Alberta Politics
The scene in the lunchroom of the JBS slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alberta (Image: Screenshot of JBS Canada video).

Maybe it’s time for Ottawa to use its power to close those meatpacking plants until their owners fix their COVID-19 mess

Posted on May 06, 2020, 3:51 pm
9 mins

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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo: Justin Trudeau/Flickr).

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.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

Agriculture Union President Fabian Murphy (Photo: Twitter).

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.”

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

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.

18 Comments to: Maybe it’s time for Ottawa to use its power to close those meatpacking plants until their owners fix their COVID-19 mess

  1. Sam Gunsch

    May 6th, 2020

    ‘toiling under the gaslights’ ha! I see what you did there. 😉

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 6th, 2020

      Actually, Sam, in the Montana Capitol building, not so many miles from here, they really do have gaslights! DJC

      Reply
  2. Anthony

    May 6th, 2020

    What could possibly go wrong in an environment where the killing floor is as crowded as the NY subway at rush hour, the change rooms are standing room only and the lunch rooms are more crowded than a Las Vegas buffet at feeding time?

    Reply
  3. John McManus

    May 6th, 2020

    Remember the bi whine about Canadians not buying enough Alberta beef. We were lied to . Alberta beef is not a safe, quality product for either their workers or their employees.

    Reply
  4. J.E. Molnar

    May 6th, 2020

    The only thing easier to buy in Alberta than a gun these days appears to be a United Conservative Party politician.

    Beholden to big business interest, Messrs. Kenney, Dreeshen and Shandro have forsaken the health interests of vulnerable meat-packers to keep these infested meat lockers open. That, despite evidence that the coronavirus is spreading into local communities and throughout the plants themselves.

    If the UCP’s mantra is “profits before people” — “Live and Let Die” must be their theme song. Sad.

    Reply
  5. tom

    May 6th, 2020

    The background music to Donald Trump’s recent visit to a face-mask factory says it all–“Live and Let Die” by Guns N’ Roses. They’re not even bothering to hide the strategy.

    Reply
  6. Bill Malcolm

    May 6th, 2020

    The CFIA has offices down in my little hometown in Nova Scotia to primarily inspect fish and associated crustaceans. Most of it gets exported or did before the plague. The Fishery is actually a provincial jurisdiction, but for the reasons stated here in the article, there is federal/provincial cooperation. The Feds are of course in charge of the offshore quotas etc. by right. They’re the big picture and cross border trade people.

    Most people are unaware that there are two types of company: ones incorporated federally and those incorporated provincially. Big Telcos like Bell, Telus and Rogers have no choice – that is a federally regulated business sector, period, down to work standards and traffic flagging at roadside. The companies are incorporated as federally registered companies. Electricity utilities are generally provincially incorporated companies. The vast majority of companies are provincially incorporated.

    Had a lot of experience working from a provincial electric utility liaising with Bell and the cable people on work practices. It’s unclear sometimes who wields the big stick, but the feds did at last realize that the roads the telco worked from on the pole hardware were provincial roads and that our POV made sense. Sure, they could have told us to get lost, because federal jurisdiction overrides provincial, or more properly, the province couldn’t tell the feds to use provincial work practices even if they worked on the side of provincial roads. But the uselessness of telephone linemen at even having the simplest grasp of the dangers of 25 kV lines hung above them meant the electric utility should lead the project. The province was fundamentally in charge of the Environment where that affected our operations, but then you’d get a loose cannon federal bureaucrat sitting on his duff across the harbour issuing instructions, and insisting on explanations for this and that. When it wasn’t his business to do so. However, being good little Canucks on the work practices file, we never told each other off but all co-operated, grudgingly at first, knowing full well there are many shortcomings in our division of powers between governments. The end result of better unified work practices so far as governments were concerned and what the public experienced — it was what we all wanted ultimately. The Environmental stuff was left for the province and feds to sort out who was in charge of what. I left before that was reconciled.

