Meatpacking, Refugees and the Transformation of Brooks, Alberta By Michael Broadway Visiting Fulbright Scholar Department of Rural Economy University of Alberta Edmonton

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Meatpacking, Refugees and the Transformation of Brooks, Alberta
Michael Broadway

Visiting Fulbright Scholar

Department of Rural Economy

University of Alberta




Brooks was a typical western prairie town in 1996. It had a population of about 10,000 souls. Its situation along the Trans-Canada Highway about 2 hours east of Calgary made it a regional centre for surrounding agricultural communities and southeastern Alberta’s oil and gas industry. Extensive grazing land coupled with irrigation has transformed this western edge of Palliser’s Triangle into a prosperous ranching and farming area and made it ideal for raising cattle. Feedlots dot the landscape; their wooden windbreaks stick out above the flat prairie. The only hint of a possible change in Brooks in 1996 was the presence of Lakeside Packers, a beef processor, located about three miles northwest of the centre of town. Two years earlier Lakeside had been purchased by an American firm who immediately announced it would increase the plant’s slaughter capacity and add processing and rendering facilities. In all about 2,000 new employees would have to be found to staff the new plant when it came on line.

Staffing a meatpacking plant in a rural area is difficult. Rural areas tend to have little surplus labor- you either have a job, or you leave to find work elsewhere. And Brooks was no different when Lakeside began recruiting for its December 1996 expansion. Total unemployment in the town amounted to just over 300 persons in April 1996 (Statistics Canada 1999). And so the company cast its net throughout southern Alberta to include the larger population centers of Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. But high employee turnover often exceeding 200 percent in a newly minted plant ensured this labor supply would be quickly exhausted. The company then targeted the Maritimes and interior British Columbia where collapses in the local resource economy produced layoffs. Recruiting outsiders meant people would move to Brooks creating many of the conditions associated with a “boomtown.”

Although most rural meatpacking towns fail to meet the 15 percent annual population growth rate required to be classified as a boomtown (Malamud 1984), the model provides a useful means of understanding the socio-economic transformation of packinghouse towns (Broadway 1990, 2000; Stull and Broadway 2001; Broadway and Stull 2006). Boomtowns are common throughout western North America and are usually associated with mining oil or coal in isolated rural areas. Typically, a company’s recruitment efforts or word of mouth result in young adult single male workers moving to a town. Accompanying the often welcomed population growth are increases in crime, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and juvenile delinquency- the so-called Gillette Syndrome, named after a town in Wyoming which was the site of coal mine and power plant expansion (Kohrs 1974). Rural meatpacking communities in the United States have experienced similar social changes, but with two significant differences. First, meatpacking wages tend to be much lower than the mining and construction sectors so when there is a slowdown in production, workers and their families become the working poor and are eligible for social services. Second, the industry is reliant upon a mostly immigrant labor force for its line workers, which means communities end up providing services to non-English speaking residents (Stull and Broadway 2004; Broadway and Stull 2006).

Canada’s meatpackers do not have a relatively porous border with a poorer southern neighbor from which to draw their labor force. So after scouring Canada for workers in the first few years of the plant’s operation Lakeside looked to Canada’s refugee population to meet its labor needs. Since 2000 about 3,500 mostly Sub-Saharan refugees have moved to Brooks. They now account for about a quarter of the town’s population, with the largest single source country being the Sudan, followed by Ethiopia and Somalia. Within five years this “typical western prairie town” has been transformed into an instant multicultural and multilingual community, and drawn newspaper reporters and TV crews from across Canada by its apparent uniqueness. In 2003, The Globe and Mail reported on “Our Town Their Town” (Anderssen 2003); two years later the National Post led with “Alberta Hellhole or Northern Oasis?” (Soloman 2005). But beyond the town’s sudden fame as rural Canada’s multicultural centre, social service providers struggle to meet the unique needs of a predominantly non-native English speaking refugee population.

