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Alberta farmers are pushing the province to exempt the agriculture industry from training requirements for semi-trailer drivers that were brought in after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba introduced mandatory entry-level training programs this year for people seeking a Class 1 licence, and transportation ministers across Canada have pledged to do the same by 2020. But Prairie provinces, which extended their deadlines for new Class 1 drivers working on farms, may further rewrite the rules for the agriculture industry, which argues it should be treated differently from other sectors.

Devin Dreeshen, Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, told farmers at a townhall in August that the government may modify the Class 1 licensing requirements for agriculture operations. The event was held as part of a larger review of the province’s farm-safety laws.

“Not because farmers are special, but just because we’re unique," Mr. Dreeshen said. ”We’re different than commercial truckers.”

Sixteen people were killed when a semi-truck ran a stop sign and smashed into the Humboldt Broncos’ bus in April, 2018, and the emotional aftermath reverberated throughout Canada. The crash also highlighted gaps in training and licensing standards across the country. Politicians, under public pressure, promised to review and strengthen safety standards for big rigs. Now, farmers argue, the new licensing standards are jeopardizing their finances, ability to attract and retain employees, and making the roads more dangerous. Trucking on farms, they argue, is not comparable with trucking for commercial operations.

Alberta’s new mandatory training program can cost up to $10,000 and requires 113 hours to complete.

Kendall Bevans, who farms near Cardston in southern Alberta, said the tuition alone will hurt the agriculture industry.

“No seasonal worker is going to go pay 10 grand to get a part-time job,” he said, adding that newly licensed drivers will instead seek more lucrative full-time jobs in the commercial sector. Further, casual labourers such as retirees who like to pitch in during busy seasons will be out of luck.

“This is going to change agriculture. It is going to totally change our community,” Mr. Bevans said. “It is going to make so many people unemployable.”

While existing Class 1 drivers will be grandfathered, a shortage of new truckers means semi drivers will be overworked. And the mandatory training for new licensees, he argued, would not have prevented the incident – the Broncos crash – that sparked the regulatory overhaul.

Shawn Pitcher, another farmer from Cardston, believes future truckers should be more educated about safety. A graduated licensing system, he suggested, could alleviate a shortage of drivers on farms and allow new truckers to gain experience.

Perhaps, he said, new drivers could be licensed to operate semi-trucks but not at night and not carrying commercial goods. Restrictions could be lifted as drivers put in more hours on the road, Mr. Pitcher said. And seasonal work, such as hauling grain for farmers, could provide that opportunity.

“It would help the farming industry, it would help the trucking industry, it would help [make] safer highways,” he said.

Class 1 hopefuls in Manitoba and Saskatchewan must complete 121.5 hours of training. The new training requirements differ from province to province, but all include a blend of classroom and driving hours. Ontario was the only province that required training prior to testing for Class 1 licences before the Broncos’ crash.

Ric McIver, Alberta’s Transportation Minister, would not say whether the government intends to further change the rules, only that the government is looking at it.

Those lobbying for a two-tier system for new Class 1 drivers point to Saskatchewan’s phase-in program for farm operations. Newly licensed semi operators on Saskatchewan farms must be at least 18; pass medical, written and road tests; and can only drive within the province. They will then be monitored for one year and poor driving could result in penalties such as downgraded or suspended licences. Next March, new semi drivers will need 40 hours of training to obtain a modified Class 1 licence for farm work in Saskatchewan and restrictions will apply. This graduated system will be eliminated March 1, 2021, requiring all new drivers to take the mandatory training program.

“That is something of [a] different farmer class of licence that we’re looking at,” Mr. Dreeshen, Alberta’s Agriculture Minister, said at the townhall in Lethbridge.

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