Brooks – The City of 100 Hellos gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of many of the new immigrants, refugees and temporary foreign workers that have moved to Brooks, Alberta, Canada. It also explores the challenges they face and looks at how long-time residents of Brooks feel about the new immigration in their community.
The documentary is set in Brooks, Alberta, a western Canadian city known for its farming, cowboys and oil patch workers. About 10 years ago the local meat packing plant, XL Foods Lakeside Packers Inc., starting bringing over and employing about 2,000 workers from across the world; some temporary foreign workers, others new immigrants and refugees in Canada.
Many don’t speak English and have come to Brooks to make about $14 an hour, paying for their lives here in the city but also supporting their families back home.
The new immigrants have physically changed this traditional cattle ranching city. Schools teaching English as a second language have been popping up across town as well as different multicultural churches, a mosque and ethnic stores. It is now believed that over 100 languages are spoken in Brooks.
“Brooks is unique,” says Brooks Mayor Martin Shields. “It was basically 14,000 in population who changed in 10 years from basically one culture, one language to representing as many as 60 to 70 different countries with many languages and dialects.”
The influx of immigrants has challenged this traditional western ranching city.
“A lot of people don’t like change. People want things to stay the way they always were,” says Max Tateson, a rancher from Brooks. “It is all the yearning for the good old days. On one hand [the rise in immigrants] was almost a reminder that the world was bigger than Brooks.”
Inge Ellefson, a retired school principal who moved from Denmark to Brooks sees the same resistance from the longtime residents. “Not everyone is comfortable with having young black people, young asian people, young Chinese people come and live next door to them,” says Ellefson. “I think that fear of what might happen, of not really knowing whether they can be trusted is always lurking in the back of everyone’s minds.”
Max Tateson is quick to add that “not all cowboys are racist.” He says they have learned a lot from the new immigrants in Brooks. “I think we have more to learn from them because they have seen so much and struggled so hard to adapt here.”
SIMULATED REFUGEE CAMP
Some of the locals have gone out of their way to make the newcomers feel welcome in their community. There have been multicultural events celebrating their heritage and the local Red Cross has set up a simulated refugee camp so that locals can get an idea of where the refugees have come from. “Some didn’t understand or didn’t know what a refugee was in the first place so it was a sharp learning curve for them,” says Biftu Abdalla from the Canadian Red Cross in Brooks. “We put people through the camp with different profiles, so all the profiles are real people with real stories and real outcomes at the end.”
RACISM AND CONFLICT
Despite the warm welcome from some, many of the immigrants complain about the city’s racism and feel that they are not accepted. “There’s no doubt in my mind there is a lot of racism in this town,” says Shane Dawson from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, local 401 that supports workers at
XL Foods Lakeside Packers Inc.
Jonathan Gasirabo who moved from Rwanda after fleeing the genocide there in 1994 has felt racism towards him in Brooks. “The old people, they look at you funny and I just got used to it,” explains Gasirabo. “Let’s say you walk in the hospital, and you see an old person, and you say hi and they just look at you. I was just being nice saying hi, and they were like ‘why is this black man saying hi?’ There’s nothing you can do.”
The praying schedule for Muslims working at the meat packing plant has also caused controversy because Muslims have to pray at certain times and need to leave their job to do so. Sometimes this has caused conflict because workers and supervisors are not always happy that their co-workers are walking off the job to pray.
“For the first couple of years it wasn’t that smooth,” says Shane Dawson from UFCW local 401. “If you are letting this guy go pray, there’s another group of people that don’t pray and they don’t understand why he is able to go. It’s been an uphill fight and it’s one that is going to continue.”
HARD WORKING CONDITIONS
Many of the immigrants working at XL Foods Lakeside Packers Inc. complain about their repetitive strain injuries. Ariel Gimenez, a temporary foreign worker from the Philippines complains about how sore his hands are. “Very hard to work at Lakeside,” says Gimenez. “My job is holding a knife almost eight hours a day. It’s so hard, very cold inside.
All sore in my hands.”
Francisco Trujillo from Colombia quit after working three weeks at the meat packing plant claiming, “all the time it’s go go go, for 8 hours. The work is not for humans, the work is for the machines.”
SUCCESS AND ADVENTURE
Moving to Brooks has brought a lot of success for some of the newcomers. Emelyn Yabut, an immigrant from the Philippines has opened her own store called Fil-Mart which caters to the Filipinos living in Brooks. “Since I came to Brooks blessings have been non-stop,” says Emelyn. “It’s like a dream come true to me that finally I have my own store.
Being an immigrant it’s unbelievable to think that I was able to do this.”