This paper identifies the social and economic changes that have occurred from 1996 to the present in Brooks, and documents the unique challenges posed to a rural community by an influx of Sub-Saharan refugees. First, the structural changes in Canada’s meatpacking sector that are behind the reliance on an immigrant and refugee labor force are reviewed. Then the boomtown model is outlined to create a framework within which to analyze community change in Brooks in the second half of the paper.

Canada’s Packers

The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a dramatic change in the structure and location of Canada’s meatpacking industry. Historically, cattle and hogs were shipped by rail for slaughter in large multi-storied packing plants close to railroad terminal sites in major Canadian metropolitan centers. An oligopoly, consisting of Canada Packers, Burns Meats and Swift Canadian dominated the industry. Wages were high; and beginning in 1948, were maintained by a master contract that dictated wages and working conditions throughout the industry. In the post world war two period, per-capita red meat consumption soared and the industry expanded. In the late 1970s studies linking diets high in cholesterol to heart disease were first published and consumers responded by reducing their beef consumption. This decline occurred at the same time the industry was confronting an increase in US meat imports. These two factors combined to produce an overcapacity problem, and with industry wages 10 percent higher than US competitors, Canadian firms embarked on a cost cutting strategy. In 1984 the master contract was challenged by Burns Meats. It argued that all its plants were losing money and demanded its workers accept a 40 percent reduction in the $11.99 base rate1. The union insisted on retaining the industry-wide agreement. Burns filed unfair labor practices charges against the union for bargaining in bad faith- a position that was upheld by several provincial Labor Relations Boards. Workers responded by striking plants in Calgary, Lethbridge, Brandon, Winnipeg and Kitchener (Forest 1989). Other companies followed Burns’ strategy, demanding wage concessions and closing plants. In Brooks, the UFCW struck Lakeside Packers and the plant became non-union when replacement workers took the place of striking workers at wages 30 percent below the union rate, a cut of $3- 3.80 an hour (Noël and Gardner 1990)

Across the US border, meatpacking was undergoing a series of cost-cutting innovations, commonly referred to as the IBP revolution (Stull and Broadway 2004) which would put the Canadian industry at even more of a competitive disadvantage. IBP’s first plant in 1961 revolutionized the industry. Instead of locating it at a railroad terminal site, it was constructed in a cattle producing region of northwestern Iowa. This reduced the shrinkage and bruising associated with shipping cattle long distances. The company purchased cattle directly from producers thereby eliminating the stockyard middleman. The plant unlike its older facilities was a single story structure which allowed the incorporation of a disassembly line with workers responsible for a single step in the preparation of the carcass. This “deskilling” was then used to justify paying worker’s lower wages. In the late 1960s the company introduced boxed beef. Instead of shipping a carcass, it is fabricated into smaller cuts and then vacuum packed. This innovation appealed to IBP’s customers since they would no longer have to hire their own butchers, while removing fat and bone reduced transport costs. A 1993 study estimated the average cost of shipping fed cattle from Alberta to Ontario at $112.50/head compared with 29.91/head for boxed beef (Canadian International Trade Tribunal 1993). This substantial cost differential meant the end of Ontario’s beef processing industry, since it was now cheaper to supply Canada’s largest consumer market with boxed beef from Alberta instead of shipping cattle from the prairies and slaughtering them in southern Ontario.

In the United States other meatpacking companies quickly emulated IBP’s methods by taking advantage of economies of scale and constructing large slaughter capacity plants close to supplies of fed cattle. This amounted to a rural industrialization strategy as plants opened in small towns across the High Plains close to where cattle were fattened. Kansas exemplifies these trends. Old plants closed in the state’s large urban areas of Wichita and Kansas City. And new plants were constructed in Garden City, Liberal and Dodge City in the rural southwest. These towns all had less than 20,000 souls living in them before the packers arrived. In Canada, IBP’s cost cutting strategies were ignored. And it was left to US based Cargill to construct a new plant in High River, Alberta