    Co-operation, it strikes me, is not a word Jason kenney knows. What he knows is that 98% of citizens haven’t a clue who has jurisdiction on anything, so he can game the system. Hence his prancin’ grandstandin’ about at Calgary (or was it Edmonton) airport at the beginning of the plague, wearing an N95 mask. He should have been politely escorted from the premises, and told to, literally, mind his own business. Airports have nothing to do with some minor provincial premier leaping about issuing criticisms or advice to impress the hicks back home. They’re federal jurisdiction all the way, so far as I am aware. There was zero problem getting federal/provincial co-operation at Halifax International. There were signs up here days before kenney ran his dog and pony show in Alberta. All he needed to do was ask. Not on his menu. he’d rather omplain and lay blame.

    I don’t know if Cargill and the other meatpackers are Alberta companies or federally incorporated companies, If federal, there is no reason for provincial Health or Labour officials to even enter the premises — it is not their jurisdiction to regulate in any way, shape or form. If provincially incorporated, then only the statutory powers regarding public food safety, and cross provincial boundary or cross border product shipping are federal responsibilities. So which situation is it, Dave? I mean do you know if we’re talking provincial or federally incorporated companies? It makes a big difference.

    I presume they’re provincially incorporated, or the Alberta Labour Dept wouldn’t be sitting down with the unions, nor your CMO being on TV tonight saying they’ve inspected things up, down and sideways twice, and once again for good measure. And of course, it’s all come up roses. They seem to have her wound up like a puppet, but that could be me reading things into the situation from afar, and my personal abhorrence of the petty tyrant elected as Alberta premier.

    If provincially regulated, then all the CFIA can do is refuse to allow their inspectors to go into the plant because of CV-19 fears. That might stop things up, I don’t know. If the product is found to be contaminated with food-borne diseases when crossing borders, sure the CFIA can exert its presence and shut things down. Other than that, kenney is in the driver’s seat. The only tactic left is a complete wildcat strike on the part of the union to defy kenney. He can’t arrest the lot, the RCMP might well object to be caught up in the political mess. The union could make it a condition of return to work that zero retribution be forthcoming. Let kenney fume and splutter for once. He isn’t emperor. Yet.

    Generally, I think Trudeau’s laid-back style and refusal to point fingers of blame on this Covid-19 issue has been the correct tactic. Not perfect, but okay. Let the mindless Cons dig their own holes ever deeper. They appear complete idiots as it is. Whatever his ultimate aims, Ford has at least acted like a grown-up in Ontario on the virus, far superior to Legault in Quebec. So Trudeau, knowing full well that the welfare of 15 million in Ontario is far more important than picking a fight with kenney and a bunch of right wing prairie ideologues who never say thankyou for anything, but whine and complain like entitled children, has forborne picking any squabble that might set Ford off. A wise move for the country as a whole, in my view.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 7th, 2020

      It;’s a good question about whether these companies are federally or provincially incorporated, and I am not confident to answer definitively, although I will find out. Cargill and JBS both have Canadian subsidiaries, Cargill Canada Ltd. and JBS Canada Inc. I assume they are federally incorporated. I also believe salt water fisheries — including spawning rivers and streams — have come under federal jurisdiction since 1867, but further study is required. DJC

      Reply
      • Fred

        May 7th, 2020

        they are both federally registered/licensed. The federal government that oversees the operation (CFIA) does not control the health and safety of the employees. They inspect the meat and processing of the slaughtered animals. The Health Unit would still have jurisdiction of the health and safety of the establishment employees. Also, wondering what date was of the picture taken of the lunch room?

        Reply
        • David Climenhaga

          May 8th, 2020

          I can’t say for sure when the video was taken, but it was published on Youtube in 2018. DJC

          Reply
  7. Derek

    May 6th, 2020

    It’s disgusting our tax dollars are going to be used to buy PPE for companies making billions in profits and use tax havens to avoid paying taxes

    Reply
  8. e.a.f.

    May 6th, 2020

    Canadians need to be protected from these predatory foreign employers. They don’t care about the workers, who are all Canadians or live here. If Trudeau doesn’t want to close them, have his Deputy P.M. take care of it. No one ought to be dying or ill because some foreign corporation wants to make more money or the province has a premier who doesn’t give a crap about the people in his province.

