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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 10: Our town, their town

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 28, 2003

"There's too many niggers here," Cliff James says. "I avoid them."

At the Brooks Hotel Bar, a singer is crooning country tunes while couples two-step on a small dance floor, and Mr. James is drinking whisky with his friend Pete Thiessen. It is a white crowd, with few exceptions, and the waitresses show a lot of belly as they go by balancing pints of beer. Mr. James, 21 and baby-faced, is a rancher's son; he spent the day branding 650 head of cattle. Mr. Thiessen, 23, is a beefy guy in a muscle shirt who works at a feedlot outside Brooks, a nondescript Alberta town in a rough patch of prairie almost 200 kilometres southeast of Calgary. They tip back their cowboy hats to talk at a round table in the corner.

"I'm not racist or anything," Mr. Thiessen begins. "But the black guys are causing a lot of trouble, date rapes and muggings. I've heard it from people who've heard it from the cops."

Neither of them knows much about the Africans who have arrived in Brooks in large numbers in recent years to work the assembly line at the meatpacking plant. Mr. James doesn't think all of them are troublemakers; it is the mass of their presence in his "little town" that disturbs him most. When pushed on it, he even says he could accept his sister marrying a black guy, "if he was nice." But, he declares more than once, she wouldn't.

Mr. Thiessen takes a harder line: "They don't belong here. They don't want to adapt to our ways." He refuses to be shaken from his crime-rampage theory, which police say is untrue. "If they published everything that went on in this town, people would be moving out."

A different kind of conversation flows the next night, on the other side of town, with beer cans piling up in Lonny Finkbeiner's living room. One of Mr. Finkbeiner's friends describes him as an oil-patch redneck who cuts the sleeves off his shirts, and the laid-back 29-year-old endorses the label. He owns several guns, all reluctantly registered under the federal gun-control law, and he didn't get past high school.

But he and his two roommates, who are both drillers on the patch, can't be stereotyped so easily. They speak pragmatically about how multiculturalism works and where it falls down, and about the sudden, dramatic diversity that has come to a white-bread place like Brooks.

Mr. Finkbeiner says people "just don't know what to say" to the newcomers. While he personally wouldn't marry a black woman, he likes the fact that his seven-year-old son has a school friend from a different culture.

But Stan Tumoth, 32, suggests their new black neighbours share the uneasiness. "Their minds are made up that they're going to be persecuted."

"In all fairness," remarks Shane McLaren, 29, "if there was a white guy on the street I didn't know, I wouldn't go up and say hello."

Mr. McLaren read about the Sudanese in National Geographic because he wanted to know more about the people flooding to town. He is one of the few non-official people in Brooks who speaks knowledgeably about the war and famine the newcomers fled, and the cheques they send home to help their starving families.

"I was blown away by all the shit they went through," he says. "They're just trying to make a better life. It opened my eyes."

But not his heart - at least not enough to follow up with the beautiful African woman he met at a bar one night. He tossed her number out the next day, worried what people might think, and now he's kicking himself. "I've been looking for her every time we go out."

In their distinct ways, these five guys sum up the state of race relations in Brooks, where fear feeds rumour, rumour feeds fear and even tolerant minds seem paralyzed. In a few short years, the meatpacking workers have turned this prairie town into one of the most multicultural spots in the nation.

This is not a typical Canadian tale of friendly dinners and happy cross-cultural weddings. But neither is it just about rednecks and cowboys. Brooks's problems lie more in misunderstanding than in malice, but the openness so loudly espoused by the nation's next generation is being tested in a town where half the residents are under 30. In Brooks, a black woman with a stalled car can still count on a white man to run home for his booster cables. But nobody talks about the night when authorities had to quietly douse three burning crosses.

In early May, with the occasional hail still falling on the people of Brooks, the syrupy-sweet perfume of manure wafts through the air. It's a mild stink, and your nose adjusts.

But in the summer, residents say, with barbecue season causing a run on steaks and a hot wind blowing from the northwest, the slaughterhouse stench smacks you in the face. The spin, here in beef country, is that it's "the smell of money." In Brooks, to mixed reviews, it is also the smell of change.

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