Cargill was lured to Alberta by the availability of fed cattle. The province is the centre of Canada’s cattle feeding industry with about two-thirds of the country’s fed cattle in 2004 (Canfax 2005). In addition, the provincial government provided Cargill with a $4 million grant for the construction of a waste-water treatment plant. Alberta Agriculture officials justified the investment by arguing the plant would reduce the volume of cattle shipped south to the United States for slaughter (Cybulski 1989). The plant opened in 1989 with a non-union labor force paying wages at $3-$4 an hour less than its competitors. Within months of its start-up Cargill’s competitors accused it of selling beef at below market prices (Stevenson 1991). Although the charges were never proven, the introduction of a lower cost producer had predictable results. In 1991 Canada Packers closed all its plants in western Canada leaving Cargill and Lakeside as the dominant players in Alberta.

Meatpacking’s low wages combine with a dangerous and unpleasant work environment to make most jobs unattractive to Canadians. In the old plants work varied between hog and cattle slaughter, and workers split their time between the kill floor and processing (Novek 1989). But modern plants slaughter a single species and most line workers now stand shoulder to shoulder making the same cuts over and over with the result that repetitive motion injuries are commonplace (Stull and Broadway 1995). Meat processing workers in Alberta have the highest probability of a disabling injury or disease among all manufacturing employees in the province, with a rate more than double manufacturing’s (Alberta Human Resources and Employment 2005). Injuries and low pay contribute to high employee turnover. After a plant has operated for several years turnover among line workers averages 6-8 percent a month (Stull and Broadway 1995). This means about 1,800 workers leave Lakeside and must be replaced each year. Companies must constantly recruit workers and it this effort that turns packinghouse towns into boomtowns.

Packers and Boomtowns

Rural sociologists studying North American energy boomtowns in the 1970s noted sudden population growth was accompanied by increases in a variety of social disorders. Studies of Fort McMurray in northeastern Alberta documented increases in crime rates, mental illnesses, divorce and alcohol and drug abuse (Graham Brown & Associates 1975; Riffel 1975; Hobart et al 1979; Gartrell et al 1981). Similar findings from U.S. communities were challenged on the basis of inadequate data and methodological considerations (Wilkinson et al 1982), prompting a vigorous response from supporters of the boomtown social disruption hypothesis (Finsterbusch 1982). By the late 1980s a consensus emerged that social disruption did occur, but only in some places, at certain time periods and among some segments of the population (Smith et al 2001)

The theoretical basis for explaining increases in social disorder is found in the sociological literature dealing with modernization and urban disorganization (Wirth 1938). According to this perspective pre-boom communities are characterized by social cohesion and stability. Social control and support is maintained by a “high density of acquaintanceship” i.e. the proportion of a person’s fellow community members that are known to a person (Freudenberg 1986). A sudden influx of persons is presumed to reduce this number, lowering social interaction and watchfulness, while anonymity and social disorder increase. Under this scenario informal social controls are replaced with formal ones.

Social isolation has been identified as a key variable in explaining child abuse and neglect among boomtown newcomer families. Neglectful families have fewer relationships with formal groups and fewer informal contacts with neighbors. This lower level of support is exacerbated by high levels of residential mobility which is endemic to boomtowns, but which also reduces watchfulness and surveillance. These factors combine to isolate newcomers and for some families this leads to child abuse (Camasso & Wilkinson 1990).

A high level of transience among young adult single males is a factor behind increases in boomtowns’ rates of substance abuse. The absence of a stable family environment and the acceptance of drinking hard liquor as part of the frontier experience foster an environment that encourages substance abuse. Preventing abuse is hampered by high turnover which also facilitates drug trafficking and makes enforcement difficult (Milkman et al 1980).

Critics of these studies note it is impossible to link the causal mechanism of increasing population, decreasing social interaction, and increasing social disorders since the studies occur after the boom (Krannich & Greider 1990). But despite the weak theoretical underpinning of the boomtown model there is widespread empirical evidence documenting social disruption with sudden population growth.

