COVID-19: Documents renew calls for public inquiry into Cargill outbreak in Alberta

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COVID-19: Documents prompt new calls for public inquiry into Cargill outbreak in Alberta
WATCH: Internal documents obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour point to some concerning allegations regarding the COVID-19 crisis at Cargill. AFL officials say they have proof the government misled workers by suggesting the plant was safe. Jill Croteau reports – Mar 30, 2021

Cargill was the site of Canada’s largest single outbreak of COVID-19. The High River, Alta., facility reported hundreds of employees that tested positive and three deaths were linked to the outbreak.

Internal provincial government documents were obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour.

AFL president Gil McGowan said the 600-plus pages of documents suggest the spread could have been contained earlier.

“The revelations included in documents we obtained through the freedom of information process make it clear the UCP was prioritizing production and profits over safety of workers,” McGowan said.

McGowan referred to a “particularly concerning email” from Dr. Deena Hinshaw to the Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen’s office, which noted two CFIA workers had COVID-19 after the protective public health measures were put in place.

The April 18, 2020 email was sent in the hours before a virtual townhall for Cargill workers. The information was never disclosed to concerned employees during the online session.

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“This email we obtained shows clearly and conclusively the Agriculture Minister, Devin Dreeshen, lied to the assembled Cargill workers on that night when he convened a virtual townhall,” McGowan said.

“He continued with the plan to tell them that it was safe to return, even though he knew it was not.”

Minister Dreeshen’s press secretary gave a statement to Global News. Justin Laurence said the government ensured personal protective equipment was provided to protect both workers and the food security of Alberta families.

“Alberta’s government followed the expert medical advice of its officials, including chief medical officer of Health Dr. Hinshaw who, at no time, recommend the closure of food processing plants,” Laurence said.

But McGowan and the AFL are calling for Dreeshen to be fired.

“This demonstrates the agriculture minister and the UCP government, in general, were putting a priority on pumping beef out of those plants as opposed to protecting health and safety of workers,” McGowan said.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said health officials have worked closely with operators and employees to support them and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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“During any public health investigation, Dr. Hinshaw and other officials receive a wide range of potential information about potential sources of transmission that may have occurred. These are all investigated and assessed as part of the collective outbreak management,” McMillan said.

“Any report that transmission occurred between workers at some point, including while they were outside of the plant, would be assessed to determine if it was accurate and, if so, whether any additional changes to outbreak protocols were needed to protect everyone involved.”

Opposition leader Rachel Notley said these documents are proof a larger investigation needs to be done.

“Thousands of people got sick, people died and this government was profoundly irresponsible and dismissive of their lives and their rights to be treated with dignity and be protected and this calls out for a public inquiry,” Notley said.

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