A wall filled with sticky notes, each bearing comments from farmers, ranchers and agriculture businesspeople, decorated the meeting.
They represent input into the Alberta government’s Farm Freedom and Safety Act, which it expects to develop, table and pass in the next legislative session.
The new act will replace the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act enacted by the NDP government in 2016. That act was more commonly known as Bill 6, its initial iteration that caused widespread protest among the province’s farmers and ranchers. Among their objections was a perceived lack of consultation with the agricultural sector before the law was passed.
The blank pages waiting to be filled by those at about 25 meetings throughout Alberta in recent months stand in contrast.
“It’s just been a really positive process so far,” Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen said at the 21st consultation meeting, this one held in Lethbridge Aug. 21.
“Farmers are just appreciative of the fact that there’s a government that’s out there wanting to listen to them.… They’re happy that they’re getting their say into what will eventually repeal and replace Bill 6.”
Dreeshen said farm safety legislation brought in by the previous government is “100 percent impractical, had no common sense to it, didn’t work, couldn’t work. I think the protests and everything than followed afterwards was just a testament to that.”
Egg producer Joe Kleinsasser, a participant at the Lethbridge meeting, echoed a needed emphasis on consultation.
“I like this process. It’s very open. I think that the ideas of this government, the heart is in the proper place,” he said.
Hutterite colonies are exempt from much of the existing legislation by virtue of being deemed family farms. Kleinsasser, a Hutterite colony member, said colonies never wanted to be treated differently from other farmers and that is an example of flawed legislation.
“The process of rolling it out, it could have been done in a different fashion. If the consultation would have been different, maybe the end result would have been different,” he said.
Dreeshen said several themes have emerged from the meetings.
“One is a choice in insurance,” he said.
“Farmers … want to be able to choose between WCB (Workers Compensation Board) or to have their private insurance.
Many farms have their own insurance plan for themselves and their employees, and found the requirement to also have WCB coverage to be onerous.
Another theme, said Dreeshen, was farmers’ and ranchers’ desire to have legislation reflect the unique nature of the industry and have practical, common sense elements respectful of the field.
Dreeshen said feedback has varied on whether small farms, those with no or few employees, should be exempt from elements of new legislation. That’s one aspect that will require further study.
In the meeting format, participants were asked to discuss employment standards, labour relations, workers’ compensation, occupational health and safety, and farmer-led research.
The UCP government’s basic proposals, according to supplied documents, are:
- Give farmers options in buying workplace insurance, so long as they have basic coverage.
- Exempt small farms from employment legislation.
- Ensure basic safety standards are in place.
- Reduce the regulatory burden and minimize red tape for farmers and ranchers.
Dreeshen said input from the meetings will further inform the final legislation.
“It is very much our intention to, the consensus that we build from these consultations as well as online survey … to be able to put all that together and have a consensus from it and be able to draft the legislation from it. So it’s very much a grassroots process.”
As of 2016, Alberta had more than 40,000 agricultural operations and the industry employed about 33,000 people.