Refugees and the Context of Reception

Immigrant assimilation is a function of migrants’ social class, their conditions of exit, and the context of reception provided by host communities (Portes and Böröcz 1989). Migrants’ social class and the circumstances surrounding their decision to leave their homeland are beyond the control of host communities. For Sub-Saharan refugees it is worth noting their conditions of exit, since their life experiences are so different from most Albertans. Kakuma is a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, and is where some of Brooks’ newcomers formerly resided. It is located in a place where “nothing” grows and temperatures average 40 degrees C. (Aukot 2003: 74). It is home to about 100,000 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The Australian Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs visited the camp in 2003 and described it as follows:

“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 does little to stop the elements, which includes 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 towards the refugees and there are conflicts between groups within the camp. There is a high incidence of sexual abuse and a prevalence of AK47 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’” (Vanstone 2004).

Leaving the camp may require bribing a local official so as to obtain a passport. 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 back home (Omar 2006).

To be eligible to come to Canada refugees must be unable to return home or stay in the country where they have asylum, and there is no other country where they can resettle. Once selected for Canadian resettlement, refugees undergo medical, security and criminality screening, and then must demonstrate an ability to re-establish themselves in Canada (Yu and Dempsey 2004).

A positive reception in the host community will facilitate newcomer adjustment and this is determined by government policy, the attitudes of local employers and local people, and the presence or absence of local ethnic communities. Employment at Lakeside offers an immediate solution to finding that first job in Canada since it doesn’t require any preexisting job skills or knowledge of English. But Brooks’ social service providers have little influence over government refugee policy, nor can they influence Lakeside’s working conditions but they can provide a positive reception by addressing newcomers’ needs.

Brooks and Lakeside

Brooks’ motto is “beautiful and bountiful,” which reflects the transformation of the surrounding semi-arid landscape by irrigation. The town’s population grew slowly from a total of 499 in 1921 to 4,010 in 1971. But with the coming of the oil and gas industry in the 1970s the town experienced its first boom and the population more than doubled to 9,421 by 1981. The collapse of the energy sector in the 1980s stalled the town’s growth and on the eve of its second boom in 1996 the town’s official population stood at 9,925 with just 315 visible minorities.

Lakeside Packers would appear to be an unlikely catalyst for community change. The firm began life in 1966 with the construction of a feedmill and feedlot just west of Brooks. In the early 1970s, with the infusion of capital from Mitsubishi, a Japanese trading company, Lakeside constructed a meatpacking plant across the Trans-Canada Highway from its feedlot. The company specialized in supplying carcasses to other companies for further processing. But by the early 1990s the widespread adoption of boxed beef meant this market was disappearing and Lakeside realized it needed to add a processing side. The company “welcomed” IBP’s purchase, recognizing that “they had the necessary capital and expertise to make a success of producing boxed beef” (Altwasser 2006). When the author first 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 publicly stated policy of recruiting workers locally and Lakeside was no different when it began hiring in fall 1999. But high turnover meant workers were inevitably recruited from further and further afield. In January 1998 the author picked up a Lakeside employee hitch-hiking into town from the plant. He was from North Sydney, Nova Scotia and was the only one left out 15 people who had been recruited to work at the plant, the rest had all returned home. But enough Maritimers stayed to support a fish and chip shop that had moved from Marystown on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula to Brooks (Sillars 1998). Today, many “Newfies” remain in town but few are at Lakeside; they have moved into other sectors of the local economy (field notes 1/17/06).

Lakeside’s recruitment and the accompanying population growth brought familiar problems to this latest boomtown- including shortages of housing and day care spaces, and rising social service demands. The use of Emergency Services at the Brooks Health Centre jumped 33% between 1996 and 1997. During the same period Alberta Family and Social Services reported a five-fold increase in the demand for supplemental income and one time short falls related to crisis and relocation. Child welfare cases doubled and alcohol related offenses jumped 300 percent (Howard Research & Instructional Systems Inc. 2000). Demands for social services continue to outpace the town’s population growth as subsequent sections will illustrate.

