After ramming through new farm safety legislation at year’s end, the provincial government seems to have changed its tune.
“I want to be clear right now — we will be taking the time necessary to make sure we get this right,” Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said at the Alberta Federation of Agriculture annual general meeting last month.
“We do have timelines, but the timelines are going to be fairly soft. For occupational health and safety regulations, for instance, the timeline is the end of the year. But if it takes another six months, it’s going to take another six months. We can’t rush it.”
Despite fast-tracking Bill 6 — the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act — through the legislature before Christmas, the province will now take its time to ensure there is “an opportunity for a broad and diverse range of voices from the farm and ranch sector to provide input,” said Carlier.
In the next month, the government will form six “technical working groups” — four for occupational health and safety, one for labour relations, and one for employment codes.
“These tables are going to be populated by folks from the commodity groups, commissions, and boards,” said Carlier, adding those groups will choose which of their members get a seat at those tables.
That’s pretty much job done.
A new crop and livestock sector coalition met on Jan. 22 to develop a strategy for moving forward with a “unified voice.”
“The crop and livestock sectors came together in a historic collaboration, unified by a common goal to represent the agriculture industry with a single voice as it relates to Bill 6,” Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association chair Page Stuart said in a release following the Jan. 22 meeting.
“This meeting has resulted in an effective strategy to move forward, representing 95 per cent of the agriculture industry in Alberta.”
Along with the major commodity organizations are producer groups in areas such as elk, bison, vegetables, and potatoes, as well as the Hutterite Standing Committee and Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association.
The goal is to speak with one voice, said wheat commission chair Kent Erickson.
“We see our unified approach as being advantageous for both the agriculture industry and our provincial government, as we believe this approach will result in more productive and meaningful Bill 6 consultations resulting in regulations that makes sense at the farm level,” he said.
But the farm organizations have their work cut out for them as “the devil’s going to be in the details,” said a prominent occupational health and safety lawyer.
“I don’t think the government has any desire whatsoever to prosecute a family farm. I really don’t,” said David Myrol, a partner at McLennan and Ross LLP, who also spoke at the AFA meeting.
“I would fall off my chair and walk in my underwear down the hallway if that happened.”
Nevertheless, provincial officials don’t necessarily understand how farms have changed and how they operate.
“I’m not sure whether the government really appreciates the evolution of the family farm,” he said. “In that grey area where you look more like a business than a family farm, that’s a concern I have. It’s a hard area to come up with language that gives us certainty and balances all the needs of the farming community.”
For example, the legislation essentially “introduced a new definition of what a worker is,” said Myrol.
The new act excludes close family members, whether they’re paid or not, but broadly defines a worker as “a person to whom wages are paid for the performance of farming or ranching work.”
That could, for example, include custom farming contractors or their employees, so “the language becomes very complex at this point,” said Myrol.
That’s why it’s critical for farm groups to “take control” of the consultation process to ensure the specific regulations work on farms and ranches.
“Other industries have learned this the hard way — if you sit back and let the government develop what the detailed rules are going to be, you’re not going to be happy with the end product.”
Government officials will do their best to make common-sense and practical rules, he predicted, but they simply “don’t understand your industry as well as you do.”
“If you don’t lead in this area, you end up following, and then you become a victim. Don’t become a victim.”