The Doc Project

'It's all worth it,' says couple who lost everything fighting for farm workers

Alberta's Eric Musekamp and Darlene Dunlop have spent 15 years and all their money on farm workers' safety.

Alberta's Eric Musekamp and Darlene Dunlop have spent 15 years on farm workers' safety

Eric Musekamp and Darlene Dunlop never set out to advocate for farm workers’ rights, but years of firsthand experience in unsafe working conditions pushed them to make a change. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)
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This story was originally posted Jan. 17

Eric Musekamp and Darlene Dunlop just wanted to help keep farmers and their workers safe; instead, they made many of them angry. 

The couple founded the Farmworkers' Union of Alberta 15 years ago, and say they've been paying the price ever since. 

The FUA is a lobby group advocating for equal workplace health and safety rights for farm hands in the province. Years before they became advocates, Musekamp and Dunlop worked in farming and trucking themselves in both British Columbia and southern Alberta. 

For a long time, they kept quiet on their misgivings about the safety of their worksites. But after one accident, then another, eventually they said enough was enough. A two-decade-old photo of a burnt-out semi, which hangs on the wall of Musekamp's office, is a reminder of how they reached that breaking point. 

If I don't say anything, people die.- Eric Musekamp, co-founder of the Farmworkers' Union of Alberta

"That was the truck I was driving, but at that time, it was my alternate [Joe] driving the truck," Musekamp said. "He died in that wreck, and one of the reasons that he died was that we didn't have any proper safety protocols or anything."

The truck tipped into the ditch then caught fire, Musekamp recalls. Other trucks arrived to try to help, but no one had a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. No one even had a two-way radio to call in for help. 

"So a couple of the other drivers actually stood there and listened to Joe die in that truck," he said. 

Fighting for safety

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)

Musekamp said the consequences of these accidents stay with him, even to this day.

"That was one of the things that made me realize that if I don't say anything, people die sometimes. So that is why that picture is there."

In 2004, Musekamp and Dunlop narrowed their attention on farm workers' rights and founded the FUA.

Until a couple of years ago, farms in Alberta were exempt from virtually all workplace health and safety laws — including employers being required to purchase workplace insurance for their employees.

So the couple tried everything to get the word out about the safety conditions on farms, from hounding and chasing MLAs through the halls of the legislature in Edmonton, to advocating for individuals.

Jacob Neufeld has worked in farming all his life. Since being injured on the job four years ago, he’s struggled with depression. He credits Dunlop and Musekamp with getting him and his family out of the darkness. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Jacob Neufeld, a Mexican Mennonite living in Grassy Lake, Alta., is one of those individuals. He had his leg crushed by a hay bale four years ago on the farm he worked at. He's been unable to work ever since. But in early 2018, Musekamp and Dunlop walked into Neufeld's life and provided him with the support he needed to get back on his feet.

Neufeld's eyes brimmed with tears as he gushed about how much this pair means to him.

"They are awesome people, Eric and Darlene; they are a part of the family. They care so much about us," Neufeld said.

This brand of advocacy, however, has also made the couple very unpopular to the farmers who don't appreciate the implication that they run unsafe workplaces. Musekamp and Dunlop have seen all of their employment in farming and trucking dry up as a result.

A province divided

Anger at what they stood for boiled over in 2015 when the NDP were elected provincially after 44 years of consecutive Conservative governments. The NDP wanted to extend workplace health and safety laws to paid employees on farms, exactly what Musekamp and Dunlop had been demanding for years.

The province was overrun with protesters outraged by the legislation, tabled under the name Bill 6. It is some of the most contentious legislation the Alberta NDP government has pursued to date.

Alberta farmers gather along Highway 2 near Nanton on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015 to protest Bill 6. (Kyle Kohut)

"It was being suggested, through this bill, that we as farmers in agriculture didn't really care about safety and we were just being reckless, hurting and injuring our employees. And nothing is further from the truth," said Leighton Kolk, the owner and operator of Kolk Farms, near Iron Spring, Alta.

Kolk explained that he had purchased private insurance for his workers long before it had been mandated, and he continues to pay for additional coverage beyond what is offered by workers' compensation insurance.

Leighton Kolk is the second generation to run Kolk Farms, after his parents grew the business from nothing. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"We do care about safety and our employees' wellbeing. And to have a bill come in to say, 'Well we don't think you do, so we're going to tell you what's right' — that really kicked dust in the average grassroots farmer's face."

He explained that Bill 6 protests were also fueled by fear of the unknown since the NDP were the new kids on the block in 2015. For the most part, Kolk said, farmers weren't interested in being told by the new government how to run their businesses. 

Despite this, there are still farmers like Neufeld who are grateful for Farmworkers' Union of Alberta.

Kolk Farms' feedlot has a capacity of roughly 100,000 cattle. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

The personal cost of political advocacy

This spring, Albertans will be heading back to the polls for the first provincial election since the NDP were voted in. The prospect of losing Bill 6 and everything they've fought so hard for has Musekamp and Dunlop worried.

Since 2004, when they started down this path of advocacy, the couple have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to advance the cause, and they've been blacklisted by many in the farming community — the same folks they've been fighting for. 

They began this journey with a nice house and a comfortable amount of savings. Now, the couple lives out of a trailer without running water or electricity.

Despite these sacrifices, the couple is determined to make some kind of difference.

"It is worth it? Well, if I was to live a standard life with all the comforts, I couldn't afford to fight this fight. So what is most important? Most important to us is to make a change to make things better," Dunlop said.

"Yes, it is all worth it."

Wheat is harvested on a farm near Fort MacLeod, Alta. (REUTERS/Todd Korol)

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About the Producer

Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. Sarah has worked for CBC in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary before deciding to travel as a freelancer, reporting from different corners of the world including France, Hungary and Iraq.

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.

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