Rural rage: Alberta farmers steal page from French with rolling protests over NDP’s new safety bill

Tristin Hopper | December 9, 2015 | Last Updated: Dec 9 1:58 AM ET

LEDUC, Alta. — With a John Deere tractor leading the charge at a top speed of 35 kilometres an hour, Alberta’s latest protest convoy pulls onto Highway 2 for a drive to the capital.

Over the citizens band radio, organizer Laci Pighin rallies the group with a recording of the C.W. McCall hit, Convoy, as the motley group begins the not-insignificant task of manoeuvring a line of farm vehicles and trucks into downtown Edmonton.

“We should move to France, I’m getting to like this,” jokes one farmer over the CB radio in a nod to their more protest-oriented European brethren.

This is what happens when Alberta farmers get angry, and Wild Rose Country is currently being wracked by a wave of anger not seen in a generation.

Kilometre-long protest convoys of tractors and farm vehicles coursing down major highways. Thousand-strong gatherings of farmers at public meetings. Cows painted with political slogans. Turkeys sporting anti-NDP badges. Literal pitchforks brandished on the steps of the legislature.

Shaughn Butts/Postmedia News

Shaughn Butts/Postmedia NewsThe Alberta NDP’s workplace safety legislation has turned the province’s farmers into political activists.

Hundreds of Carhartt-clad grain farmers whose political involvement seldom extended beyond casting a ballot are suddenly entering the alien world of carrying placards and signing petitions.

“I didn’t even know where the legislature was before this,” joked one protester outside Alberta’s seat of government on Tuesday.

And the culprit for all this rural rage? A piece of farm safety legislation that, at best, farmers say is a slapped-together mess of red tape; at worst; a secret NDP plan to unionize farm children and force Alberta cowboys into hard hats and safety vests.

“She [Premier Rachel Notley] is going to make every single farm and ranch go bankrupt,” said Laci Pighin.

Bill 6, tabled by the NDP last in mid-November, would extend workplace safety standards and worker’s compensation to the agricultural sector.

Jim Wells/Postmedia Network

Jim Wells/Postmedia NetworkFarmers protest in Okotoks, Alta on Dec. 2, 2015.

“[Agricultural] deaths and injuries can be prevented and this is why I believe we need to act now,” said Notley in a recent open letter. “We cannot prevent them by doing nothing.”

In 2014, Alberta recorded 17 farm-related deaths, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Currently, Alberta is Canada’s only province without any farm-specific safety legislation.

Any injury coverage provided to farm workers comes from private insurance plans. And, technically, Alberta farm workers are not protected by provincial law if they choose to refuse unsafe work.

For Edmonton commuters on Tuesday morning, it might be easy to believe that the province’s farmers are taking up arms to defend their God-given right to continue grinding up farmhands in combines–particularly when they’re cut off by a semi-trailer bedecked in Bill 6 signs.

“It’s about ‘freedom’? Freedom to hurt yourself?” reads a typical online critique.

But Tuesday’s protesters counted farmers who are pro-safety, pro-safety legislation and even pro-WCB.

Campaigners are simply convinced that the NDP — even with the best intentions — is going to screw this legislation up.

“There’s some things going that we could look after … but I’m against the principle of them forcing it down our throat without consultation,” said Cor DeBoon, a farming contractor who voluntarily opted-in to WCB six years ago.

Early releases by the government, for instance, raised the spectre of WCB coverage being required for children to do chores or for neighbours to help with the harvest.

“If you are operating a for-profit farming operation … you must cover any unpaid workers, including family members and children, performing work on your farm,” read a WCB document.

A farmer from Nanton, who preferred to withhold his name, similarly said all this farmer’s ire probably could have been avoided with a few town hall meetings.

“I think a reasonable government would have come out and said, ‘Hey, do you want to make these places safer?’ and they’d have gotten a pat on the back and a ‘show me a way,’ ” he said.

“To infer that we’re willingly putting our employees in danger is just offensive.”

Just north of farm country, of course, Alberta is already home to some of the strictest safety regulations in Canada. In the Alberta oilsands, taking off one’s safety goggles for a few seconds can be enough to get a worker fired.

Shaughn Butts/Postmedia News

Shaughn Butts/Postmedia NewsHundreds of Alberta Farmers and ranchers descended on the Alberta Legislature to protest against Bill 6, the province’s new farm safety legislation.

“This is a one-size-fits-all bill that would instantly move farms into the same realm as oil and gas,” said Mike Gibb, who divides his time between Southern Albertan rancher and a safety manager in the oil and gas sector.

“If you modelled the legislation after what neighbouring provinces are doing, like Saskatchewan, you wouldn’t have the backlash,” he said, noting Saskatchewan’s much greater attention to detail on small-farm exemptions.

Other oilsands veterans joining the Bill 6 protests worried that sloppy regulations would force cattle ranchers to wear bull-angering safety vests or mandate fire extinguishers in every truck cab.

And, unlike the average factory or construction site, farmers live at work — raising fears that accidents in the home could soon be classified as workplace injuries.

“If a kid gets crushed by a TV set, OHS doesn’t feel the need to go into their homes to see what’s wrong,” said Doug Schneider, a Leduc farmer.

The NDP, for its part, has explicitly promised to exempt children from WCB coverage, something that was not noted in previous drafts of the legislation. Exemptions were also extended to Hutterites, a sect of Anabaptist communal farmers.

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty ImagesFrench farmers drive tractors during a national protest on the Cours de Vincennes avenue in Paris on Sept. 3, 2015.

But the changes have only deepened suspicions that the government “didn’t do their homework.” And Hutterites, for their part, have rejected any offer of “special treatment.”

Also working against the NDP is the simple fact that it is the first government in Alberta history to have a caucus virtually devoid of farmers.

Although Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier was raised on a Saskatchewan farm, one protester sneered Tuesday that he’s never gotten any “shit on his boots.”

Case in point: If Rachel Notley really understood farm life she would have waited until spring to pass a piece of unpopular agricultural legislation.

“You’d do this in April when everyone was on their air seeders; they wouldn’t have time to come to the protests,” said Gibb.

National Post

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