Beginning in 1998 it was apparent that domestic labor sources would be insufficient to meet Lakeside’s staffing needs and they targeted immigrants. Working with Immigrant Aid Societies recruiting videos were translated into Arabic and shown to potential recruits at Calgary’s Catholic Immigration Society (field notes 1/5/98). Employees in 2000 were paid a $1000 bonus for referring friends and family members who stayed beyond a minimum period (Lakeside n.d.). This strategy is commonly used throughout the industry (Human Rights Watch 2004); it promotes chain migration and the emergence of immigrant enclaves in packing towns (cf. Grey and Woodrick 2002; Fink 2003) and Brooks would prove to be no different. By 2006 immigrants and refugees grew to account for about 60 percent of Lakeside’s labor force (Altwasser 2006); and an even higher percentage among its line workers.

Demographic Changes: The World Comes to Brooks

Lakeside from the outset recognized the importance of its immigrant labor force. In fall 1998 they provided on-site space for Medicine Hat’s SAAMIS Immigration Service to provide employees with assistance in filling out immigration forms, most dealt with family reunification (field notes 9/22/98). By 2002 the demand for such services was such that Global Friendship Immigration Center was incorporated in Brooks to meet newcomer needs. Its annual reports provide a snapshot of an emerging multicultural community. In 2003, nearly 90 percent 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 represented were Burindi (4), the Democratic Republic of Congo (8), Liberia (2), Tanzania (1), and Sierra Leone (1). Most were secondary migrants who had moved to Brooks from elsewhere in Canada, with the 2005 third quarter report indicating nearly a third had previously resided in Winnipeg (Global Immigration Center 2004, 2005). This diversity is a source of community pride. Visitors to Brooks’ Eastbrook School are greeted with a world map showing the origin of its students, the author counted 13 different countries represented on his visit to the school in February 2006 (field notes 2/2/2006).

At the same time the town’s population was growing through immigration, the influx of young people meant an increase in the birth rate from 17/1000 in 1996 to an estimated 19/1000 in 20052. In absolute terms the number of babies born to women with a Brooks’ home address during the same period went from 165 to 247 - a 50 percent increase! The town’s experience is in marked contrast to the province which has seen its birth rate decline from 14/1000 in 1996 to 12/1000 in 2005 (Alberta Government Services various years; Linda Sorensen personal communication 2/6/2006).

An increasing immigrant and refugee population combined with a rising birth rate has meant local schools have been confronted with some unique challenges. Enrollment in Brooks’ public schools increased by just 75 students between the 1996/7 and 2005/6 academic years, but in kindergarten and first grade the impact of the baby boom is beginning to be felt where enrollment is up sharply (Grade_Structure_1996/7_vs._2005/6_Academic_Years'>Table 1). Refugee children have greatly increased the demand for ESL instruction. 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 percent of the student body3. An analysis by grade level indicates much higher proportions of ESL students in the early grades (Table 2). At Brooks’ Central School, which caters to Kindergarten and first grade, 19 percent of the students are classed as ESL, compared with just 2 percent at the High School. A similar pattern exists in the local Catholic Schools, where ESL students comprise 15 percent at Holy Family Academy (K thru 6th grade) and 6 percent at St. Joseph’s Collegiate (7th thru 12th grade). An instructor at the 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 environment to Brooks in the winter. They maybe 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 to 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” (field notes 1/16/2006).

At the elementary level, the challenges of teaching ESL students are considerably lessened by the fact that all students are engaged in learning to read and write English. Brooks’ Central School has established a Parents as Teachers program, using the Born to Learn curriculum that promotes the active engagement of parents with their child’s intellectual development. Participation is voluntary and home visits from trained staff members begin soon after the mother and new born baby have returned home from the hospital. Local school teachers praise the ability of this program to identify potential learning difficulties prior to children attending elementary school.

