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Emanuel Bauman was dumping a load of wood chips on his farm’s laneway last August, driving a small tractor-like machine with a bucket on the front and a trailer connected behind. Two of his young children were riding in the bucket, until the four-year-old fell out while Mr. Bauman was looking back at the trailer dumping the chips. Mr. Bauman did not notice and ran over his son Steven.

Mr. Bauman was charged, convicted and this week sentenced for criminal negligence causing death. He escaped jail time; instead, the judge gave him a suspended sentence with three years probation and 240 hours of community service, to be spent speaking at events about child safety on farms.

This is the first time in Canada anyone has been charged – let alone convicted – after a child died because of a farm incident, according to lawyers and farm safety researchers. The criminal case and the resulting sentence, experts argue, could shift how farmers and legislators address safety and how the legal system treats child fatalities on family agricultural operations.

People such as Mr. Bauman have, for centuries, been shielded from prosecution because of the belief that family farms are unique places where it is normal for kids to be around and operate dangerous machinery. But Justice Julia Morneau’s ruling, delivered Thursday in Owen Sound, Ont., signals that children dying in farm incidents can no longer be assumed an acceptable part of rural culture and therefore immune to legal consequences. Mr. Bauman’s suspended sentence means he does not have to go to prison despite being convicted of causing his son’s death.

Mr. Bauman’s decision to put the children in the machine’s bucket while working was a “marked and substantial departure from what a reasonably prudent parent would do,” Justice Morneau wrote in her sentencing explanation. But the farm death, she said, was “unique” and sparing Mr. Bauman from prison was reasonable.

“I am satisfied that any farmer or other person operating heavy equipment in the course of a farm operation is more likely to be deterred from risking a child’s safety by the prospect that the child could die than by the prospect of going to jail,” Justice Morneau said.

“I am satisfied that the principle of denunciation is addressed by the conviction itself.”

Mr. Bauman, through his lawyer, declined to comment.

There is limited data about the extent of this problem but experts say about 10 to 15 children die in farm incidents in Canada a year and safety advocates applauded Justice Morneau’s break from tradition.

“This is very much history-making in Canada," said Don Voaklander, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, as well as the director of the institution’s Injury Prevention Centre. “It is a reasonable starting point because we’re going from basically zero to something,"

But Mr. Bauman’s mandated public-speaking events are unlikely to curb fatalities and injuries involving children on farms, the researcher said.

“Hear me: There is no empirical data in the world to suggest that any education for farm safety on the family farm has every worked,” Dr. Voaklander said. Data suggest education provides a better understanding of some of the risks, but that has not translated into a decrease in hospitalizations and fatalities, he said.

William Pickett, a professor in the department of public health sciences at Queen’s University in Kingston, believes Justice Morneau’s decision to convict Mr. Bauman but spare him from prison was thoughtful and compassionate.

“I think this judge was incredibly courageous,” Dr. Pickett said. “And ... the Crown attorney overseeing the case – to actually call a spade a spade and do their jobs.”

The light sentence, he said, may be enough to begin to change farm culture.

“It is not necessarily a decision meant to punish [Mr. Bauman],” Dr. Pickett said. “He’s been punished enough; I agree. But I think the decision is to protect children that are still alive and active on farms."

He added: “Maybe that decision will help a future Steven."

The decision in Ontario comes as Alberta’s United Conservative Party is in the midst of rewriting the province’s farm-safety legislation. The government is unlikely to restrict farmers from letting their children participate in the family business. And while Justice Morneau’s decision is a first, few may follow, according to Gordon Scott Campbell, a farm lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

“Prosecutions remain very costly for taxpayers to bring,” the lawyer at Ontario firm Aubry Campbell MacLean said. “The fact that a suspended sentence was imposed may, in fact, deter future prosecutions.”

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