Alberta Politics
Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw during Saturday’s telephone town hall with Cargill workers (Photo: Twitter).

Devin Dreeshen’s happy talk about workplace safety undermines the battle against COVID-19

Posted on April 20, 2020, 12:26 am
7 mins

By insisting Alberta’s meat-packing plants are safe to work in despite crowded conditions and ignoring workers’ pleas to temporarily close large slaughterhouses to halt the spread of COVID-19, Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen appears to be actively undermining the provincial fight against the coronavirus.

It may have seemed faintly credible when Mr. Dreeshen told the Legislature on April Fool’s Day that “under the advice of our chief medical officer food processing facilities have implemented additional sanitation procedures to ensure that the safety of their workers and their inspectors is paramount.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 President Tom Hesse (Photo: UFCW 401).

Responding to a softball question gently lobbed from the UCP backbenches, Mr. Dreeshen went on to piously note that “COVID-19 is not a food borne illness,” as if to say, it’s fine if the workers get sick, as long as the meat’s OK.

“These enhanced measures will ensure that staff are safe,” the minister assured Drumheller-Stettler MLA Nate Horner, the latest member of the Horner Family political dynasty to grace a seat in the Legislature, during Question Period.

But now that a couple of weeks have passed and we’ve seen the latest COVID-19 infection figures from High River and Brooks, both sites of industrial-scale meat-packing plants, we can start to understand how far off the mark Mr. Dreeshen has been.

High River, about 60 kilometres south of Calgary, is the home of a large Cargill Inc. slaughterhouse employing about 2,000 workers. Hitherto, the town was best known as former prime minister Joe Clark’s birthplace and the annual springtime crisis caused by floods on the Highwood River. This spring, though, the community has been on edge for days as COVID-19 cases increased at a far faster pace than in the rest of the province.

High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass (Photo: Facebook).

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw reported Friday that there has been an 842 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases associated with the High River slaughterhouse.

A total of 358 cases had been identified by Friday in households connected to the Cargill operation — a figure that the CBC noted represents 15 per cent of all cases in Alberta, and more than in the entire province of Saskatchewan! Many of the employees of the plant are members of the Filipino community.

On Easter Sunday, workers at the plant sent High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass a letter calling for the plant to be closed for two weeks. The same day, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 President Tom Hesse wrote Cargill management, warning “there is no reason to believe that hundreds of individuals in your working environment won’t soon be carrying the virus.”

Mr. Hesse said “decency demands” the plant be closed for two weeks, workers be guaranteed compensation during the temporary shutdown, and clear and enforceable COVID-19 safety rules for the worksite be developed.

A spokesperson for Cargill, the largest privately held U.S. corporation, told the CBC, that since the province has declared meatpacking to be an essential service, it intends to keep its plant open.

Apparently, though, the increasingly obvious connection between high rates of COVID-19 infection in the community and the presence of meatpacking operations hasn’t stopped Mr. Dreeshen from listening to the big meatpackers’ entreaties to keep their plants open.

Alberta Labour Minister Jason Copping (Photo: Government of Alberta).

On Saturday, he, Dr. Hinshaw and Labour Minister Jason Copping held a telephone town hall with Cargill employees at which, Mr. Dreeshen tweeted, he had “directly communicated with workers to assure them that their worksite is safe.”

Yesterday, CUPE Alberta tweeted that “in the last few days, five employees of Seasons Retirement Communities in High River have tested positive for #COVID19. Three of them are married to meat packing employees. No residents infected yet.”

A similar phenomenon seems to be unfolding in Brooks in southeastern Alberta, the site of a large meatpacking plant owned by Brazil-based JBS SA, the world’s largest meat-processing corporation, which has been accused in other jurisdictions of having a “work-while-sick culture.”

Historically, Alberta agriculture ministers are extremely sensitive to the wishes of the meatpacking industry, so its probably too much to hope that Mr. Dreeshen will stop saying things that encourage the spread of COVID-19 in communities where there are slaughterhouse operations, and thence to the rest of the province.

Nor is the UCP very likely to listen to the concerns of working people or their unions when the industry wants them to look the other way, although the government says it has a safety plan.

