If you glanced at the news in Alberta at any time in the last three weeks or so, you probably saw a lot of very angry farmers. They have been pushed around by their tyrannical socialist government for too long and they're making a stand for freedom and the family farm. They're mad as hell and they're not gonna take it anymore.
But what, exactly, are farmers so mad about? They are mad about Bill 6, a brand new law that will make bog-standard workplace safety regulations apply to the agricultural sector and bring farm employees into the orbit of the Worker Compensation Board.
Why are they so mad about this? That's a good question. Let's try and figure that out.
THE WILD WEST OF WORKERS' RIGHTS
For a bill that has sparked lots of protests (and counter-protests) at the legislature, the actual content and purpose of Bill 6—the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act—seems to be pretty innocuous.
Although farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in Canada, farm and ranch workers in Alberta have historically been excluded from basic workplace safety regulations. The agricultural sector is largely exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay laws. Workers have no right to refuse unsafe work, anyone injured on the job has little or no recourse to compensation, and there are no child labour laws. This (arguably) violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It's also worth pointing out that safety laws similar to those proposed by Bill 6 exist in every other western province.
It's not surprising that Alberta's NDP government would put a high priority on expanding workers' rights. They even announced that agricultural reform was on their agenda in July. In its initial form, Bill 6 would bring every farm up to code with other industries in the province. Farms would be required to register with the WCB for coverage starting on New Year's Day 2016. In the event that someone was injured or killed on the job, Occupational Health and Safety inspectors would visit the premises and launch an investigation—under present laws, accidents don't need to be reported anywhere.
If all of this seems straightforward, you would never know it to hear the government's sales pitch. Depending on which NDP spokesperson you asked or which document you read, Bill 6 was either meant to apply to all farms in Alberta (allegedly as a response to recent farm accidents involving children), or only to those farms employing full-time paid employees (and thus omitting family only farms altogether). The left hand, it seemed, didn't know what the right hand was doing.
Worst of all, despite announcing its intentions to bring in this legislation over the summer, the government opted to introduce the bill first and consult with farmers second. This is a stark contrast to the breathtaking deliberation that went into the province's new climate change strategy. It's not hard to understand why farmers feel like they've been slighted by the NDP.
HOME ON THE RANGE
Once upon a time, a snub like this would've been unthinkable. Farmers used to be the most powerful social and economic bloc in the province. They were strong enough to stampede the legislature 90 years ago and set up an (almost) entirely farmer-run government. But even though the United Farmers of Alberta have been long, long gone, farming and ranching still hold pride of place in Alberta's political imagination.
You don't fuck with rural Alberta. There's a reason the Tory dynasty didn't fiddle with farm safety legislation at any point in the last 44 years. As Jen Gerson observed in the National Post, rural reform remains the "third rail of Alberta politics."
But the family farm ain't what it used to be. Agriculture as a whole makes up less than 2 percent of the province's economic activity, and within the sector itself, small family-run farms are being squeezed out by massive corporatized acreages staffed by paid employees. Fewer people are producing more food on larger farms. Although the biggest agribusinesses made up less than 5 percent of all farm operations in the country in 2011, they accounted for nearly half of all food production in Canada, no doubt helped by a generous regime of agricultural subsidies. Combine all this with the urbanization of Alberta—urbanites rose from 48 percent of the population in 1950 to 79 percent in 2010—and you can definitely appreciate that the small family farm faces an existential crisis.
If not already dead, it may be in terminal decline. But this has more to do with the dynamics of agricultural capitalism than any oppressive labour laws proposed by the NDP.
Not that this has stopped conservatives from making political hay. Between this agricultural angst and the NDP's communications breakdown, the Wildrose Party—Alberta's official opposition and premiere performance art troupe—has been happier than a pig in shit.
