Alberta’s new agriculture minister is ready for a fight.
“Standing up for modern Canadian agriculture is something that was a theme during the campaign,” said Devin Dreeshen.
“There are elements out there that attack Alberta’s energy sector, modern agriculture, and the forestry industry, and I think it’s something we heard loud and clear during the campaign — that Albertans want a government that will actually stick up for our industries and our jobs and our families here in Alberta.
“We have amazing, ethical labour standards. We have amazing, ethical environmental standards. We produce high-quality, best-in-the-world products. We shouldn’t be attacked for that.”
The new UCP government has been working on a “fight-back strategy” since it was elected on April 16, said Dreeshen, who farms in his riding of Innisfail-Sylvan Lake. Its first order of business was to scrap the provincial carbon tax.
“So many people within the agriculture sector see and view the carbon tax as a punitive tax. It was just a tax grab,” said Dreeshen. “There was no change in behaviour with it. When the NDP government increased the tax by 50 per cent, there was no, ‘Well, just drive halfway to work. Or only do half of your field. Or only feed half of your cattle.’
“As Albertans, we still needed to feed our cows. We still needed to drive to work. We still needed to heat our homes.”
The federal Liberal government says it will impose its own carbon tax on Alberta as it has in four other provinces — Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick — but Premier Jason Kenney is joining a constitutional challenge of the federal tax.
“We’re going to fight it in the courts, as Saskatchewan and Manitoba are doing,” said Dreeshen.
“We will fight back on the constitutionality of it by saying the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction to do it.
“And hopefully in October, the threat of a carbon tax in Canada will be completely eliminated.”
The carbon tax is one of several planned changes that Dreeshen hopes will help Alberta’s farmers. New workplace safety legislation is another.
“That’s something we want to move quite quickly on,” he said. “Bill 6 is going to be a big undertaking to make sure we do proper consultations this summer and introduce a bill that actually works for farmers.
“So I’ll be travelling around the province — meeting with farmers, farm groups, and farm workers — to try and find the right balance.”
When it was first introduced in 2015, the NDP’s Bill 6 was a “consultation nightmare,” he added.
“They introduced it, had massive protests, had farmers up in arms — rightfully so — and then they tried to do damage control afterwards. Right now, it’s such a mess that we’re going to repeal and replace it,” he said.
“Ideally that change will come this fall.”
And while some farmers and farm groups — including AgCoalition, which was heavily involved developing regulations for the act — have said the legislation “landed in a good spot,” many farmers still aren’t complying with the regulations, Dreeshen said.
“We want to make sure that what results afterwards is something that makes common sense — that farmers actually have the ability to be compliant with — while keeping farm workers safe,” he said, adding education will be an important part of that.
One particular bone of contention is mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage.
“That was probably the most egregious, universally opposed part of what the NDP brought in. I would assume that, after the consultations, that will continue to be an issue, and it’s something that we would change.”
But Dreeshen stressed any changes will be farmer-led.
“We’re not going to push one way or the other to say what we want. We want to be able to listen to and hear directly from farmers and ultimately introduce something that makes sense for them — something that works, that’s practical, and that actually keeps workers safe.”
Dreeshen will also be looking to farmers and farm groups to set research priorities.
“Ultimately, the research that farmers want in agriculture should be farmer-led and not government-led,” he said.
That’s a shift from what’s happened over the past four years, he added. In 2016, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) was dismantled, and then in 2018, the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF) also closed up shop as a result of reduced funding.
“I’ve asked the department, as well as stakeholder groups, whether we should just revert back to ALMA and ACIDF, or if there’s a new way to try to house these research initiatives,” said Dreeshen.
“They’re still kind of scratching their heads about it — I don’t think they’ve ever been asked that question. The organizations were just removed, and then everything was left reeling to figure out what to do next.
“So I think there will be changes on the delivery model and how it actually works. But right now, we’re just at the drawing board trying to figure out the best way to implement the research dollars here in Alberta.”
Another pressing issue is China’s ban on Canadian canola seed and the new ag minister said he working with his provincial counterparts to restore market access.
“It happened right at the beginning of seeding, and I think it’s going to be an even larger issue come harvest time,” he said. “It’s not going to be good if the same situation continues.”
Alberta’s new trade minister, Tanya Fir, will be visiting Asia in mid-June with Jim Carr, the federal minister of international trade diversification, to promote Canadian commodities in growing Asian markets like Japan and Korea.
“The hope is to be able to find new market access in Japan and Korea, but also to put constant pressure on Chinese officials to make our case — to let China know that our canola is safe, it has been safe, and it will continue to be safe,” said Dreeshen.
He said hopes the trade mission can nip this dispute in the bud and “resolve it through sound science” before the Chinese canola ban starts to extend to other commodities.
“We have an amazing, sustainable crop that we need to be able to get to market,” said Dreeshen.
“Canada is such an amazing agricultural economy that produces so much, and we need to have exports and open market access around the world.
“It’s vitally important to the industry to make sure that we have market access, so that’s something we’ll continue to work on.”