Hundreds of farmers voiced their anger in Red Deer on Tuesday at proposed farm-safety legislation condemned as an attack on a way of life.
A room at Westerner Park’s Harvest Centre soon filled to its 500-person capacity, leaving about 200 restive people milling about outside.
Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee left the head table and stood on a snow-covered bench outside to explain her party’s farm-safety legislation, known as Bill 6, and tried to answer their questions.
The chill did little to lower the temperatures of the farmers and their families she faced who gathered to lambaste the government for rushing through legislation without consulting those on the province’s 43,000 farms and ranches.
Assurances from Larivee, Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier and Red Deer North MLA Kim Schreiner that the legislation expected to take effect on Jan. 1 only deals with the Workers Compensation Board and paid farm workers did little to improve the mood.
Many speakers fear impending red tape will destroy family farm traditions and prevent youngsters from doing the things they have always done to help out.
One woman rose to say the government’s policies were going to kill the coal mines where her father and brother worked.
“Now, they’re taking away the ranch as well,” she said, to thunderous applause and cheering, most of the crowd rising to its feet.
The government says the changes are only meant to bring the province in line with the rest of the country and improve farm safety by providing mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage to paid (T4-slip eligible) workers and to allow Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) legislation to apply to farms. Specific OHS regulations will be hammered out next year following consultation and will not take effect until 2017.
Alberta is the only province where farms and ranches remain exempt from OHS legislation. Workers Compensation Board requirements are mandatory in six provinces and can be opted out of in four.
Tempers were consistently inflamed in the crowd though by what many considered a lack of detail on how the changes will be applied and conflicting information presented by government officials and its website.
“I am going to be quite blunt, there has been some misinformation on the website,” Larivee said outside.
One person shouted out, “How can we trust you then?” in response.
Throughout her lengthy question and answer session there were shouts of “What’s the rush?”
The government’s determination to pass the legislation before the end of the year has angered many of its critics.
Inside the Harvest Centre, Carlier said the government wants the legislation in place before there is another farm death, which under current legislation cannot be investigated by Occupational Health and Safety.
“That’s the important part of this bill,” he told reporters, adding the bill provides another level of safety for farm workers.
Carlier was asked why the bill could not be sent to committee for more input. He said he would consider that, but that could delay the legislation for up to a year.
While many in the crowd were clearly fearful of the impact of the legislation, Carlier said in “my heart of hearts I cannot see that this legislation, that will give a measure of legislation to paid farm workers, will affect family farms.
“Going forward, looking at this, talking to my colleagues, I will make a commitment to ensure that farming families are not adversely affected by this legislation, or any legislation as far as that goes.”
Red Deer North MLA Schreiner said the government is listening and has added more and larger venues for farmers to discuss their concerns with government.
Schreiner said was pressed by one woman after the meeting on whether she would vote against the bill given the clear opposition in the room.
“I will tell you one thing, that I will always vote the way my constituents want me to vote,” she said, stopping short of saying she would vote against it.
Schreiner said the messages heard in Red Deer will be taken back to government.
Even before the official Bill 6 event began at 1 p.m., farmers arrived in the hundreds to rally outside the Harvest Centre beginning at 11 a.m.
The placard-waving crowd was reinforced by a small fleet of tractors, grain trucks and even a fully-loaded hay bale truck.
Speaker after speaker got up to the mic to criticize the legislation, which they say would destroy farm families and bind small farm operations up in red tape and regulations and impose crippling costs.
“I’m just here for my son,” said Meegan Carlson, whose five-month-old son Kolton was bundled up warmly in his stroller next to her.
“I’m worried about the way they’re going about the bill,” said Carlson, who carried a sign saying, ‘Save the Farm Save the Family.’
“A lot of people aren’t opposed to a lot of what’s in the bill; it’s just the wording. They need to give it time and do more consultation.”
Carlson, who made the 1 1/2-hour drive from her Meeting Creek farm to get to the protest, said farm families are not against safety. But they worry that in its haste to pass the legislation, the NDP government has not heard from those who will be affected most.
“Mistakes get made when it’s rushed.”
Graham Fegan, who farms with his family south of Delburne, has no time for the NDP.
“The NDP’s against the farmers. They’re against Alberta,” he said bluntly. “It will kill the family farm.”
His father, Bruce Fegan, said the bill will “change the way of farming” while adding an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 in costs to meet the requirements of new legislation.
Farmers with old equipment that doesn’t comply with farm safety rules will be forced to upgrade at big cost, he said.
He questions why the legislation is necessary.
“Our farm is 98 years old. We’ve never had a serious accident.”
Children start learning how to operate safely from the ages of six or seven.
“Farmers knew what they could do and what they couldn’t because we trained them from an early age.”