Cultural Changes

Brooks’ 2000 civic census recorded over 50 different languages spoken in Brooks. In 2006 this number is now estimated at over a 100 (field notes 2/2/06). The multiplicity of languages creates obvious communication challenges. Many newcomers lack a basic knowledge of English; some are illiterate in their own language and may have never attended school. School officials acknowledge routine communications with refugee parents are difficult. Sending notes home in English serves little purpose for some. Translating them into the major refugee languages of Arabic, Dinka, Nuer (Sudan), Amharic (Ethiopia), Somali (Somalia) and Oromo (Eritrea) and then back translating them into English to ensure the original intent was conveyed (Stull and Broadway 2004: 128) is not a viable option, given the numbers of parents involved and the difficulty of finding translators. Holy Family Academy uses the services of a settlement worker to call parents with announcements and provide other information, but given the multiplicity of languages not all parents are likely to be reached even using this method.

Providing translators seems an obvious solution for social service providers but using a translator can also be problematic! Alberta Child and Family Service workers who deal with child neglect, abuse, prostitution and family violence note in some instances when a translator’s services are called for clients will refuse them, as they are afraid word of their circumstances will spread through the community. RCMP officers report similar difficulties surrounding suspect and witness statements in the course of a criminal investigation. Added to which the translations are a potential source of dispute in any criminal proceedings (field notes 2/14/06).

The Brooks Health Centre has attempted to address the language issue by subscribing to U.S. based Language Line, which advertises itself “as providing fast, accurate, confidential language interpretation in 150 languages.” But this service which requires the patient and staff member to each wear a headset is not really suitable for emergency situations where decisive intervention maybe called for. 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 (field notes 2/5/06).

The long term solution to these communication issues is for newcomers to learn English and many do. The number of adults registering for ESL classes at the Adult Learning Centre has risen from 179 in 2002 to 359 in 2005 (Whyte personal communication 2/15/06). For those adults who lack basic literacy skills one-on-one tutoring is available through the Adult Basic Literacy Education program administered at Medicine Hat College. But there remain newcomer women with limited or no knowledge of English who spend all their time at home and only go out in the company of their husband. Attempts to lessen their isolation have focused on engaging them in a pottery class and photography exhibit spotlighting refugee women but even these efforts are difficult:

“Husbands are sometimes unhappy to learn about a wife’s outside activities. Last week, for example, we had 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. One of the women objected saying her husband wouldn’t want her picture in the paper so other people could see her” (field notes 2/15/06).

Communities are powerless to affect the refugee experience but they must deal with its consequences. RCMP officers acknowledge some newcomer adults have been conditioned by their refugee experience to be wary of anyone wearing a uniform, and this group has little respect for their uniform and what it represents. Among children, school teachers note negotiating skills and basic “manners” are not yet part of some refugee’s social skills. Refugee children will quickly resort to fighting to obtain or protect something, a legacy that others attribute to their camp experience where conflict for resources was an everyday occurrence (Reynolds 2004). Limited language and social skills led one refugee child to “pee in the corner of a classroom (field notes 2/2/06).” But despite these and other incidents an elementary school principal emphasized:

“We spend a lot of time on character education, teaching things like honesty, respect, negotiating skills and basic manners…We are gradually making progress” (field notes 2/2/06).

Newcomers also bring different expectations regarding service delivery. At school, some newcomer parents expect “teachers to do everything.” The concept of a partnership between parents and teachers in assisting children to learn is alien. This is particularly challenging for parents who have never attended school, but most have high expectations for their children in terms of their futures (field notes 1/16/06). In the area of law enforcement some newcomers would prefer to deal with infractions within the confines of their 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” (field notes 2/14/06).

