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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bill 6 hotly debated in Alberta Legislature

Anti - Bill 6 protest on Highway 3, Nov. 30 (Gayle MacIntyre photos)
Chris Davis

The Alberta Government announced yesterday (December 1, 2015) that it will be amending Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, "for clarity". According to the government, Bill 6 "would ensure the safety of wage-earning farm and ranch employees" and preserve the family farm. The announcement came a day after ranchers and farmers from all over Alberta, including some from the Pincher Creek area, gathered outside the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton to protest the bill. Reports on the number of protesters involved have ranged from 700 to 1500.

If passed as intended*, Bill 6 will be implemented by January 1.

On Monday November 30 Minister of Health Sarah Hoffman told the assembly "I have been informed that there was some misinformation shared by officials at the (consultation) meetings. That is being rectified. We will have cabinet ministers in attendance at all of the consultation meetings moving forward, and we are very happy to engage with the individuals." Hoffman also addressed claims that the NDP has no relevant experience. "In terms of assertions that have been made about people not having any hands-on farm experience, that's simply not true, Mr. Speaker. There are lots of different types of farms in Alberta. I myself actually happen to be a shareholder in a farm. We own our family farm, that was homesteaded by my grandparents, and I'm very proud of that and to continue with that legacy."

"Well, I'm sure that if your grandparents were here, they'd have something to say about this particular lack of consultation," responded Wildrose leader Brian Jean.

"It's very simple, Mr. Speaker. Stop the bill," said Jean a little later on during Monday's session. "Put the brakes on. Listen to farmers and ranchers. Don't pass it next week. Any farmer who attended the first information meetings on farm labour changes quickly figured out that it wasn't a consultation meeting. They also figured out it wasn't a place where they could go for any answers whatsoever. Any detailed questions were met with 'Oh, I don't know'. Any government that introduces a bill that impacts the lives of 45,000 Alberta farm families but can't answer detailed questions has got it wrong. Stop. Will the minister just admit that she has messed up this issue, and will she slow down this bill and actually go back and consult with farmers and ranchers?"

Hoffman replied "We've heard from farmers and ranchers, and I want to thank them for speaking up and making sure that we work together to support their livelihood moving forward. One of the reasons why we've added so many new consultation opportunities is because there has been significant demand as well as making sure that cabinet ministers are there in the future and that there will be opportunities to get answers. There is consultation happening tomorrow, and there will continue to be consultation for many days to come. I think that farmers are showing great leadership in this."

“We have listened to farmers and ranchers about the need for greater clarity," reiterated Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Lori Sigurdson in the government's December 1 press release. "It has never been our government’s intention to interfere with what family members, friends and neighbours have always done on the family farm. That’s why we will amend Bill 6 to make clear what was our intention all along - that farm families would be exempt from those laws, which were designed to protect paid employees.”

Later during Monday's session Minister Hoffman said "Family farms are essential to the culture of Alberta. They're very important to us. I myself grew up in the Peace River country, and my friends went to 4-H. They'll continue to go to 4-H. Friends and neighbours, the culture, they'll still exist. This bill does nothing to take that away. We're very proud to increase safety on farms. That's what this bill is about. It's about safety."

Grande Prairie - Wapiti Progressive Conservative MLA Wayne Drysdale asked "Given that there's a big difference between a family farm and a large corporate farm or a large feedlot when it comes to labour, to the minister of labour, how do you differentiate between family farms and corporate farms?" Sigurdson replied "Well, it's very important for us to work out these nuances together in the consultations to make sure that we're hearing them because there's not one size fits all. It's very important for us to make sure that we listen to farmers and make sure the legislation is reflective of that. We absolutely want to work with the farming and ranching sector to get this right."

Cardston-Taber-Warner Wildrose MLA Grant Hunter said "Mr. Speaker, this weekend I saw something that I have never seen before. I organized a town hall this weekend, and within 24 hours I had 184 farmers come to tell me their concerns. I saw people plead and cry over proposed draconian, government forced changes to their lifestyle. These farmers love to do what they're doing, and if you mess with that, you're not just messing with their livelihood. You're messing with their lifestyle. How many people will it take telling the government not to do something before the NDP actually listen?"

"There were 1,500 people out there telling them one message: kill the bill."

According to the government's December 1 press release, the proposed amendments to the bill 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. 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."

"Ongoing consultations will help form the basis of regulations to be developed by 2017 to ensure the unique workplace characteristics of farms and ranches are recognized. One session was held in Grande Prairie on November 26 and eight more are scheduled in December. Government is working with venues to increase capacity at each session to ensure more farmers and ranchers are able to attend and have their voices heard."

