Now that he’s made a little progress sorting out Canada’s gun enthusiasts, maybe it’s time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do something about those coronavirus mega-spreaders in our midst — meatpacking plants.
It’s no longer possible to deny that the way the meatpacking industry operates in North America makes slaughterhouses focal points for the spread of infectious disease — and the industry argument that the food is safe is no defence for allowing this danger to their employees and our communities to continue.
You can be a vegan and still fall victim to the way Big Meat operates.
It’s also extremely difficult to deny that political pressure in Alberta from the United Conservative Party Government to keep the kill floors working is contributing to the spread of COVID-19 at Alberta’s meatpacking plants and beyond — although, in that case, someone is bound to try.
Indeed, somewhere in the basement of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, “the Matts,” as the UCP’s army of social media trolls are coming to be collectively known, are toiling under the gaslights to cook something up right now.
The federal form of government being what it is, it’s not always easy for a Canadian government to step into matters of provincial jurisdiction even when it’s in the national interest. And while we can argue that the Fathers of Confederation made the wrong choices about the division of powers between Parliament and the provinces, there’s no way to deny both health care and workplace safety now fall mainly in the provincial bailiwick.
Still, in the case of meatpacking plants, Ottawa has an effective tool it could use to deal with the serious problem that Alberta’s provincial government is not only unwilling to address, but determined to abet.
The tool is that meatpacking plants that ship to other countries and across provincial borders are regulated by the federal government and must be inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Jurisdiction in these places is shared, in fact, as the provincial government remains constitutionally responsible for health and labour matters. But as long as the plants’ owners want to ship their product across any border, Ottawa has the practical power to shut down the plants if it must.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney can huff and puff about sending in provincial inspectors to replace the federal ones, as he already has, but his hands are also tied by Canada’s constitution. If Ottawa chooses to do the right thing and close the plants until it can be verified they are no longer spreading COVID-19 to their employees, and thence into the rest of the country, it can do so.
No doubt Mr. Kenney and the UCP would bluster and shout — but they would be publicly defending ignoring the health and safety of workers and all Canadians to boost the profits of a meat industry dominated by foreign multinationals. Not a good look.
As it happens, the Alberta slaughterhouses with serious COVID-19 problems right now all fall under federal jurisdiction. These are Cargill Inc.’s plant at High River, purpose-built by the Minnesota-based multinational to export beef out of province, the JBS SA slaughterhouse in Brooks, purchased by its Brazilian owner for the same purpose, and the Harmony Beef Co. Ltd. plant at Balzac, which was built to export high-quality specialty cuts to Europe.
If the federal government chooses to exert its authority, it can.
All three companies would probably tell the UCP Government to butt out if it started to use them to advance Mr. Kenney’s political fight with Ottawa in ways that might hurt their viability as exporters.
Yesterday, the federal government announced a $77-million fund to help farmers and food-processing companies weather the coronavirus storm, including help buying personal protective equipment for workers.
But that leaves it up to meatpacking multinationals to do the right thing. We have plenty of reasons to doubt they would.
The PM’s announcement missed the mark, said the leader of the union that represents federal meat inspectors. “If we had been consulted, we would have advised the federal government to get off the sidelines and exercise their responsibility and authority over federally regulated food processors when there are outbreaks and to shut them down when they are not safe,” Agriculture Union President Fabian Murphy said.
“Whenever you have an outbreak like this, you have to shut the plant down,” Mr. Murphy told the CBC. “You have to get this under control. We have to put the health and safety of those employees working at those plants at the forefront here. That has to be the top priority — people’s lives.”
The Cargill plant workers’ union made a similar point. “The federal government opening up the public purse to them, with the intention of giving them the means to do what they already should’ve been doing, it’s not the solution,” said United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes yesterday.
In a scathing letter Sunday to the union’s members, UFCW 401 President Tom Hesse said, “we have been unable to convince any government or legal authority to have the courage to step in and ensure the plant remains closed until safety is assured.”
A hearing before the Alberta Labour Relations Board at which UFCW 401 will argue for a temporary closing of the plant, which reopened Monday after a two-week shutdown despite the large number of infected employees, is scheduled to be held tomorrow. A survey conducted by the union indicated 85 per cent of the employees were afraid to return to work.
“We’re beside ourselves with the lack of political will to make that happen,” Mr. Hughes told media.
Of course, the Alberta government, steeped in Republican ideology, doesn’t listen to union leaders, but there’s no reason for Ottawa to be like that.
Mr. Trudeau’s instinctive timidity notwithstanding, standing up for the health and safety of Albertans would not go over badly, inside Alberta’s borders or beyond them. Alberta governments will assail him anyway, no matter what he does, as they proved even when Ottawa bought Alberta a pipeline to tidewater.
If you’re frightened by what’s happening in High River, Brooks and Balzac and you know your provincial government won’t do anything about it, remember that there’s a whole other level of government you can yell at about this. One that might even listen.