Small Town, Big Changes

Meat-packing, refugees and the transformation of Brooks.

By Michael Broadway

In many ways , Brooks is a typical western prairie town surrounded by rolling ranchland that’s ideal for raising cattle. Feedlots dot the landscape; their wooden windbreaks stick out above the flat prairie. The town’s motto is “beautiful and bountiful,” reflecting the transformation of the surrounding semi- arid landscape by irrigation.

It’s also a town that has undergone massive change. The population grew slowly from a total of 499 in 1921 to 9,925— including 315 visible minorities—in 1996.

Lakeside Packers appears to be an unlikely catalyst for community change. It started in 1966 with a feed mill and feedlot west of Brooks. it then added a meat-packing plant across the Trans-Canada Highway from its feedlot in the 1970s, and began processing boxed beef in the 1990s. When I visited Brooks in 1996, it was clear that Lakeside was viewed as a community success story. Its employees walked around town proudly wearing jackets with “Lakeside” emblazoned on the back.

All that was about to change.

Packing companies have a public policy of recruiting workers locally, and Lakeside was no different in 1996. But high turnover meant workers were inevitably recruited from further afield. In January 1998, I picked up a Lakeside employee hitchhiking from the plant into town. From Nova Scotia, he was the only one left out of 15 people who had been recruited to work at the plant. The rest had returned home. But enough Maritimers stayed that they could support a fish and chip shop that had moved from Newfoundland to Brooks. Today, many “Newfies” remain in town but few are at Lakeside; they moved into other sectors of the economy.

Meat-packing’s low wages, combined with a dangerous and unpleasant work environment, make the job unattractive to most Canadians. In old-style plants, work varied between hog and cattle slaughter, and workers split their time between the kill floor and processing. But modern plants slaughter a single species. Most line workers stand shoulder to shoulder and make the same cuts over and over. Repetitive motion injuries are commonplace. Meat processing workers have the highest rate of disabling injury and disease among all manufacturing employees in the province. Injuries and low pay contribute to high employee turnover—6 to 8 per cent a month among line workers. This means about 1,800 workers leave Lakeside each year and must be replaced.

By the late 1990s, that high turnover brought lakeside to look to the refugee population for workers. Recruitment videos were translated into Arabic and shown to potential recruits at Calgary’s Catholic immigration society. In 2000, employees were paid a $1,000 bonus for referring friends and family members who stayed for a minimum period. This strategy, used throughout the industry, promotes chain migration and the emergence of immigrant enclaves.

The federal government has also contributed to this situation. In 2001, Parliament passed the Immigration and Refugee Protection act, which had as one of its goals the strengthening of refugee resettlement. And since Africa and Asia are home to most of the world’s refugees, it is no surprise that Brooks’s refugee population provides a snapshot of global trouble spots.

About 3,500 mostly sub-Saharan refugees have moved to Brooks since 2000. They now account for about a quarter of the town’s population, the largest single source country being Sudan, followed by Ethiopia and Somalia. The African community is thriving; African grocery stores, hairdressers, a music shop and a nightclub enrich the community with their presence.

Within five years, this western prairie town was transformed, and drew newspaper reporters and TV crews from across Canada. In 2003, The Globe and Mail reported on “Our Town Their Town”; two years later, the National Post led with “Alberta Hellhole or Northern Oasis?” by early 2006, immigrants and refugees accounted for about 60 per cent of Lakeside’s labour force.

But beyond the town’s sudden fame as rural Canada’s multicultural centre, social service providers struggle to meet the needs of a predominantly refugee population.

The meatpacking industry is vital to Alberta. Over the years, the provincial government has provided loans and grants for the industry’s expansion. At the height of the BSE crisis in 2003, Lakeside received over $9-million from the federal government to stabilize its workforce.