In the press release Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Oneil Carlier said “We appreciate the concerns farmers and ranchers have raised. To be clear, Bill 6 is not in any way going to affect children doing their chores, participating in 4-H, or learning the family business. It does not prevent neighbours, relatives and friends from helping each other out during busy times. It does not apply to recreational activities such as riding horses or hunting on farmland. What Bill 6 does is bring Alberta farm and ranch safety standards in line with other provinces, and ensure that if a wage-earning employee is injured or killed on the job, that person and their family have the same access to financial supports as employees in other sectors.”

Liberal Leader David Swann said in a press release on Tuesday that he is concerned the government will cancel Bill 6. "Bill 6 is not a perfect bill. I support changes to this legislation, particularly when it comes to creating exemptions for family farms," Swann. "However, these changes can and should be made on the floor of the house as legislators debate the bill in the next two weeks."

Excerpts of the Bill 6 debate from the November 30 and December 1 sessions of the Legislature follow.

On the afternoon of December 1 Grande Prairie- Wapiti Progressive Conservative MLA Wayne Drysdale* said "Growing up on a farm, I learned a lot of lessons about life that I carry with me and still use today. When I was a kid, I was involved in 4-H. When I was 12, I chaired my first 4-H meeting. In the cities there are lots of activities for kids to get involved in like hockey, dance, karate, et cetera, but for me and many farm kids like me it was 4-H."

"In 4-H you learn about farm safety and how to safely deal with animals. The 4-H motto is Learn to Do by Doing, so you are prepared for the unexpected and you have tools for how to deal with complicated situations with animals. These were things you relied on in all aspects of your life around the farm. If you took a tour of the farm on a quad and you happened by a cow that had gotten herself in trouble, you knew that you could help her because you were taught by your parents and your grandparents or you learned it in 4-H."

"Farming, Mr. Speaker, is so much more than a geographic location or means of income for your family. It is a lifestyle, and this lifestyle, a great one, I might add, does not break down into specific compartments. Life on a farm is constantly mingling chores, extracurricular activity, and family life all the time."

"Whether you're dealing with your 4-H steer in the barn or a farm steer, you handle the animal with the same care and diligence because you were taught that way. There's no separation of states in farm life. You're a farm kid, and I would hate to see that lost. I am proud to have grown up on a farm, just like so many of my constituents who grew up and continue raising their families on their own. I will continue to work as the MLA for Grande PrairieWapiti to advocate for the family farms of Alberta and ensure that this government is taking the right steps to act in their best interests and not against them."
On the evening of December 1 the bill was up for second reading.

Brian Jean said "Yesterday 1,500 Alberta farmers rallied at the Legislature in opposition to Bill 6. Their message was simple: they want consultation, not dictation, and until that happens, kill Bill 6. This morning the Premier admitted that she's lost the trust of Albertans over Bill 6, but who's fault was that? Not hers, of course. It's the bureaucrats' fault. A failure to communicate, she says. She should be ashamed of herself. If the Premier wants to restore the trust of Albertans, blaming faceless bureaucrats will not cut it. Why won't she just kill Bill 6 and hold meaningful consultations with Alberta's farmers?" Minister of Health Sarah Hoffman replied "There certainly has been misinformation on this issue, and it has come from official channels. We sincerely apologize for that and are working to rectify it. I find the irony of the member opposite, who comes into this House and beats up on public services every day, talking about cutting billions of dollars from the budget, astounding."

"It's clear the NDP don't understand farmers," replied Jean. "No one in the government actually depends on farming as a livelihood. The new carbon tax will raise the cost of operating the family farm, driving vehicles, turning the lights on, operating farm equipment, and new changes being rammed through by the NDP will dramatically change how the farm operates. But the Premier is pushing harder on the gas pedal. This is wrong, stubborn, and simply out of touch with Albertans. Why does the Premier believe she needs to ram through her attack on family farms all across Alberta?"

"This bill is specifically about ensuring that paid farm and ranch employees have the same rights and protections as employees on every other work site," replied Hoffman. "Every other province in Canada has implemented these reforms, and they continue to have successful family farms, and we will in Alberta, too. We've certainly heard some feedback from farm communities, and we are acting on that through amendments."

"Over 45,000 farms are being hit hard by bad NDP policy," said Jean. "Carbon taxes, dramatic changes to farmers' livelihood... it's all creating fear and uncertainty. Farmers want this government to go back to the drawing board. They want the same respect municipalities are getting through the Municipal Government Act review. They're tired of the Premier, ministers, and bureaucrats patronizing them. They're tired of consultation meetings becoming come-and-be-told-how-it's-going-to-be meetings. How can the Premier expect any farmer in Alberta to trust them again after this direct attack on their way of life?" Hoffman replied "This legislation is geared at ensuring that people who are injured, or, God forbid, killed on the work site have some protections. That's the point of this legislation, Mr. Speaker. I know the member opposite wants us to sit on our hands and wait another six months while people continue to be at risk, but we're not going to do that. We're going to keep working, moving forward together, in partnership, and we are absolutely willing to bring forward amendments. We've said that, but the member opposite just wants us to sit on our hands, and we're not going to do that."

