CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 40 . . . . June 15, 2012
Brooks began its existence nearly 100 years ago as a CPR siding for livestock shipment. Later, immigrants from Europe who were willing to homestead and eke out a living on the dry and inhospitable land settled in the surrounding farming area. Their descendants, along with cowboys and oil patch workers, have been Brooks’ population. But when XL Foods Inc./Lakeside Packers built a plant nearby, the community underwent a drastic change.Brooks - The City of 100 Hellos documents what happens to a smallish prairie city when more than 2000 workers from all over the world, attracted by $14 per hour wages and the promise of steady employment, even if they can’t speak English, come to work at the XL Foods plant. Work in a meat packing plant isn’t easy, but life in Brooks offers these workers, whether they are foreign workers living in Canada on temporary work permits or those who have immigrated to Canada by choice or have arrived as refugees, far better living conditions than those faced in their homelands.
In this film, some long-time residents of Brooks express open discomfort at the presence of those who are visibly different, whose culture is foreign, and whose previous lives bear no resemblance to that of people who have lived for generations in the quiet, big spaces and changing seasons of the prairies. While efforts have been made to heighten awareness of these new cultures and, especially, the refugee experiences of many émigrés, some individuals express overt racism and open distrust of newcomers. One woman, herself the child of post-World War II European immigrants, talks about the town’s “close feeling” being diminished and that there is a feeling that things aren’t “safe” anymore, that “these people” are not be trusted.
Despite the high wages paid by XL Foods, foreign workers who have left their wives and children behind in their home countries often suffer from extreme loneliness; the long work days and sheer physical exhaustion leave them with little energy or interest in social interaction. Interestingly, while some Brooks residents feel that newcomers aren’t trying to “fit in” or integrate with Canadian society, they seem unaware of the obstacles which the newcomers face.
For those who don’t speak English, it is difficult to find either the time or the activities which will encourage linguistic fluency. As a result, it is little wonder that some immigrants prefer not to mingle with the rest of Brooks’ community. Some immigrants have also started up business which cater to the specific needs of various ethnic groups, be it clothing (i.e. Muslim women aren’t likely to find their specific wardrobe needs at the local Sears) or food. And, spiritual needs can also cause issues; the Islamic obligation to pray five times a day necessitates an appropriate space, as well as time to do so, in the workplace. Nevertheless, many of XL Foods’ workers express real gratitude at the opportunity to earn a good wage, to live in freedom from the terror of war, and to see the prospects of their children enjoying all of the good things which Canada has to offer.
Not all of Brooks’ residents are hostile, either. Some people realize that cultural diversity has its benefits, and that an awareness of the difficulties others have experienced cannot help but build a richer and more tolerant society. And, some immigrant groups have thrown themselves into a variety of volunteer activities in the community as well as making real efforts to participate in the events which are part and parcel of prairie life.
Brooks - The City of 100 Hellos offers a chance to listen to many voices in this Alberta community: we hear local residents offer their perspectives on the changes which immigration has brought to their community as well as the many different accents (or translated remarks) of workers at XL Foods. Whether one lives in an ethnically diverse community or one that is largely homogeneous, this film provides some insights into just how a sudden influx of immigration will affect the social fabric of a place. Immigration is an integral Canadian experience: teachers of senior high Canadian history might find it useful to show to students as a contemporary commentary on the impact of immigration, and it can be used in high school sociology courses.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.