Alberta couple pays high price advocating for farm workers' rights

The two activists behind the Farmworkers' Union of Alberta have spent a decade on the cause and have sacrificed a great deal, including their home.

Eric Musecamp and his partner Darlene Dunlop live without basic necessities, health has suffered

Eric Musekamp and Darlene Dunlop and have stuck together through the thick of things, including losing their home, but also seeing the enactment of Bill 6. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Eric Musekamp says he breathed a sigh of relief last January when Bill 6 became the law of the land, guaranteeing workers' compensation for paid hands on farms across Alberta.

As the president of the Farmworkers' Union of Alberta, he has been the face of the debate for quite some time, something for which he and his partner Darlene Dunlop say they've paid a steep price. 

"People didn't like it, generally speaking, that we would publicly speak out, cast disrepute on the industry," Musekamp says with a shrug.

"We were blacklisted from working in agriculture completely, and we received some unhappy actions from some people. The brake fluid was drained out of my half-tonne one night, garbage thrown into our yard, vandalism, things like that. Mostly, no ability to get work was the big thing."

The bill has caused a great deal of controversy and division in the province — especially in rural southern Alberta. Many farmers worry about the costs of the new legislation.

The unseen cost of Bill 6

Musekamp and Dunlop live in a small, rundown mobile home in Winnifred, Alta., about 30 minutes southwest of Medicine Hat. Their home doesn't have electricity or running water or a refrigerator, and they use the outhouse-style washroom in their camper. It's a struggle to afford food.

Their few necessities include a phone line and internet, run periodically on an auxiliary power source so the two can continue their activism.

In the trailer are big binders of photos that document Dunlop and Musekamp's journey from truckers and farmhands to activists. Photos of the parades, meetings with politicians, letters from the Queen, Dunlop has documented it all, including the first time they met Liberal Party Leader David Swann. 

"I was kind of stunned initially. I wasn't sure what to make of them, but every year they were back and more and more data was coming out about [farm workers'] injuries — and unpaid injuries," Swann told CBC News. 

"They are the reason we have Bill 6 today."

In the most recent provincial election, Musekamp ran as a Liberal candidate in the Cypress-Medicine Hat riding, losing to incumbent Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes by a wide margin.

The short journey from employee to activist

Dunlop and Musekamp remember the day their lives changed.

It was Sept. 24, 2004, and they were hauling potatoes from five farms near Taber. At four of the farms, the couple worked directly with children who were employed there on a regular basis. 

"I'm not against child labour, I knew hard work when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, but unfettered child labour in one of our most dangerous industries is completely unacceptable," Dunlop said. 

It was the noise levels at one farm in particular that bothered her. 

"These are little tiny kids, they'd have been partly deaf through their first shift, there's no question about it," she said.

The couple left the workers with some hearing protection and dust masks. Later that day the pair was fired from their job with the trucking company. 

"We don't know if it was directly because we handed stuff out to the kids, I mean I guess it could be coincidence," said Musekamp. 

They headed home, got some posters and started picketing in front of the trucking company's headquarters along Highway 3.

One photo shows Musekamp (right) meeting with Alberta Liberal Party Leader David Swann for the first time over a decade ago. (Darlene Dunlop)

The couple found one more season of employment in farming before they say they were ostracized. Not long after that the couple was forced to sell their home. 

"To lose your career, your community — we loved our community — I had a beautiful home and a beautiful garden. I had neighbours that loved me," Dunlop said. 

They lived as couch surfers for a couple years, then lived out of their semi truck, driving it up to the legislature for meetings. About four years ago they set up shop in the trailer. 

Musekamp worked in oil and gas for a while, but the downturn ended that opportunity. The couple has survived on the generosity of others for the past year — friends and family in B.C. — who send cash or coupons for food.

"There are bad days, but it's not done yet," said Dunlop. "And there was no other way for us to be able to still be in the game." 

Regret doesn't seem very Canadian

The couple agree if they'd known how long the fight would take, they might never have started.

Ultimately, however, there is no regret.

"I don't know what else we would have done. We would have had lots of money and stuff, shiny toys and a secure retirement, maybe," said Musekamp, before he stops to clear his throat, tears welling up in his eyes.

"But this is Canada, you don't do stuff like that. ... We're a land where every person is equal one to another, that's fundamental, and that's my driving motivator."

The province's Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, told CBC News he wanted to thank the couple and called their activism "well known and unparalleled." 

Eric Musekamp (left) tears up when he talks about whether all the couple sacrificed was worth it, 'we're a land where every person is equal one to another, that's fundamental. And that's my driving motivator.' (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

A fight that may never end

Musekamp continues to advocate. His current worry is that workers haven't been properly educated about the new rights afforded to them under the legislation. 

"Farm workers right now are falling through the cracks in a pretty dramatic fashion," he said. "We've heard stories that farm workers are being told to become contractors, or just being told not to claim WCB, or not to file."

The representative for the Workers' Compensation Board Alberta, Ben Dille, said intimidation is not a problem they're particularly concerned with, but education on the new legislation is ongoing, whether it be at trade shows or industry meetings. 

"We're just really trying to get out into the community as much as possible so that people can ask those questions," Dille said. 

Musekamp said he's also keeping an eye on the debate happening on the political right, as many conservative politicians have vowed to repeal Bill 6 if they gain power.

The couple doesn't see their lives changing dramatically anytime soon, but for them, this is what success looks like. 


Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change and is now based in Winnipeg, Man. after five years of calling Calgary home. She's covered news stories across Canada and around the world, including in France, Hungary, Ukraine and Iraq. She has worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.