But when it comes to funds for unintended consequences of Lakeside’s recruitment strategy, social service providers must reallocate money from existing resources or beg from their superiors in Edmonton. Yet Brooks’s refugee population, through no fault of its own, requires specialized services if it is to successfully adjust to life in Canada—a goal that is in everyone’s interest. This means hiring ESL staff, community health workers and translators.

Lakeside’s recruitment and the accompanying population growth brought housing and daycare shortages, and rising social service demands in the late 1990s. Emergency services use at the Brooks Health Centre jumped 33 per cent between 1996 and 1997. Alberta Family and social services reported a fivefold increase in demand for supplemental income and one-time shortfalls related to crisis and relocation. Child welfare cases doubled and alcohol-related offences jumped 300 per cent.

Immigrant assimilation is affected by migrants’ social class, exit conditions from home countries, and the reception from host communities. It is worth noting the exit conditions of sub-Saharan refugees, since their life experiences are so different from most Albertans’. Kakuma is a refugee camp in north- eastern Kenya where some of Brooks’s newcomers formerly resided. Temperatures average 40 degrees, and “nothing” grows. About 100,000 refugees, mostly from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, live there.

The Australian Minister for immigration and Multicultural affairs, Amanda Vanstone, visited the camp in 2003: “The heat in the evening, which only drops to around 30 degrees, heats up the tin-roofed shelters ‘like an oven,’ and the three open walls and others with flax roofing do little to stop the elements, which include flooding in the rainy season. People sleep on thin straw mats on concrete floors and share pit toilets. Their lives can be in great danger. Local people are often antagonistic toward the refugees and there are conflicts between groups within the camp. There is a high incidence of sexual abuse and a prevalence of AK-47 rifles. For their own protection against locals and other refugees, some people, mostly women and children, are effectively imprisoned in an enclosure known as the ‘protection area.’”

Obtaining a passport may require bribing local officials. Those who come to Canada from a place like Kakuma are viewed as “blessed” and are obliged to help those left behind, which means, in many instances, sending money home.

To be eligible to come to Canada, refugees must be unable to return home or stay in the country where they have asylum, and have no other country where they can resettle. They undergo medical, security and criminality screening, and then must demonstrate an ability to re-establish themselves in Canada. Employment at Lakeside offers an immediate solution to finding that first job in Canada, since it doesn’t require pre-existing skills or knowledge of English.

From the start, Lakeside recognized immigrant labour’s importance. In 1998, they provided on-site space for Medicine Hat’s immigration service to help employees fill out immigration forms. Most dealt with family reunification. By 2002, newcomer needs and the demand for services were so big that the Global Friendship Immigration Center was incorporated in Brooks. in 2003, nearly 90 per cent of the centre’s 413 clients were refugees. The leading source countries were Sudan (199), Ethiopia (48), Pakistan (33), Somalia (30) and Afghanistan (21). Other sub-Saharan countries included Burundi (4), Congo (8), Liberia (2), Tanzania (1), and Sierra Leone (1). Most were secondary migrants who moved to Brooks from elsewhere in Canada; in 2005, nearly a third of these new immigrants had previously resided in Winnipeg.

The influx of young people meant the number of babies born to women with Brooks home addresses went from 165 in 1996 to 247 in 2005—a 50 per cent increase. The province, however, has seen its birth rate decline.

Schools also face challenges. Enrolment in Brooks’s public schools increased by just 75 students between the 1996/97 and 2005/06 academic years, but in kindergarten and Grade 1, enrolment is up sharply. For the grasslands school division, which includes Brooks, the number of ESL students more than doubled from 138 to 303 between 1999 and 2005. They now account for 9 per cent of the student body. At Brooks’s Central school, which caters to kindergarten and Grade 1, 19 per cent of the students are classed as ESL, compared with just 2 per cent at the high school. a similar pattern exists in the local Catholic schools.

Most parents have high expectations for their children, yet some newcomer parents, according to school officials, expect “teachers to do everything.” The concept of a partnership between parents and teachers is alien.