And the Beat Goes On

Against the background of rising cultural diversity Brooks continues to experience many of the features associated with a boomtown. Like other small towns in rural areas Brooks is short of physicians. Population growth has only exacerbated this trend and made scheduling routine doctors’ visits difficult so newcomers use the Emergency Room. A nurse explained the problem this way:

“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 3.00am. 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 it of course overloads the E.R.” (field notes 2/5/06).

Brooks’ reported crime rate went from 131/1000 persons in 1996 to 257/1000 in 2004 (Table 3). The detachment is now the fourth busiest in the province in terms of the number of reported crimes/officer (field notes 2/14/06). It would be overly simplistic to attribute the rising crime rate to Lakeside’s recruitment of less educated young adult single males, the demographic group with the highest incidence of criminal activity, since this group is also attracted to work in the oil patch. But as Table 3 illustrates prior to Lakeside’s expansion the crime rate was relatively stable.

Caseloads at Brooks’ Alberta Child and Family Services office have increased so much since 1999 that the staff doubled from 6.5 persons to 13 in 2005. The case load at the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, jumped from 127 patients in 1995/6 to 230 in 2004/5 which meant hiring additional counselors. Staffs in both agencies acknowledge their increasing caseloads cannot be attributed solely to Lakeside’s recruitment strategy but is related, in part, to the existing presence and influx of less educated persons into Brooks. Partial support for this explanation is provided by a comparison of 1996 and 2001 census data which shows during this period the number of persons residing in Brooks who failed to graduate from High School increased by 745, and their share of the population aged 15 and over increased from 41 percent to 43 percent (Statistics Canada 1999; 2004). By contrast during the same period, the equivalent population declined from 48 to 40 percent in the nearby town of Taber (2001 population 7671), which is in line with provincial trends.

Town boosters will point to Brooks’ sustained economic growth as the upside to increases in social disorders and demands for new social services. And they are correct. The city approved building permits valued at close to $200 million between 1996 and 2005 (City of Brooks n.d). New construction has meant hiring even more workers. Census data indicate between 1996 and 2001 the number of employed persons in Brooks went up by over 1400; while labor force participation rates increased for men and women (Statistics Canada 1999; 2004). But despite employment growth and increased labor participation the number of persons falling below the low income cutoff increased during this same period by 175; while average earnings of persons fell relative to the rest of the province between 1996 and 2000 (Table 4). This suggests many of the other newly created jobs in the service sector (e.g. retail, restaurants, and hotels) are relatively low paying and part-time. This explains, in part, the continued rise in demand for Food Bank services. The Brooks Food Bank opened its doors on October 1st 1998 and has grown ever since. In 2002 it served 1746 adults and 1638 children, by 2005 the equivalent figures were 2412 adults and 1595 children4. The manager is projecting a 10 percent increase in the demand for its services in 2006 (field notes 2/14/06).


The role of the meatpacking industry in the transformation of small towns in the United States has been well documented (Stull, Broadway & Griffith 1995; Stull and Broadway 2004). In Alberta, Cargill and Lakeside employ similar labor recruitment strategies as U.S. plants. Cargill’s facility about 30 minutes south of Calgary has meant most of its labor force commutes to the plant, leaving High River largely unaffected by the plant. Brooks’ situation, two hours from Calgary and an hour from Medicine Hat, means it has borne the brunt of Lakeside’s recruitment strategy. And it shares the familiar characteristics of a meatpacking boomtown with an explosion in jobs, rising demands for social services, and a relative fall in income levels. But what distinguishes Brooks from other meatpacking communities is its influx of Sub-Saharan refugees. By comparison, packing towns in the United States are relatively homogeneous with their South East Asian and Latino populations.

The town’s cultural diversity presents a host of challenges for social service providers. They have responded by reallocating resources to meet newcomer needs by hiring health care professionals and community liaison staff, while the province had provided funding for ESL instructors. But the challenges are immense. Some newcomers’ limited knowledge of English is an obstacle to day-to-day communication, while cultural differences between the host community and newcomers create different sets of expectations in terms of service delivery. Over time some of these barriers will be reduced as newcomers acquire English language skills and adjust to life in Brooks. But as with any adjustment process it will be much easier for younger persons than the old.

