EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley moved Thursday to quell a maelstrom of discontent over her farm safety bill by saying it's foremost about safety and dignity.
"I will never be able to accept the fact that injuries and deaths caused by workplace accidents (on the farm) are simply a fact of life,'' Notley said at a media availability.
"I could not — and cannot in good conscience — and will not ignore the lessons of their losses.
"We will pass this bill this fall. Those wage-earning farm workers will receive compensation (if injured) and will have the right to refuse unsafe work.''
Notley added that the government will talk to farmers in the coming months about how to "tweak the other newly applied rules in a way that respects the family farm, just as has been done in every other province in the country.''
"I will never be able to accept the fact that injuries and deaths caused by workplace accidents (on the farm) are simply a fact of life.''
Notley once worked as a Workers' Compensation Board injury claims lawyer and, in response to a question, agreed that the farm safety bill has special meaning for her.
"It is a little bit personal.''
She said she has long been disturbed that in a province built on the ethos of people helping people, "we somehow have this little exclusion, where paid farm workers, who are often the most vulnerable workers we have, are somehow exempted from the most basic of employment protections.''
It was Notley's first day back at the legislature following a trip to Paris for the UN-sponsored climate change summit.
There have been several protests and demonstrations by farm groups over the proposed farm legislation. The bill calls for injury compensation benefits and occupational health and safety rules for 60,000 farm workers across Alberta. It also introduces workplace standards on commercial aspects of farming as well as the right for workers to bargain collectively.
Farmers, and opposition leaders, have argued the bill is trying to do too much too fast, threatens the viability of family farms and could rip the cultural fabric of rural life.
They are asking Notley to pull it pending further consultation.
Earlier Thursday, more than 1,000 protesters rallied on the steps of the legislature as a singer mocked Notley to the tune of the popular children's song "Old MacDonald Had a Farm.''
"Now a Bill 6 here and a carbon tax there. Here a tax, there a tax. Everywhere a tax, tax. Naughty Notley runs the show,'' sang protester Becky Hull.
The crowd then shouted: "E-I-E-I-O!''
Opposition Wildrose Leader Brian Jean promised the crowd he will stand with them.
"We want a premier and government that No. 1 represents the people and does what they want — because they're the boss!'' Jean said to cheers.
In Lethbridge, hundreds of farmers arrived on tractors, in trucks and aboard big rigs to express their concerns to Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson and Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier at a public consultation meeting.
"If they want to impose workers comp on us, let it be an option."
Alan Kormos, a Cardston area farmer who organized the convoy, says he doesn't approve of mandatory Workers Compensation Coverage for paid farm employees.
"I disagree with that, because I carry insurance. If they want to impose workers comp on us, let it be an option,'' Kormos said.
The bill remains in the middle of the second stage of debate in the house. The government has sat late into the night in recent days to discuss it.
The government plans to introduce an amendment as early as next week to make it clear the bill is not intended to cover children who help out on family farms or neighbours who volunteer to pitch in when things get busy.
— With files from CJOC
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