But Brooks’s Central school has established a voluntary “Parents as teachers” program that promotes parental engagement with their children’s intellectual development. Visits from trained staff begin soon after the mother and newborn return home from the hospital. Teachers praise this program’s ability to identify learning difficulties before children start school.

Among children, teachers note negotiating skills and basic Canadian manners are not yet part of some refugees’ social skills. Refugee children will quickly resort to fighting to obtain or protect something, a trait that others attribute to their camp experiences, where conflict over resources was an everyday occurrence. Limited language and social skills, said a teacher, led one refugee child to “pee in the corner of a classroom.”

But despite these and other incidents, “we spend a lot of time on character education, teaching things like honesty, respect, negotiating skills and basic manners,” says an elementary school principal. “We are gradually making progress.”

A teacher at the public high school summarized the challenges for teachers: “We have students who show up here who are illiterate in their own language, or have missed several years of schooling from living in a refugee camp….students are dealing with a lot of other issues in their lives and school is probably not their highest priority. They are adjusting to a new environment: imagine going from a hot desert to Brooks in the winter. They may be adjusting to a new family situation, perhaps the trauma of seeing friends or relatives killed, plus they have the added pressure of wanting to fit in with students here. Many have to work to help pay the rent or have a little spending money of their own, or some may have to send money back to relatives. That’s a lot of stuff to deal with and they do remarkably well.”

This diversity may create problems, but it is also a major source of community pride. Visitors to Brooks’s Eastbrook School are greeted with a world map showing the origin of its students. I counted 13 countries represented when I visited the school in February 2006.

Brooks’s 2000 civic census recorded more than 50 languages that are spoken in the town. In 2006, this number is estimated at more than 100—a situation that creates obvious communication challenges. School officials acknowledge that routine communication—even sending notes home in English—is difficult. Translating them into the major refugee languages of Arabic, Dinka, Nuer (Sudan), Amharic (ethiopia), Somali (Somalia) and Oromo (Eritrea) is not viable, given the number of parents and difficulty in finding translators. A settlement worker from Global Friendship Immigration Services calls Holy Family academy parents with announcements and information, but given the multiplicity of languages, even this method doesn’t always work.

Providing translators seems obvious for social service providers (who deal with abuse, prostitution and family violence), but even translators can create problems. Some clients refuse a translator’s services, fearing word of their circumstances will spread. RCMP officers report similar difficulties with suspect and witness statements in criminal investigations. Translations are also a potential source of dispute.

The Brooks Health Centre attempted to address the language issue by subscribing to a US-based service, language line, which advertises itself as “providing fast, accurate, confidential language interpretation in 150 languages.” But this service requires patients and staff to wear headsets and is not suitable for emergencies. An emergency room nurse noted patients sometimes resort to miming their symptoms, leaving nurses and doctors to guess the ailment. She recalled one incident where a patient attempted to show they were constipated.

Over time, some barriers will be reduced as newcomers learn English. The number of adults registering for ESL classes at the Adult Learning Centre has risen from 179 in 2002 to 359 in 2005. For adults who lack basic literacy skills, one- on-one tutoring is available through the Adult Basic Literacy education program at Medicine Hat College.

But there are still newcomer women with limited or no knowledge of English, who only go out in the company of their husband. Efforts by the community to change this have been difficult; past attempts have included a pottery class and photography exhibit.

“Husbands are sometimes unhappy to learn about a wife’s outside activities. Last week, for example, we had a reporter from the newspaper who was going to do a story about the clay class and he wanted to take a picture of the group,” said a teacher. “One of the women objected, saying her husband wouldn’t want her picture in the paper so other people could see her.”

When it comes to law enforcement, RCMP officers acknowledge that some newcomer adults are conditioned by their refugee experience to be wary of anyone in uniform; this group also has little respect for what uniforms represent.