Chrisen Gopall has been sending money back home to his family in Mauritius. He is a temporary foreign worker working at the meat packing plant. “I came here for the money, to be rich,” says Gopall. “The dollars, it’s very good comparing to the rupee. I am not poor in my country. I want to retire maybe after 10 years, I won’t work again. No, no way. Because I am working hard here. So I want to go home rich, make my family rich, enjoy whatever I want so that is why I am working hard here.”
LONELINESS, ISOLATION AND DISPLACEMENT
Although these new immigrants are making money it does not take away their feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are very common for many newcomers in Brooks. They long for their families back home whose lives are
going on without them.
Mootoo Sunnassee is a temporary foreign worker from Mauritius and has two young children and a wife living back home. “I feel lonely, very lonely, missing my family very much,” explains Sunnassee. “It becomes stressful there to live alone without my children, without their dad there. I have to go back.”
Loneliness and a sense of displacement aren’t exclusive to the new immigrants in Brooks. Others who moved to the area over the years also have those feelings. Inge Ellefson moved to Brooks as a little girl with her parents from Denmark in the 1950s.
“There’s a constant search and wondering about how my life would be different should I not have immigrated.” admits Ellefson. “Should I have stayed in Denmark, what would have happened in terms of marriage and family and career and life long ambitions? How would that really have been different? So it’s a feeling of being displaced to a certain extent.”
Inge Ellefson also feels that the new immigrants are not integrating with the longtime residents in Brooks. “I think that what they’re doing is that they’re coming, and they’re finding friends, or family, or people who have similar backgrounds to them and they’re sticking together,” says Ellefson.
Fred Rattai who owns Garth’s restaurant in Brooks adds, “I hear people talking, I don’t think they’re racist. They’re uncomfortable with the fact that people aren’t working hard enough, in their opinion, to learn to drive, to become a part of the community.”
The Colombians are definitely the exception. They spend their weekends together volunteering their time to help clean up the city.
“We have the temporary foreign workers, for example, from Colombia, which means they could go home at the end of two years but I find they are very social people,” explains Brooks Mayor Martin Shields. “They very much enjoy being out in the community. At the drop of a hat they would be to any event and they would participate. They were so proud of their culture. People very quickly identified, hey those are the Colombians. They just were infectious in their attitude about it.”
Jonathan Gasirabo, an 18 year old black refugee from Rwanda had a falling out with his father and is now living with his classmate Joey Hutter and his family who are longtime white residents of Brooks. He has integrated with the help of the family. “They’re the right example to say that’s how families should be,” says Gasirabo about the Hutter family. “They’re happy, they help people like me. They didn’t have to have me here. They could just have my room as another guest room. But no, they’re like you know what, he’s going through tough times, let’s help him and see how we can deal with this. And I really don’t feel out of place at all.”
Adapting to the cowboy culture in Brooks has been a positive experience for some of the immigrants.
“In my country we don’t have cowboys. Only the cows, yes but not the cowboys,” explains Chrisen Gopall from Maritius.
“Before I used to see cowboys on TV, movies, but here in Canada in Brooks, when they come in the summer I just go and watch them. It’s very beautiful to watch in life,” says Mootoo Sunnassee also from Mauritius.
“I enjoy the time going to the rodeo, to see the cowboys. Everybody, the farmers, because I grew up on a farm. That’s why I really like the rodeo,” admits Francisco Trujillo from Colombia. “I think it’s the best part about living in Brooks.”
LANGUAGE – CHALLENGES
One of the main challenges for these new immigrants in Brooks is learning English. English as a second language is offered in the primary and high schools in Brooks. There are also schools dedicated to ESL for adults.
Min Li, a recent immigrant from Dezchou, China moved to Brooks to work at the meat packing plant but quit her job to fully concentrate on learning English. “I think I am Chinese and not Canadian right now because of my weak English,” says Li. “I feel I have not integrated into Canadian society. I think I will stay here in the future because of the decision I made to
LOSS AND DISAPPOINTMENT
Some immigrants try to start businesses in Brooks that end up being unsuccessful. Sadam Ahmed who is originally from Somalia started a Halal meat and Muslim clothing store catering to the Muslims who are working at the meat packing plant. The store was open for nine months but because the meat packing plant wasn’t giving people overtime or hiring new employees they didn’t have money to shop there anymore, says Ahmed.
“It’s not like before. Everything is going down,” says Ahmed. “I can’t cover, you know, even my rent and my electric, you know, we can’t. The last three months the guy who was shopping for me, you know before three hundred, four hundred now he is shopping seventy dollar, hundred dollar. What happened? You know, no money.”