“They told me how they were feeling. We had a good conversation, a nice, respectful conversation,” said McIver. “They expressed that they’re not pleased with the exemptions, so we’re going to think about that. We haven’t made a decision to do anything different yet but I told them that we would think about that and we will.”
The change of heart came on a day where St. Albert NDP MLA Marie Renaud introduced a motion for an emergency debate on the topic, which was granted after MLAs gave it an unusual unanimous consent.
During the debate, members of both parties traded jabs, with UCP members accusing the Opposition of trying to make the topic a partisan issue and the NDP saying the province is compromising safety by exempting some drivers from having to complete training.
After the charged debate, MLAs voted unanimously on the motion on the floor, which was to “urge the government to maintain safety requirements for newly licensed commercial vehicles.”
In the wake of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, the NDP announced changes to road testing rules in October 2018, particularly aimed at commercial truckers. That crash occurred when inexperienced Alberta truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu ran a stop sign near Tisdale, Sask., and collided with a coach bus carrying the Broncos junior hockey team.
Requirements called Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT), taken in large part from existing policy in the United States, took effect in March 2019, requiring new Class 1 drivers — those operating semi-trucks — to complete a 113-hour training course, which costs up to $10,000. Then, drivers were required to pass a knowledge test and a driving test.
Previously, the NDP required the 6,800 Class 1 drivers who received their licences between the announcement of MELT and its implementation five months later to take these new, tougher tests. However, an exemption added by the UCP government on Sept. 24 exempted drivers with clean records — interpreted to mean that they have no demerits, violations or suspensions — from taking the new test. Also newly exempt from MELT training are school bus drivers and some farm workers.
Some drivers who received notification of such remain exempt. McIver also said the exemptions will only last until 2021, but specifics about the timeline and exactly who is exempt remain unclear.
Following the debate, official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said that little has changed and that she wants to see clear, on-paper policy from the UCP.
“The motion called for them to reverse their decision and make things safer,” Notley said. “Based on what we just heard from (McIver), it sounds like they are not actually going to do that, even though they voted for it. So that is very disappointing.”
Notley added that she feels frustrated with the lack of clarity surrounding the issue.
“I honestly think the minister is being briefed on his way in and in the middle of his press conferences,” she said. “What I see here is policy making — I mean, I think the back of a napkin would be a step up, and perhaps we could offer him one, and we could get slightly more clarity.”
Earlier in the day, Notley spoke to reporters about the topic, flanked by family members of Humboldt Broncos victims.
A number of those family members came to the legislature to watch the debate. Among them was Andrea Joseph, the mother of Humboldt victim Jaxon Joseph. She said she didn’t feel like she got many answers or clarity Wednesday.
“We’re coming for heads, and we’re going to crack down on this trucking business that shouldn’t be run,” Joseph said. “It needs to start somewhere, and the ministry of transportation can’t have exemptions. We need to have rules.”
Both McIver and Premier Jason Kenney pointed to the NDP’s move to make road testers public employees as a reason for the exemptions, arguing they caused an untenable backlog of drivers that needed to get back on the road.
“There are some serious problems in implementing that because the NDP cut in half the number of driving examiners and so suddenly they created a massive backlog in the number of applicants, taking months for them to get their certification,” Kenney said.
The UCP has since turned to private examiners to cut down road test waits.
Shauna Nordstrom, who lost her son Logan Hunter in the Humboldt crash, indicated that before Wednesday, the Humboldt families had not been consulted about the changes by the UCP, despite reaching out to officials themselves.
With files from Janet French and Anna Junker