and the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, are canvasing their memberships for the upcoming process set to begin in February. Some of these groups have been asking farmers and ranchers to offer their input through methods such as online surveys.

Discussing best practices

Saskatchewan and British Columbia already have farm safety and farm worker legislation in place, and Alberta Conservatives were criticized for not acting in the past to address this.

“I hope they are going to listen to the farmers and the user groups as far as the consultation… what these regulations are going to do to help us instead of hinder us.” – Sandra Desmet, Alberta farmer

In 2010, Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan stated on the federation’s website that a lack of farm safety rules was “a step down a dangerous path.”

Now six years later, that path has taken a different course due to a change in government. As part of the drafting process for this new legislation, the consultation groups will review best practices in other provinces, like Saskatchewan and British Columbia, to see what will work best for Alberta.

According to the Government of Alberta’s website, the consultation tables will discuss the following:
• Labour Relations Code;
• Employment Standards Code;
• Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Code;
• OHS best practices for safety within current Alberta farming operations;
• OHS best practices for agriculture;
• OHS awareness, education and certification.

“I would hope that they are consulting the actual user groups, and not like the town hall meetings where they were just there to tell us what they are going to do,” Desmet says about the upcoming drafting process.

“I hope they are going to listen to the farmers and the user groups as far as the consultation… what these regulations are going to do to help us instead of hinder us.”

Potential for successful legislation

Lori Williams, associate professor in the faculty of policy studies at Mount Royal University, says there should have been more consultation with farmers and ranchers prior to Bill 6 being passed. Photo courtesy of Deb BocabellaLori Williams, an associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University, offers her insight and says the NDP government handled Bill 6 “uncharacteristically poorly,” but believes it is capable of consultation and collaboration, as proven in last year’s climate change review.

“Here, we have got a government who managed to call together a coalition of people who are basically on the opposite sides of the table on environmental issues, got them to work together because they recognized what the common interest was for them,” Williams says.

“If they were able to do that, with such a deeply divided group of interests for the environment and climate change, it seems certainly like it might have been a possibility to do better than they did on farm safety legislation.”

Williams also says the NDP may have underestimated the opposition, and this has been seen in Alberta’s past with Alison Redford’s 0.05 per cent alcohol limit law in 2012, and in Ed Stelmach’s case, with the power transmission changes in 2011.

Although Stelmach backed down, Notley has remained adamant that this legislation is what’s best for farm and ranch workers in Alberta. Until the specific codes and regulations are in order, there are certain things farmers and ranchers can do to be prepared.

“I would often encourage … farmers and ranchers, to look at registering with WCB in anticipation of perhaps seasonal work that won’t be starting until later in the year, perhaps not even until July,” Carlier suggests.

sanderson@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Cheryl Russell, crussell@cjournal.ca