"If you were so right last week, you wouldn't be pushing amendments today," retorted Jean.

"The biggest I've ever seen" is how Progressive Conservative MLA Ric McIver described the Monday protest. During Monday's session he said "By now we've all learned about this government's farm and ranch consultation process. It consists of a few consult phone calls, some trust-us-we-know-everything meetings, and little sharing of the feedback received. This government only hears what they want to hear and already agree with."

"The mark of bad legislation is when a minister stands up in the House and says, “We’ve consulted everybody, and then everybody they were supposed to consult says, “No, you didn’t, and we’re not happy at all about it,” said McIver on Tuesday evening. **

Earlier in the day he said "On Monday the jobs minister (Minister Sigurdson) told this House that the buck stops with her on Bill 6. That was a positive statement. Then, to my surprise, Albertans were told on Tuesday that the Premier blames government officials for the miscommunication. Now, that is a far cry from the level of responsibility Albertans should get from their Premier. To the minister of jobs: does the buck still stop with you on Bill 6, or do you agree with the Premier on throwing all the staff under the bus?" Hoffman responded to McIver's question. "We absolutely admire family farms, and we want to work in partnership with them. There were mistakes made through official channels, and we take responsibility for that. Moving forward, we've assured that there will be cabinet ministers on all of the consultations happening throughout Alberta. There is one happening right now in Red Deer, and we've got two cabinet ministers in attendance. I want to say thank you to Albertans for stepping up and working with us to make sure that this provides safety and also honours the role that a variety of farmers play in being experts in their own field."

"Well, Mr. Speaker, it seems the cat's got the labour minister's tongue," said McIver. Minister Sigurdson did respond to that retort. "I think what's really important to know is that we're listening to farmers and that we brought forward an amendment today that we're working on. They asked us to put it in writing explicitly. It was our intent all along to do that in the regulations that would come out in 2017, so we're very proud. This is democracy in action. We're listening to farmers, and we know everyone is working together on that."

McIver called Bill 6 "bad legislation" several times during the evening debate. "This baby is not cooked. It’s not even half baked." He also argued that with the downturn in the oil and gas industry, farming and ranching is one of the areas of potential employment growth in Alberta. You make enemies that remember when you rush legislation," said McIver, Mciver said the Conservative government (of which he was a member) of the past made mistakes, and a lesson to learn from them was "If you like what you do now, don't rush to the finish line if you want to stick around."

"Folks, you've only been here six months..." said McIver later on in the session.

Little Bow Wildrose MLA David Schneider said "The government needs to recognize the anger and frustration that farmers and ranchers are feeling about the lack of consultation. Legislation before consultation or during consultation is ridiculous. Also, the moms and dads of small farms and ranches know more about safety on their land than any government can legislate."

Later Schneider said "Given that I am a farmer myself that manages 1,800 acres, doing all the work alone, and I understand the frustration that farmers and ranchers are feeling when I hear them say that their government isn't listening to them and that they want this legislation to go back to the drawing board, to the minister of agriculture. Based on your actions so far, this government is out of touch with Albertans."

"I know a bad bill when I see one," said Calgary- Elbow MLA/Alberta Party leader Greg Clark. "Farm safety is important to me and I think it's important to every single one of us in this house..." However, he asked "What are the numbers? What problem are we trying to solve here?"

"Before we go to solve a problem we need to identify what that problem is." He called it "A shell of a bill," and attacked what he called its lack of specificity. "I believe this bill needs to go back to committee, we need to pull this bill and do proper consultation..."

"My constituents have voiced pretty consist the speed with which this bill is being run through this house... said Innisfail-Sylvan Lake Wildrose MLA Don MacIntyre, "...and this bill is crafted by people who are not experts in farming"

"This government has a pattern of legislate first and so called consult later." He said he has received more concerned feedback from his constituents about Bill 6 than every other issue combined.

"Do not bite the hand that feeds you."

"Kill Bill 6."

Further debate on Bill 6 was adjourned without closure at approximately 10:00 pm December 1, and the assembly itself was adjourned.  Debate on the bill will therefore be continued this morning, December 2.  Click this link to watch an online live stream of the assembly when it is in session.

One of several public consultations is scheduled to be held in Lethbridge on Thursday December 3 from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm at the Lethbridge Lodge Hotel and Conference Center (320 Scenic Drive).  However, according to the government's webpage no seats remain available. Update: 1 seat was now showing as available just prior to publishing this story.

Click here for a full list of consultation sessions.

Related link/source: Assembly Documents and Records (Alberta Hansard)


...to be continued...

*This article has been edited for accuracy.  The cited passage by MLA Drysdale was originally mistakenly attributed to MLA Pat Stier.

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