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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 10: Our town, their town

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

Alberta has the third-highest proportion of both members of visible minorities and foreign-born residents of all the provinces, after Ontario and British Columbia. The Global Immigration Friendship Centre, the main immigrant-aid group in Brooks, estimates that more than one-fifth of the 12,000 people now living in town were born outside Canada. The largest and most organized group is composed of about 1,200 Sudanese.

It is a rerun of history, with the newcomers recast. Not since 1931 has Canada had so many foreign-born citizens within its borders, and before the Second World War, most of them arrived first on the Prairies, to build the railway and settle the land around fledgling towns like Brooks, first surveyed with nine residents in 1907. Back then, though, they came from England, Scotland or Ukraine, not refugee camps in Ghana. They came to be farmers and ranchers; the latest wave of newcomers to Brooks comes to carve the meat raised by those earlier immigrants' descendants.

It takes five minutes to see this isn't your ordinary prairie town - when you spot the mother in the hijab driving though the grocery-store parking lot with an Indian pop song blaring, or the young African men on their way home, or Sam's Oriental Market on Second Street West, where the owner is Cambodian and the shelves are loaded with exotic samplings labelled in Arabic.

But the locals lament that their town is getting too big too fast, and doesn't feel safe any more; the newcomers complain that it is too small (translation: small-minded) and doesn't feel friendly. The two groups pretend to ignore one another, eyeballing each other warily across an imaginary fence.

They were not coached to be optimistic. Before Lakeside expanded, a U.S. expert on meatpacking towns spoke at a community meeting, warning of crime and ghettoes. As James Nesbitt, editor of the Brooks Bulletin, describes it, "it was a little bit of scare mongering."

But it's true that the housing shortage is dire and the crime rate did spike, though the RCMP says it is declining. More importantly, the people of Brooks suddenly found their town inhabited by new arrivals who had never experienced snow and car insurance, who spoke English, if at all, with thick accents they couldn't understand. Any place would react with culture shock - big cities such as Toronto and Vancouver also went through tense periods when their complexions changed radically a decade or two ago.

There has been kindness in Brooks - gifts of furniture, volunteers who teach English and offer rides to appointments, one anonymous donation of $900 to bring a man's son over from Nairobi - and although it is rare, there has even been romance. The tension is subtle, folded into a live-and-let-live sentiment that doesn't extend a hand in either friendship or hostility.

"Don't matter to me none," offers a self-proclaimed cowboy named Don. "There are more assholes in Brooks than moved to Brooks." Don jokes that he is diversified because he likes Snoop Dog and Eminem.

"Like any society, you find good and bad people," observes Aleer Joi, 27, a Sudanese employed at Lakeside. "If you turned it around and took these white guys home to my country, you'd get the same thing."

Staff Sergeant Ray Noble, who runs the local RCMP detachment, says there is a core of people working hard to build links, in community groups and churches (the Roman Catholic mass includes an occasional African choir). "Of course, we have the ones who live up to the redneck title," he says. "But they don't get much of an audience."

The largest group "are people who look at it with trepidation and fear. They'd like to see everything work out, but they don't want to personally take any risks."

Rumour rushes in to fill the vacuum: The Sudanese refugees don't have to pay taxes for three years, the immigrants are driving up the crime rate, Lakeside recruits in prisons overseas.

None of them are true. Sudanese in Brooks grumble about the tax dollars sliced off their pay along with everyone else. The crime rate, still high but dropping, is the result of a young, transient and mostly white population, Staff Sgt. Noble says - the African or Arabic names that turn up in the court pages of the Brooks Bulletin stand out, but there are few.

And far from coming from foreign prisons, among the people trimming fat and pulling bone at Lakeside are doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and engineers, university students midway through degrees interrupted by war.

Then there were the two young women, home late for curfew, who told their parents they had been chased around town by a group of black guys; only when their parents took the complaint to the police did they admit to making it up. "But of course," Staff Sgt. Noble says, "the rumours spread through town: `We've got to do something about the guys chasing our women.' Every story spins into four or five permutations."

Which explains why the police hushed it up when the three crosses were set on fire one night last fall, one in front of the town hall, one at the fire hall and one in an empty lot. The police figured it was a couple of drunks, and since no specific individual was targeted, left it at that. The RCMP didn't even put out a press release. No need to risk starting something.

In an old storefront near downtown Brooks, the members of the All Nations Harvest Church sing their opening hymn to African drums and electronic keyboard. A projector flashes the words on the wall: "Jesus is the light of the world. Yesu hawa kaawat ad-dunia." There are about 35 people at the service, of many backgrounds; a world map hangs on the wall.

An Asian women sits in the back row, and there are several women in traditional African dress. A prayer is made for help with "pains in the body from working at Lakeside."

Burnabas Thucnar sits near the front with his son Kama, 20, presented with applause to the congregation - Kama arrived in Brooks only a few days ago, retrieved in person from Sudan by his father, who had not seen him for 19 years.

On the drums is a Liberian named Edward Fully, and since the pastor is away, he gives the sermon.

"We have come a mighty long way," he announces to the gathering. He tells the story of Isaac, whose cattle were dying and whose wells were dry in the promised land, who almost gave up and left. "But he decided to stay and things started to change." Eventually, he prospered so much the Philistines envied him.

It is, for Mr. Fully and many of his fellow Africans, the story of their arrival in Brooks, and of how they would like it to end. But when he speaks of it, a few nights later, in the small townhouse where he and his wife, Mawa, are raising their three children, there is little optimism in his voice. The Fullys first arrived in St. John's from a refugee camp in Ghana, forced out of Liberia because of war.

4 / 5 ROBTv Workopolis