Anxiety stalks ag department as job cuts loom

The United Conservative Party’s October 2019 budget showed 51 positions would be eliminated, and that occurred in December. Its next budget, released in February 2020, detailed plans for another 277 job cuts, which would be 40 percent of all government reductions this year. | Michelle Houlden graphic

As the halcyon days of summer wear on, many are busy preparing for fall harvest. For others, each summer sunset is a reminder that the clock on their employment is ticking down to Sept. 1, 2020. That is the day Alberta’s Agriculture and Forestry employees may face wholesale cuts in their department.

The United Conservative Party’s October 2019 budget showed 51 positions would be eliminated, and that occurred in December. Its next budget, released in February 2020, detailed plans for another 277 job cuts, which would be 40 percent of all government reductions this year.

Many fear agricultural research will suffer major cuts.

Minister Devin Dreeshen was unavailable for an interview related to this story, noting scheduling conflicts, and a spokesperson emailed a statement.

“Within the Agriculture and Forestry department, we are finding efficiencies while delivering a high-quality service standard. Wherever possible, we will leverage attrition and vacancies and not renew temporary contracts when they expire. We will minimize job impacts by leveraging attrition and moving staff members into other vacant, front-line roles.”

Since the 2020 budget was released, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has twice negotiated a moratorium with government on job cuts.

Three department employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal, described the current environment within Alberta Agriculture.

The staff reduction process began in October 2019 when Andre Corbould, former deputy minister in the department, held a conference call with staff and confirmed jobs would be lost.

“We all knew that when we voted (Jason) Kenney in that there’d be cuts coming, but nobody thought they’d be so viciously targeted to the industry that’s carrying this province,” said a research scientist dubbed P.T. for the purposes of this story. “Nobody expected that.”

(Editor’s note: The initials used in this story have no relation to the names of the people who spoke to the issue.)

But there had already been early warning signs of changes, such as cancellation of travel. “There was no business as usual, everything was frozen,” P.T. said.

“We got the sense that something was happening, just the way that everything was evolving.”

It was a similar story for another researcher, J.K., who said being immobilized made their job virtually meaningless.

“We cannot even travel to a meeting to Red Deer,” said J.K. “It makes me feel terrible. There is no personal development. There are no opportunities to have contact with the industry. In research, we need to travel to get money from the industry to leverage that money from the industry with federal and provincial funds that become grants. If we cannot leverage industry funds, how are we expected to do our job?”

When 51 people lost their jobs before Christmas, it was a process J.K. termed “disgusting.” In most cases a couple people would enter a person’s office and within minutes they’d be led out with no time to say goodbye.

In that same quarter, Dreeshen announced consultations would begin early in 2020 on the future of research in the province. That announcement led to formation of Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR).

Sources said research scientists were discouraged from attending any meetings about changes to research and instead were given a staff-only session. A third source, O.J., called it a charade.

“I felt it was very much checking the box,” they said. “I think we do wonder how much was actually heard. Maybe I checked out of the whole process because we know there are giant cuts coming. We know we are going to be gone.”

Meanwhile, P.T. and J.K. broke ranks and attended external sessions. For J.K., it was a jaw dropper.

“It was all a setup, it was just the process,” said J.K. “They (had) already made up their mind that they were getting out of research.”

During the RDAR session P.T. attended, broad questions were posed that offered few clues about the future. However, P.T. said they fear the keys to research will simply be handed over to applied research associations (ARAs), leaving academic research in the dust.

“They gave zero indication where their heads were at and what they were going to do,” said P.T. “To this very second, I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

They believe it likely that the applied research groups will take control but are hopeful that provincial commissions will also be involved because they “actually understand research.”

ARAs could succeed if they had better support, but it may take “10 years to build them up” due to poor infrastructure, a revolving door of rented land and second-rate equipment, P.T. said.

The three sources agreed that closer ties to industry are necessary but many questions remain unanswered about RDAR’s final form.

“The unsettling part was now we have RDAR set up, but what does it look like? Are they going to keep the researchers? We have no idea,” said P.T. “I’m very skeptical that what the farmers really want is really what they’ll get.

“We can’t just give money to groups who say ‘yes, we can do it.’ With current staff that most ARAs have, I don’t see how that’s possible.”

As the countdown to job cuts continues, productivity within Alberta Agriculture has all but dried up and sources say employee morale and motivation have plummeted.

“I’m a very optimistic person in general, but this crap has been hanging over my head since the end of October. I just want it over with. The bullshit I have to go through just to do my job … it just starts to weigh on you, constantly having to justify yourself,” said P.T., who conceded relationships, mental health and sleep have all suffered due to work-related stress.

“Waiting is cruel. Your life is on hold.”

P.T. said there’s a chance of staying on given the nature of their work and connections made over the years. If terminated, P.T. said they’d seek employment within the agriculture sector.

V.O. was disappointed to learn the union negotiated two successive reprieves. The silver lining, however, is they can likely wrap up final projects that are only possible due to external funding. Still, the final swing of the axe cannot come fast enough for O.J.

“I’ve had one foot out the door since this started,” they said. “I just want the cord to be cut and know I can move on and know I can be productive with another institution. This is not the right environment to do research in when you’re told to support a government mandate.

“I understand that if I’m a government employee I have to do that, but that’s not what industry needs. You don’t have the freedom to operate.”

The institutional dysfunction has overall compounded issues. J.K. spoke at length about the “musical chairs” that has occurred with assistant deputy ministers in Edmonton, four since October 2019, and blasted their latest boss who “doesn’t even know what we do” and “has no clue about agriculture and the needs of producers and farmers.

One of the biggest heartbreaks for J.K. has been the public removal of “millions and millions of dollars of research results” from the government’s Ropin’ the Web online platform in late 2019.

“After funding so many projects and funding us for so many years, the expense on salary … our efforts have gone in the garbage.”

Despite J.K.’s best efforts, each day is a challenge, especially when they are certain a cherished job will soon come to an end.

“You get mad. Then you don’t do anything for the rest of the day because you are pissed off,” they said. “Then the next day you come with that preconception that … what’s the point of putting in a new grant application or working on a new idea if all we are being told is we are going to be wiped out?

“We are the walking dead. It would have been better if we had been fired in October.”

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