Cooperation among newcomers is difficult, oftentimes reflecting longstanding rivalries that originated in Africa. Many newcomers maybe suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, since as one person, who works closely with the refugee population noted,

“There is nobody in this town with the type of expertise to diagnose post traumatic syndrome. I would have to go to Toronto or Montreal to find somebody and bring them here and that’s not going to happen” (field notes 1/17/06).

The academic literature is rife with studies documenting the greater risk refugee children have of developing mental health problems such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, delinquency, depression and post traumatic stress (Hyman 2000). And local social service workers and RCMP worry a failure to equip newcomer children with the necessary literacy skills will condemn them to participating in an already burgeoning drug trade in town.

The community service grapevine is full of rumors that Lakeside, with the complicity of the federal and provincial governments, is preparing to launch a new invasion upon the town. In 2005 the company announced another expansion plan to meet the increased slaughter demand arising from the BSE crisis. It needs to hire another 500 workers. Finding staff in Alberta’s oil-booming economy is tough, given Lakeside’s wages and working conditions, so the company is considering the use of guest workers who will stay for 2 years, at the end of which they will be given the option of applying for permanent residence in Canada. The three countries mentioned as labor suppliers for this program are China, the Philippines and Cambodia. Regardless of whether this program is implemented, Brooks will continue to experience an influx of newcomers through family reunification. The African community is growing; entrepreneurs have opened African grocery stores, hairdressers, a music shop, and nightclub, and enriched the community by their presence.

The meatpacking industry is vitally important 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 providing funds for dealing with the unintended consequences of Lakeside’s recruitment strategy, social service providers have to reallocate monies from existing resources or beg from their superiors in Edmonton. Brooks’ refugee population through no fault of its own requires specialized services if it is to successfully adjust to life in Canada – a goal which is in everyone’s interest. This means hiring ESL staff, community health workers, and translators among others.

Refugees are in Brooks because of the federal government’s humanitarian refugee policy and the availability of employment at Lakeside. They will continue to come to Brooks through the existing immigration policy that favors family reunification and the town’s social service providers will continue to struggle to find resources to meet their needs. Current federal policy, the immigrant and settlement adaptation program, provides support to organizations assisting newcomers, but does little to address Brooks’ unique circumstances, since it is the province that provides the resources for hiring additional social service personnel. Yet both levels of government are equally culpable for Brooks’ 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, the federal government needs to meet its.

1It is worth noting the relative decline of meatpacking wages; in January 2000 the starting wage at Lakeside was $9.25 an hour, nearly $3 an hour less than the base rate back in 1984.

2No census has been taken in Brooks since 2001. The birth rate is calculated on an estimated population of 12,800 provided by the City Manager.
3Data on ESL numbers by individual school were unavailable. But in discussing these data with Grassland School Division Administrators they stated that most ESL students resided in Brooks.

4 Changing managers at the Food Bank has meant changing systems in the way records are kept. In the late 1990s records refer to the number of families served, while later records refer to the numbers of adults and children served which make comparisons impossible. I have elected to use comparable date for the longest time period.

Table 1

Brooks’ Public Schools1 Grade Structure 1996/7 vs. 2005/6 Academic Years





























































1The schools are as follows: Brooks High, St. Joseph’s Collegiate, Brooks Junior High, Eastbrook, Griffin Park, Central and Holy Family Academy.
Source: Alberta Education n.d. Statistics and Publications (accessed 3/6/06)

Table 2

Grasslands School Division Percentage of ESL Students by Selected Grade Level 2005





















Source: Grasslands School Division, Brooks, AB

Table 3
Brooks Reported Crimes 1995-2004


Crime rate/1000 persons
































Source: RCMP Brooks Detachment

Table 4
Brooks’ & Alberta Average Earnings of Persons with Reported Income 1996 & 2000




Brooks % of AB









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