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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 10: Our town, their town

By ERIN ANDERSSEN
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

Five kilometres up the Trans-Canada Highway toward Calgary, under 14 acres of steel roof, 2,500 people work two shifts carving up a million carcasses a year, one in every three cows slaughtered in the nation. Lakeside Packers, expanded under new American owners in the late 1990s, is now one of the most modern meat-processing plants in North America, and it's meant a lot of new jobs. Brooks, a trading-post kind of town for ranchers and oil crews, didn't have the people to fill them.

Lakeside boasts a no-layoff policy, and even with the mad-cow scare closing the U.S. border, a work-share agreement with the federal government has forestalled pink slips. There's no experience required, so long as you pass the on-site physical, and the wage is decent: Lakeside employees start at $11.35 per hour (35 cents more for the night shift); after 15 months, it can jump to $16 an hour.

The trick is lasting 15 months. It is tough, joint-buckling work, either in the heat of the kill floor hacking off 60-pound heads of cattle, or standing for hours on the processing side, slicing future hamburgers off the slabs that swing by on conveyor belts. It's not hard to find a Lakeside employee who can't make a fist with his knife hand any more.

In an oil-rich province full of easier offerings for its homegrown labour force, that has meant two main types of workers at Lakeside - young Newfoundlanders forced west to find their fortunes and new immigrants who hear about the jobs through the grapevine, often with families to support and not enough English to take opportunities elsewhere.

There are more than 30 different dialects spoken among the swinging carcasses on the Lakeside plant floor, and the signs are often printed in four languages. Chatter on the line centres on sports and small talk. "You have to be careful," one former employee said. "Your joke can be someone else's frustration."

Muslim employees kneel at break time on prayer mats in the locker room. The cafeteria, which serves hot dogs and French fries, is self-segregated by table. Arabs, Africans and Central Americans all tend to keep to their own, with some of the younger workers meeting in the middle. But at the company picnic, the baseball teams are mixed up randomly.

About 40 per cent of the workers at Lakeside were born in a country other than Canada. And because of them, Brooks is bucking national trends: It is young when most rural places are aging fast; booming, when so many small towns are withering; and diverse, in a country where 94 per cent of immigrants who arrived in the past decade flocked to cities.

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