By J.W. Schnarr, Southern Alberta Newspaper Group Southern Alberta producers had a chance to air their grievances about Bill 6 at a town hall session in Lethbridge on Thursday.
An estimated 700 people showed up to confront Lori Sigurdson, Minister of Advanced Education and Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, and Oneil Carlier, Minister of Agriculture. The crowd was well-behaved but made no mistake about their opposition to the contentious bill.
Carlier began the discussion by offering an apology to those in attendance.
“On behalf of our whole caucus, we are sorry,” he said. “We should have provided the details about how we planned to protect farm and ranch families when we first introduced the bill.”
Bill 6 – Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act – would remove existing exemptions from workplace rules for farms. The bill would make changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Workers’ Compensation Act, Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. Changes to OHS are not planned to be implemented until 2017.
Sigurdson said the bill is about safety and protection for farm and ranch paid employees.
“I know farmers and ranchers want to make sure paid employees are safe in their workplaces.”
She noted there is still a full year of consultation to be done on working out the Occupational Health and Safety technical requirements before they are to be implemented in 2017.
“That’s how it works,” she said. “You pass the Act, and then you work out the technical requirements.”
Jake Meyer is a rancher from Welling, who said he was attending the event because he sees Bill 6 as one of the biggest political events to affect farmers in a long time.
“(It is about) the possibility of out-of-control regulations,” he said. “There’s no farmer or producer that is against increased safety, and there’s no farmer or producer against making that mandatory, but giving the government such a blank cheque is absolutely wrong.
“Farmers and ranchers need to be consulted prior to any legislature being passed.”
Meyer said people were peacefully gathered to defend their livelihoods and their lifestyles.
“We hope that the government sees the importance of what they’ve done, with the miscommunication, and the wrong way they’ve introduced this bill.”
John McKee, from Stirling, said Bill 6 was less about safety and more about restricting the freedom of producers.
“Agriculture has worked in Alberta for over 100 years,” he said. “We don’t need or want this legislation.”
“We feel this bill is all about control,” he added. “A way to penalize forward-thinking producers, a way to keep us under their thumb, a way to shut down what we stand for, and the way we’ve been taught to live.”
Sigurdson said workplace safety rules put in place for farm operations would not necessarily look the same as in other industries.
“We need to make sure that WCB and OHS understand the uniqueness of the industry,” she said.
At one point, Carlier told the crowd due to the laws in Canada, all Canadians must be given an equal right to form a union. The crowd responded with a chorus of boos.
One speaker accused the government of being untrustworthy.
“We don’t trust you,” he said. “There’s nothing you can say to make us believe that you care about us.
“We don’t like you. We don’t like your bill, and you should not be happy we’re here, because we are very angry.”
One common demand was that Carlier meet with producer groups in order to gain more perspective.
“I’ll contact those producer groups, and I would very honestly like to meet with them,” Carlier said.
Another speaker broke down into tears when addressing the ministers.
“I don’t own a farm or a ranch,” she said. “But I’ve always worked on one, and so has my husband. And you’re singlehandedly going to wreck our lives with your bill.”
Few voices speaking at the event seemed in favour of any aspect of the bill, but one speaker said he could understand some of the points of the bill. He noted he supported some change to labour rules on farms, including the practice of hiring children.
“I think it’s a small problem, but it’s one that needs to be dealt with. I don’t think we should hire school-age kids during work hours.
“I don’t think I should be taking kids out of school to work on my farm. Maybe I’m wrong.”