Illustrating this attitude, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently ordered its inspectors not to enter the Harmony Beef Co. Ltd. packing plant near Balzac, just north of Calgary, where an employee had been diagnosed with COVID-19, Premier Jason Kenney blamed the unionized inspectors for their employer’s decision!

Medical officers of health, though, are not politicians and have some scope for action in an emergency. Perhaps it’s time for Dr. Hinshaw to consider using those powers in High River and, if the outbreak at the JBS packinghouse follows the same pattern, in Brooks as well.

14 Comments to: Devin Dreeshen’s happy talk about workplace safety undermines the battle against COVID-19

  1. Dave

    April 20th, 2020

    I do wonder why Mr. Horner with his impressive family political pedigree is not the Agriculture Minister, rather than lobbing softball questions to him. Perhaps Mr. Kenney found Horner a bit too PC or wanted soneone with a tiny bit more experience. Well if this questionable laissez faire approach all blows up in Mr. Dreeshan’s face, maybe there will be an opportunity for Mr. Horner soon after all.

    I don’t think the folks of High River will be too happy if the virus starts to run rampant in their local seniors home because of Mr. Dreeshan’s indifference. At least High River is not one of the rural communities doctor’s are threatening to withdraw hospital service to because of fee cuts. Of course that one is not Mr. Dreeshan’s fault, but that of his colleague Heath Minister Mr. Shandro.

    The UCP government has turned out to be among other things, a bad mix of incompetence and inexperience, just exactly what is not needed at this time.

    Reply
  2. !?

    April 20th, 2020

    Seems to be a trend:

    “Trump and Tyson Foods seem to think these workers are expendable. But if food plants continue to cause clusters like this, it’ll not only shut down key parts of the food supply, but create clusters of COVID-19 in rural areas that are far less equipped to deal with it.”

    https://www.emptywheel.net/2020/04/18/rural-covid-19-the-tyson-food-clusters/

    One wonders what, exactly, Dreeshen was doing in 2016.

    Reply
  3. Political Ranger

    April 20th, 2020

    The drooling idiots of the kenney gov’t are on full display here. Their collective intellectual disability to understand even very basic high-school level science or the logical knock-on effects to their decisions is embarrassingly obvious.

    No need to worry about contagion in the meat plant because the minister, on behalf of the corporation, says so.
    No need to worry about contagion in the tarsands mine because the minister, on behalf of the corporation, says so.
    Even the $1.7 billion aid package from the federal gov’t is proof the kenney gov’t is enforcing the polluter-pay principle because the ministers says so.

    Reply
  4. Public Servant

    April 20th, 2020

    Kenney cares about money more than people, especially temporary foreign workers.

    Reply
  5. Bob Raynard

    April 20th, 2020

    I would love to be a fly on the wall when Dr. Hinshaw, Mr. Dreeshen and probably Jason Kenney discussed this. Did Dr. Hinshaw go along with leaving the meat plants open, or was she pressured to by the politicians? I do wonder if there has been political interference in not only the decisions to keep meat packing plants open but also some of the work camps up north.

    As David Swann can attest, chief medical officers of health can be fired when they become politically inconvenient. Dr. Hinshaw was only appointed CMOH a little more than a year ago, so she could still be feeling a bit precarious in her position. Let’s not forget Jason Kenney’s mentor didn’t hesitate to muzzle government scientists when their findings were contrary to the government’s agenda.

    I do wonder if Dr. Hinshaw will become Jason Kenney’s Jody Wilson-Raybould when this is all over, except that instead of manipulating with the judicial system the UCP played with people’s lives.

    Dr. Hinshaw is an incredibly popular public figure right now. In addition to someone selling T-shirts with a drawing of her, the U of A recently named a dinosaur after her. Because of her popularity, she could be a real asset to a political party. I would be very surprised if she isn’t approached before the next election. Dreaming out loud, I would love to see her run for the NDP in Calgary Lougheed, Jason Kenney’s riding.

    Only tangentially related, the link below is from the Canadian Medical Association Journal discussing the firing of the New Brunswick chief medical officer of health who was investigating a pesticide being used by the New Brunswick forestry industry.

    https://www.cmaj.ca/content/cmaj/188/2/104.full.pdf

    Reply
    • Farmer Brian

      April 21st, 2020

      Bob I certainly agree that Dr. Hinshaw has been a shining light in a trying time. What I am trying to figure out is life can’t return to normal until the general populace acquires herd immunity to coved-19. This means the majority of the population( over 50%) must be exposed to the virus and develope antibodies. At present we are below 5%. I am curious how you propose we get to that point?