And crime is increasing. Brooks’s crime rate went from 131 per 1,000 people in 1996 to 257 per 1,000 in 2004. The detachment is now the fourth-busiest in the province.

It is simplistic to attribute the rising crime rate solely to Lakeside’s recruitment of less-educated young adult single males, the demographic group with the highest incidence of criminal activity. Nevertheless, prior to Lakeside’s expansion, the crime rate was relatively stable.

Immigrants also deal with crime differently. Many prefer to deal with infractions within their own community. According to an RCMP officer, “we had a case of assault in the newcomer community. The victim swore out a complaint. We collected evidence. A suspect was arrested and a court date assigned. The next thing I knew, I had some community leaders in my office requesting that the charges be dropped, saying they would take care of the matter themselves.”

Then there’s the doctor problem. Brooks is short of physicians. Scheduling visits to the doctor is difficult, so newcomers go to the hospital’s emergency room.

“A Lakeside employee who works the B shift will come home late at night and take a look in on their children, and if one doesn’t look quite right, they will take them to the ER at 3 a.m.,” said one nurse.

“This makes little sense from our perspective, since follow- up visits are usually called for and the patient ends up seeing another doctor, who then has to become acquainted with the original diagnosis. And, of course, it overloads the ER.”

Caseloads at Brooks’s Alberta Child & Family services office have increased so much since 1999 that staff numbers have doubled.

The caseload at the Alberta Alcohol & Drug Abuse Commission jumped from 127 patients in 1995/96 to 230 in 2004/05, which meant hiring additional counsellors. Staff in both agencies say increased caseloads cannot be attributed to Lakeside’s recruitment strategy alone but are related in part to the presence and influx of less-educated people into Brooks. a comparison of 1996 and 2001 census data shows the number of people in Brooks who failed to graduate from high school increased by 745.

Town boosters point to Brooks’s sustained economic growth as the upside to increases in social disorders and demands for social services. and they are correct. The city approved building permits valued at close to $200-million between 1996 and 2005. new construction means more workers. Census information indicates that between 1996 and 2001, the number of employed people went up by over 1,400.

But the number of low-income earners increased during this same period by 175, and average earnings fell relative to the rest of the province between 1996 and 2000. This suggests many new jobs in the service sector (for example, retail, restaurants and hotels) are relatively low-paying and part-time.

That explains in part the rising demand for food bank services. The Brooks Food bank opened in 1998. In 2002, it served 3,384 people; in 2005, it served 4,007 people. The manager projects a 10 per cent increase in 2006.

Food isn’t the only problem. Co-operation among newcomers often is difficult, reflecting rivalries that originate in Africa. Others suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. “There is nobody in this town with the type of expertise to diagnose post-traumatic stress syndrome,” said someone who works closely with the refugee population. “I would have to go to Toronto or Montreal to find somebody and bring them here, and that’s not going to happen.”

Refugee children also are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, delinquency, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. Social service workers and RCMP worry that failing to teach newcomer children to read will condemn them to participating in the town’s burgeoning drug trade.

The grapevine is full of rumours that lakeside, with government help, is preparing to launch a new invasion upon the town. In 2005, the company announced another expansion to meet increased slaughter demand arising from the BSE crisis. it now needs to hire another 500 workers. Finding staff in Alberta’s booming economy is tough, given Lakeside’s wages and working conditions, so the company is considering guest workers— apparently from China, the Philippines and Cambodia—who must work at the plant for two years. After that, they can apply for permanent residence in Canada.

Regardless of whether this program is implemented, Brooks will continue to grow because of the federal government’s humanitarian refugee policy, family reunification and the jobs at lakeside. The town’s social service providers will continue to struggle to meet the needs.

Yet both levels of government are equally culpable for Brooks’s situation—the province through its promotion of the industry, and the federal government by its humanitarian refugee policy.

The province has attempted to meet its obligations. Now the federal government must do its part.

Michael Broadway is the co-author of Slaughterhouse Blues.


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