Edmonton·GO PUBLIC

Dead intern’s brother “frustrated” by slow government action

A year after the Alberta government promised increased protection for unpaid student interns, the brother of a dead broadcasting student says nothing appears to have changed.

Year-old government promise of protection mired in bureaucracy

Matt Ferguson contacted Go Public to expose what he said was a gap in protection for student interns, which he thinks led to his brother's 2011 death. (CBC)

A year after the Alberta government promised increased protection for unpaid student interns, the brother of a dead broadcasting student says nothing appears to have changed.

“It’s just disappointing. It’s frustrating. It still feels almost like status quo,” said Matt Ferguson, whose brother Andy died in a head-on crash with a gravel truck in 2011 after working an overnight shift at an Edmonton radio station.

Andy’s unpaid practicum was a requirement of the broadcasting program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

Matt Ferguson believes Andy fell asleep at the wheel of his car after working excessive hours.

He said his brother had worked 16 hours in a 24-hour period and had tried unsuccessfully to refuse the shift that preceded his death.
Andy Ferguson died in 2011 after an overnight shift at an Alberta radio station where he was interning. (CBC)

Alberta law allows unpaid work as long as it’s part of a formal education program.

After Andy’s death, Ferguson tried to complain to the Alberta government but says he was told it could not help because broadcasting is a federally-regulated industry.

A spokesperson for the then-federal labour minister, Lisa Raitt, told Ferguson that only paid employees are protected by the Canada Labour Code and that any hours Andy worked without being paid were not covered by federal law.

The ministry investigated and found that, while Andy Ferguson also did some paid work for the radio station, the total number of paid hours did not exceed federal regulations.

Matt Ferguson believes it was a combination of paid and unpaid work which contributed to his brother’s death. He called Go Public to expose what he said was a gap in protection for students.

Government ‘analyzing feedback’ but no timeline for action

In September 2013, one week after Go Public told Andy’s story, Alberta’s then-minister for Advanced Education said he was ordering a review of the practicum programs at all 26 public post-secondary institutions.

“I want to make sure students are safe in those practicums and that they are treated like any other employee,” Thomas Lukaszuk said at the time.

Twelve months later, however, that review is bogged-down after being added to a much larger review of labour law. The Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education admits it has no idea when or if the law will be changed to give better protection to student interns.

In an email, ministry spokesman John Muir wrote that “government is analyzing feedback and developing policy based on the input received on a number of work issues.”

He said the ministry has “spoken with all 26 institutions to understand their internship policies,” but added “I don’t have a date for when this will move forward.”

The larger review of the Employment Standards Code began in March, six months after Lukaszuk says that he ordered it.

Lukaszuk, out of cabinet after an unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, said this week he expected results sooner.

“We need to enact something before this school year ends,” Lukaszuk said.

He called Ferguson’s death “a textbook example” of how confusing and unclear the laws surrounding internships are, and promised he would continue to press the government to enact better protection.

“I will give Matt my personal undertaking that I will not allow this to be forgotten. I will make sure that this is brought up in caucus,” Lukaszuk said.

Brother “deflated” by delays

“The government of Alberta’s first priority is not the safety of students,” said Hasib Baig, president of the NAIT Students’ Association, when asked about the year-long delay.

“When Andy died they should have taken the steps right away and done something to protect the safety of students,” Baig said. “That is the first priority for us and should be the government of Alberta's as well.”

“When Andy died they should have taken the steps right away and done something to protect the safety of students,” said Hasib Baig, president of the NAIT Students’ Association. (CBC)
Baig said he hopes that with a new premier the government will now act more quickly.

Matt Ferguson said he understands government often works slowly, but that he’s disappointed so little appears to have been done.

“Part of me is deflated that nothing has happened,” he said.

“I would hate to wake up in the morning and turn on the news and find out some student had lost their life – had something bad happen that could have been prevented.”

Ferguson said he’s more hopeful of change at the federal level where the NDP has tabled a private member’s bill calling for protection for student interns.

He said he hopes the bill will get support from all parties, including the Harper government.

“This isn’t a political issue, it’s a human issue,” he said

Ferguson has also had support from his MP, Independent Brent Rathgeber, who presented a petition to the government.

Rathgeber doubts the NDP bill will pass before the next election but said he hopes support is building for eventual change.

“Hopefully, in the next Parliament the momentum will carry forward,” Rathgeber said.

Almost three years after Andy Ferguson’s death, while Matt thinks about his brother every day, he doesn’t know how much longer he can go on trying to convince governments to act.

“My biggest fear is that it does get forgotten,” he said.

“That people stop talking about it until something bad happens again and then they’ll talk about it some more. That’s my biggest fear.”

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