British Columbia

Granting foreign farm workers housing in Kelowna not his decision, says B.C. agriculture minister

Norm Letnick says there may be some 'confusion' as to who makes the decision on whether permanent housing can be built for temporary foreign farm workers in Kelowna, B.C.

MInister Norm Letnick says permanent housing applications decided by Agricultural Land Commission

B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick says the type of structures that can be erected on farmland is up to the ALC and not up to him. (CBC)

B.C.'s agriculture minister says it's not up to him or his office whether farm owners can build permanent housing for their foreign workers after Kelowna's city council agreed to raise the ongoing issue with the provincial government.

Norm Letnick says decisions on housing on farmland are made independently by the Agricultural Land Commission [ALC] based on recommendations by municipal governments. 

"I think there's some confusion ... on what can and cannot be done," Letnick told CBC's Daybreak South.

His comments follow a tension-filled, hour-long Kelowna city council debate, Monday, after it received an application from a local farmer hoping to build a house for his temporary workers — a request council says it grapples with frequently.

Speaking on behalf of the applicant, the former president of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association, Kirpal Boparai, called temporary workers "family" since some spend close to eight months per year in the Okanagan, year after year.

Boparai said temporary housing, like trailers, is insufficient over such a long term.

Each year, hundreds of migrant workers travel to B.C.'s Okanagan to help harvest crops. Farm owners say they are struggling to provide proper housing for them. (CBC)

In response to whether permanent structures could be allowed, Letnick did not rule it out, despite what's stated in the agricultural ministry's guiding document, the Minister's Bylaw Standard.

"It depends," said the minister. "The preference according to the bylaw is for them to be temporary structures, some kind of manufactured home that can removed at some point in the future if the need no longer existed."

"Obviously we are trying to protect the integrity of agricultural land in the province, but at the same time we recognize that the ALC needs to work with local communities."

Kelowna's city council concluded its meeting promising to write a letter and request a meeting with Letnick to revisit the issue.

Councilors ultimately turned down the farmer's application because it was conflicted over what the ALC would or would not approve.

The minister says to dispel the confusion he's asked his office or members of the ALC to meet with the city to review its existing bylaws, the Local Government Act and each party's role.

"After that point, if the city would like to look at changes to the policy or the Act ... I'm always open to consider things that would be best for agriculture," Letnick said.

The Minister's Bylaw Standards were last revised in May 2015.

With files from the CBC's Daybreak South.

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Minister of Agriculture's role in temp farmer housing