Illustration by Dave Elston
Doc, I’m a city girl who owns horses. With the intention of understanding, I have to ask about the recent Western Feedlot closure, given the waves of discontent it stirred up amongst my country friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely naïve, since I’ve taken up a western performance horse sport, I’ve come to understand just how entwined the cattle industry is with the horse world. Alberta raises more cattle than any other province, so what I don’t understand about the closing down of Western Feedlot is why the owners pointed their fingers at Bill 6 and the incoming carbon tax – at least that’s what many read into the cryptic “poor political and economic conditions” they cited as the reason for the shut-down. Doesn’t nearly every other province in Canada already have a Farm Safety Act? Why can’t Alberta, the province of prosperity, handle one? Additionally, what’s the beef with the incoming carbon tax?
Poor political and economic conditions. Cryptic indeed. What were the proprietors of one of Canada’s largest feedlot, in business since 1958, thinking when they decided to simply lock their doors, board their windows and ride off into the sunset leaving us only a dour note of derision? Agriculture Minister, Oneil Carlier washed away any responsibility from Alberta’s new “Orange Overlords” (no, not Donald Trump), citing “a significant decrease in the price of cattle.” Without a doubt a one-year drop of approximately 30% in Alberta-fed cattle prices left all beef producers in a tough spot. However, not everyone picked up their ball and went home. So what gives?
Let’s begin with the first part of the equation – economic conditions. You mention a few things, the carbon tax for one – aka, the sacred cow of the NDP plan to pacify environmental zealotry and acquire a “social license” for pipeline construction and long term provincial prosperity. The plan was after all, well researched, well coordinated and supported by all the relevant economists and policy wogs. The provincial government would tax Albertans for carbon and the rest of the nation would nod in admiration and as a reward for our environmental stewardship we would be “allowed” to build pipelines. Even the oil bigwigs bought in, with billionaire oil tycoon and Calgary Flames owner Murray Edwards standing shoulder to shoulder with Premier Rachel Notley – portraying an image of big government and big business paving the way for pipelines to pump Alberta crude west to China, Alberta transfer payments east to Quebec, and profits due north – right into Mr. Edward’s pockets.
What wasn’t calculated in the grand scheme was the effect a carbon tax was going to have on less lucrative sectors of Alberta’s economy, those that traded beef, not bitumen, and calculated profits with a HD pencil, not a hard drive. Agriculture in particular was never consulted on the effect of a carbon tax on already razor thin margins. Paying “just a little bit more” on gasoline for the truck, or diesel for the tractor, or natural gas for the house, or shop, or barn, may not mean much to Suncor but it means a great deal to a small family farms that exists in perpetuity, teetering on the cusp of red ink. Tack on a legislated increase in minimum wages and mandatory new worker compensation remittances as the “orange brigade” fired volley after volley into the economic heart of rural Alberta.
To the second part of your question, why can’t Alberta handle a Farm Safety Act (otherwise known as the Act to Regulate your Family Farm like a Winnipeg Textile Factory)? If your reference to “can’t handle” is whipping up the country folk into a berserk-like rage to the point of armed resistance, well, yes there is a reason. Bill 6 named the Farm Safety Act purports to protect farm workers, but the name belies the totality of its effect on the rural culture, which is to allow government to monitor and regulate your business. There is nothing more pestilent-smacking to an Albertan farmer or rancher than the word regulation, ranking right up there with drought, internal parasites, mad cow disease and hemorrhoids.
You see the West, and in particular Alberta, once represented an idea – that you could make a life without selling your life to make it. It wasn’t important what you did, but it was important how you did it. Opportunity was riding in a saddle, rather than stitching one in a factory somewhere. Whether you were a spoiled city kid from North York, or an iron-willed freed slave from the Carolinas, or fragile Englishmen whose sense of self overreached reality, you came West because it meant opportunity, but more importantly it meant freedom and opportunity. Your identity became tied to it – and eventually defined by it. To the western farmer or rancher, Bill 6 didn’t mean farm safety, it meant bookish millennials in shiny George Stroumboulopoulos suits toting satchels stuffed with ipads and dried kale snacks arriving uninvited to pronounce an older squeeze needs replacement, or issue a citation because a hayshed doesn’t meet code.
Your summation is correct, rural Alberta couldn’t handle that.
“Poor political and economic conditions,” was not a grievance about the calculation of profit – it was instead a signal, a beacon if you will, flashed painfully and brightly for those that could see it – the West is under siege. The place we had come to, that everyone who came here had come to, had changed. The way we used to do business in particular had changed – the Alberta advantage, the free-wheeling, gun-slinging enterprise that built the greatest province in the Dominion now mired in taxes and regulation and inspectors. Just like everywhere else. The note the proprietors at Western Feedlot left was not so much a parting shot to the current ruling elites, it was simply a statement of reality – that we are no longer home and we are moving on. For those of us to have lived here long enough to understand, it wasn’t cryptic at all.