      Reply
      • Kang

        April 22nd, 2020

        Herd immunity is not the only way to deal with infectious disease. There is no herd immunity to TB, SARS, or MERS to name three that spread in a similar manner to Covid 19. All those are contained by extensive testing and infection chain tracing. This is pretty much how South Korea, China, Singapore, etc have dealt with Covid 19. The kicker is having a government with enough intelligence to deploy the people and resources to do the tracing, and containment to avoid needless extra deaths. You don’t even need reliable testing for that to work, just identification, infection chain tracing and quarantine. Something the religious bigots and high school louts in the UCP are not inclined to do. So our Ag Minister is certainly right to look a little glum now that Cargill’s meat plant, which is the center piece of Ab Ag policy has been shut down because of their foot dragging on public health measures.

        Reply
        • Farmer Brian

          April 23rd, 2020

          Singapore had done well initially but in now experiencing a large second wave:cnn.com/2020/04/18/asia/singapore-coronavirus-response.

          Interesting article on CBC about how slow the federal government was to respond to coved-19: Cbc.ca/news/politics/coved-19-government-documents-1.5528726.

          Reply
  6. Murphy

    April 20th, 2020

    The Used Car Party never sleeps, except perhaps while sitting in the legislature. My Dad received an email from heir apparent Jason Nixon on the week-end. It was written in a pidgin English and apparently railed against the wickedness of Li’l Magus and the departed NDP. The emission had been blown up by the time I went to open it, replaced by a “too many problems occurred” message. It seems a great manifestation of the creative culture of the West has been lost.

    Reply
  7. Albertan

    April 20th, 2020

    It has been said that New Zealand has the ‘best’ government in the world, including a form of proportional representation with their elections. It is clear now, as well, that their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, “is giving most Western politicians a master class in crisis leadership.” She led her country in coming down hard, and fast, in dealing with COVID-19, placing people before the economy. This article emphasizes on how, if a leader “gets things wrong, or delays deciding, people die.” One might wonder here, if the Kenney UCP care if people die.

    “Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s coronavirus response has been a masterclass in crisis leadership”

    http://www.theconversation.com/three-reasons-why-jacinda-arderns-coronavirus-response-has-been-a-masterclass-in-crisis-leadership-135541

    Perhaps, the Kenney UCP could learn from this, and Alberta folks could become more aware of Ardern’s obvious superior style of leadership, and acting on demanding, and voting for, this more superior style of leadership for Alberta. Certainly, it is eminently clear that Ardern, in implementing their action, early, fast, and strict, has been to New Zealand’s benefit, putting ‘people’ before ‘money.’ Now, on April 28th, New Zealand will begin to loosen some of their restrictions which is not only good for people, but good for their economy as well.

    Reply
  8. Just Me

    April 20th, 2020

    Filipinas and Somalians make up a substantial number of the workers at these facilities and no one cares if they get infected.

    It’s apparent that where the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned, the UCP intends to shoot, shovel, and shut up.

    Reply
  9. Athabascan

    April 20th, 2020

    Once again, as if we needed more evidence that we live under the most repressive and dangerous provincial regime in Canada.

    It’s not enough that Kenney laid off so many Albertans, now he is endangering the lives of those who still have jobs.

    When does it stop? Maybe, in three years when we vote him out?

    Reply
  10. Abs

    April 20th, 2020

    One Cargill High River worker is dead, the plant has shut down temporarily, there are 360 cases of Covid-19 at the plant, and 484 cases in total connected to the plant. Cargill shut down a U. S. plant with 130 cases and one dead worker in early April. (https://www.inquirer.com/business/meat-plants-pennsylvania-cargill-jbs-souderton-covid-20200409.html) Now there’s a rumour that hundreds of JBS workers in Brooks stayed off the job today.

    It is just a bit color blind to say well, heck, who cares about people, as long as the product gets to market, or words to that effect. The UCP has turned its back on the workers of Alberta. The workers are paying attention. This is a different world from April 2019.

    Reply

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