SEND IN THE CLOWNS
Eager to weaponize legitimate grievances in its war against the NDP, the Wildrose have crowned themselves defenders of the faith for their largely rural constituents. Last weekend alone, they hosted more than a thousand Albertans at seven different town hall meetings about Bill 6, including one where Wildrose MLA and human temper-tantrum Derek Fildebrandt got to sit back and watch 500 angry farmers yell at Agriculture Minister Oneil Cartier. Presumably, they can only hope that no one remembers Wildrose Leader Brian Jean going on record last spring in support of extending WCB coverage to farm workers. You know—the substantive content of Bill 6. Maybe they're hoping farmers don't know how to use Google.
Not that any one group has a monopoly on going hog wild in the anti-NDP department. Ric McIver—leader of that shambling husk of an ex-governing Progressive Conservative party—doubled down on claims that Bill 6 is an effort to transform Alberta into a "Socialist Disneyland." He then offered Saskatchewan as a model of a good, conservative farming province, apparently forgetting that a) Saskatchewan is the birthplace of Canadian socialism and b) their farms have workplace safety laws. Apparently when your party implodes, the fact-checkers are the first to go.
But far and away the most insightful analysis of agricultural safety regulation in Alberta comes from Toronto transplant Ezra Levant, spirit guru to disgruntled cranks all over the Great White North. To hear the Rebel Commander tell it, Bill 6 is a communist plot to destroy the rural family, forcibly unionize and collectivize the entire agricultural sector, and possibly also round up farm children so they can be murdered by Alberta Child Services.
Despite the NDP issuing two amendments to Bill 6 on Monday that explicitly exempted small family farms from the new legislation, Levant is still postingnew vlog meltdowns about Rachel Notley's plans to destroy freedom forever. I guess this is the kind of quality journalism we can expect from an outlet that blamed suicide statistics from the first half of 2015 on a government that didn't take power until May. Chalk it up to the Costanza Principle: it's not a lie if you believe it.
But hey—at least we got some great music out of this.
The groups who most viciously opposed Bill 6 should be overjoyed right now. With the amendments announced this week, the new WCB coverage will only apply to large farms with paid employees, totally exempting small family farms and thereby drowning the most controversial part of the legislation. Given that both the Wildrose and the Tories are on record supporting safety reforms like this, they've basically gotten everything they wanted on the content front.
But they aren't satisfied, and they never will be, because this fiasco was only ever ephemerally related to the actual letter of the law.
Farmers are not monsters. None of them are mortally offended by the concept of farm safety. The real outrage is the government's failure to consult or communicate with them before introducing the bill at the close of this legislative session. But most of the emotional energy around Bill 6 is the very real anxiety about the fate of the family farm in the 21st century, cynically weaponized by the Wildrose-Rebel bloc in their crusade against the NDP. For all their rhetoric invoking the Soviets, it's the conservative elites in this province cribbing the most from the Bolshevik playbook, playing small farmers as useful idiots in their efforts to curb workers' rights.
Everyone in this province knew that agricultural safety laws have desperately needed an overhaul for years. But everyone in a position to do anything—including the once-invincible Tory dynasty—was terrified of antagonizing rural Alberta. The NDP were likely fucked among rural voters no matter what they did, which may end up putting them in a strangely powerful position to do this heavy lifting. Urbanization being what it is,the future of provincial politics is in the cities. Assuming they are playing the long game, getting an unpopular decision like this out of the way off the cuff may actually be a good way to go.
But even if there was no easy way to do this, the way they actually handled Bill 6 was a hot mess. The NDP needs to cool their jets, not shoot first and hold consultations later. Invoking closure on controversial laws is not a great way to win friends and influence people.
The NDP has a progressive beachhead in Canada's most conservative province and that's a precious thing. There are lots of things in Alberta that need a major overhaul. But if they push too aggressively and keep feeding into right-wing paranoia, they will be prey to the Wildrose – of even a united provincial conservative party – in the next election.
And what good is restoring Rome if you let the barbarians storm the gates?
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.