Ministers Dreeshen and Copping should be fired and a public inquiry called into the UCP’s response to COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, says AFL – AFL

Documents obtained by the AFL show that UCP dangerously bungled COVID-19 response at Cargill

EDMONTON – The Alberta Federation of Labour is calling for the UCP’s Agriculture and Labour Ministers to be fired after internal government documents revealed that the Agriculture minister knowingly and willfully lied to Cargill workers about their safety and the Labour Minister consistently abdicated his responsible to protect worker health and safety in meatpacking plants.

Internal government documents obtained by the AFL (which were highlighted in an investigation published this morning by CBC) show the Kenney government knew Alberta’s meatpacking plants were unsafe due to the risk of COVID-19 infection, but lied to workers to keep the plants running.

“The UCP’s early response to COVID-19 in Alberta’s meat processing plants was a dangerous brew of lies and incompetence,” says AFL president Gil McGowan. “The record of documents we’re releasing today clearly shows that the UCP was far more concerned about the meat being pumped out of those plants than the health and safety of the thousands of people who worked inside them.”

“By any objective measure, the Kenney government’s handling of the virus in meatpacking facilities has been terrible. Their incompetence and negligence has resulted in thousands of people getting sick and seven workers dying,” says McGowan. “These documents show the Kenney government’s mishandling made these workplaces downright dangerous, for workers, their families and their communities.”

The documents from the Agriculture and Forestry ministry were obtained by the AFL through the Freedom of Information system and show details of the Kenney government’s early response to COVID-19 in Alberta’s meatpacking plants. The documents show:

  • Dr. Deena Hinshaw alerted Ministers Copping and Dreeshen that two federal meat inspectors contracted COVID-19 while working at Cargill. This demonstrated that transmission was happening in the plant. But two hours after receiving Hinshaw’s email, Ministers Dreeshen and Copping hosted a virtual townhall meeting with Cargill workers, during which Dreeshen told the workers there was no evidence of workplace transmission and that their workplace was “safe”
  • Minister Dreeshen altered internal government documents to blame workers for the COVID-19 outbreak at Cargill, not conditions at the plant. He also wrote that the plant was closed “for business reasons because it is difficult to get employees in these tough circumstances”
  • When CFIA inspectors were ordered to stay away from a plant due to the virus, Premier Kenney ordered provincial inspectors to replace them despite safety concerns
  • Minister Copping’s absence from the Emergency Management Cabinet Committee created confusion for staff. Copping is in charge of occupational health and safety, but his office was seemingly unaware of the health measures in place for packing plants

“These documents show that the Kenney government’s response to the virus in Alberta’s meatpacking plants made a bad situation worse. People got sick and died because this government resisted the one proven method of controlling the virus in the workplace, which is a complete two-week shutdown with isolation,” says McGowan. “The Kenney government chose the meat production over workers’ lives, many of whom are new Canadians from equity-seeking communities.”

“And where was Labour Minister Copping in all this? He’s the minister in charge of the occupational health and safety system, yet his staff had to ask Agriculture and Forestry Minister Dreeshen’s staff about measures taken to protect workers while in the big packing plants. This is gross incompetence on behalf of the Kenney government. Minister Copping never sat on the Emergency Management Cabinet Committee, so he didn’t know what was going on with workplace health and safety. The fact that Kenney kept his own labour minister out to the loop – and that the labour minister meekly accepted this exclusion, despite his legal responsibility over workplace health and safety – is inexcusable.”

“The documents we obtained are troubling, but only show a snapshot of the Kenney government’s early response to COVID-19 in meatpacking plants. Many documents were withheld and some that were released are entirely redacted,” says McGowan. “We need a full public inquiry into what happened, not only to hold this government to account, but to learn lessons for the next pandemic which will inevitably come.”

“Minister Dreeshen needs to resign or be fired. He lied to workers when he told them that Cargill was ‘safe’ when only two hours previous, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health told his office that two food inspectors got sick while on the job. He altered government documents to shift the blame to workers and downplayed the seriousness of the company’s decision to close the plant because of the outbreak,” says McGowan. “Minister Copping also needs to resign or be fired because he abdicated his legal responsibility to uphold Alberta’s own workplace health and safety laws. The Kenney government’s disastrous handling of COVID-19 in Alberta’s meatpacking plants shows just how dangerous it can be when a government does not put workers first. Now that we’re facing a third wave of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to expose and correct this government deeply flawed approach to COVID-related workplace health and safety. If we don’t learn lessons from the mistakes of the first and second waves, we’re doomed to repeat them – and there will be more unnecessary illnesses and deaths.”

Background documents:
1. Copping does not know
2. Dreeshen says safe
3. No Plan for Provincial Inspectors and safety


Gil McGowan
President, AFL