    The federal government can provide financial assistance to the farmers and close the plants until the corporations get the message. they aren’t operating in the U.S.A. Lets hope the Unions take these arse holes to court.

    We are better than this. Any one working in this country ought not have to die because of some wharped idiology on the part of Kenny. Let him go and do a few shifts in one of these plants and perhaps he too can experience the joys of COVID 19, a good case of COVID leaves you feeling like you’re breathing glass.

    Come on Trudeau, close the slaughter houses in Alberta. Canadians deserve better than being sent to the slaughter to please kenny. Trudeau could simply step in saying this is what is best for the country in its efforts to flatten the curve. I’m sure Dr Tan and the Chief Medical Officer of Alberta would support him.

    When politicians create conditions which result in the deaths of workers, in my opinion, those politicians are guilty of murder or manslaughter. there was no reason for the worker to die.

    Reply
  9. !?

    May 6th, 2020

    Scheer & Manning want to cut CERB so workers have no where to go, but work – even if that work is a literal covid spreading killing floor.

    Reply
  10. David in Sask

    May 7th, 2020

    The dilemma here is that both Conservatives and Liberals get campaign funds from the same corporate sources. Unlike you or me those corporations

    I am not holding my breath waiting for good government from the Liberals.

    Reply
  11. Abs

    May 7th, 2020

    The gasighting anonymous Matts who populate the CBC website suggested that post-secondary students should be sent to work at the meat-packing plants, since they were sitting around doing nothing and getting paid by the federal government for it. This was in April, when post-secondary students were finishing term papers and studying for final exams. So unaware were they, none of them actually having attended post-secondary institutions. No federal programs for students had been finalized at that time, either, and students were not getting paid reluef moneys by any government. As for forcing students, or anyone to work in the meat-packing plants, there is this incovenient thing called democracy. Gulag Alberta is just a twinkle in the collective eye of the UCP cyclops…for now.

    Reply
  12. Jim

    May 8th, 2020

    What will likely happen is regulations will be put in place that only large corporations can meet, further squeezing small business. A similar thing happened previously with the listeria outbreak at large production facilities. Old small operations were grandfathered in but if they shut down or, as in Innisfail, had a fire and it wasn’t economical to rebuilt.
    If the UCP wasn’t so owned by multinational corporate interests this would be a good opportunity to encourage small businesses. Where I purchase most beef from I know the butcher and have met the farmer. Might be a little more expensive but that money is going to my community.

    Reply
  13. Gail

    May 9th, 2020

    Perhaps if our governments hadn’t pursued a long standing policy of forcing out the local butchers and actively preventing the creation of small local packing plants that farmers tried to start after the BSE crisis we wouldn’t be in this mess now…. nevermind our governments still seem to think bigger is better.

    Reply
  14. Murphy

    May 9th, 2020

    An ironic aspect of this Cargill fiasco is that it is producing boiling hysteria and yet it is the most crystalline manifestation of the fact that Covid-19 is not a severe public health threat. Over 900 employees tested positive, at least 400 others linked to that 900 tested positive, and two died, one a 67-year-old and the other a grandfather whose age I cannot discern from any of the news articles, although he was evidenly a grandfather. Slaughterhouses and packing plants have been disgraceful manifestations of every rotten element in capitalism in North America from the instant the first pig died in Chicago, and the deaths of two elderly people is the trigger for the indignation wave? We truly have entered a realm of insanity since Covidmania started that dwarfs the craziness of anti-communism and Islamophobia.
    But it’s just a right-wing conspiracy theory to point out that the WHO lied through their teeth in the 2009 H1N1 calamity that, you know, just basically wiped out life on earth. The billions grifted out of governments to pay for the garbage vaccine that was never used, is, likewise, just an imaginary manifestation of the MAGA kooks.
    Bill Gates got to be a billionaire, like the Kochs, or Warren Buffet, or JD Rockefeller, or Murray Edwards, because he cares about you. So when he and Melinda get together with the WHO and they tell you that the plague is coming, thank your lucky stars for their benevolence. The gang of caring sharers who determined at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January that mankind had to be saved from this killer bug that can leave a mountain of mouldering corpses like the one at High River really do love us!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)