Posted on March 12, 2010

The Changing Faces of Brandon

Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail, March 11, 2010

To the uninitiated, the Brandon art gallery might seem to be an unlikely place to hear Spanish. But the other day, three young women were studying a painting and chattering in Spanish.

Hang around Brandon for a little while, and you’ll see signs in Mandarin and Ukrainian, too, because a demographic shift has hit this Manitoba city of 45,000 people.

English, Spanish, Mandarin and Ukrainian are the “official languages” used inside the Maple Leaf Foods hog-processing plant, the largest employer in Brandon. About 2,100 hourly workers (all unionized) toil at the plant; 70 per cent of them are from China, El Salvador, Honduras, Mauritius, Mexico and Ukraine.

Their arrival in the past decade, and especially in the past five years, is changing–and challenging–Brandon. It’s an example in an unlikely place of what Statistics Canada reported this week: the upsurge in visible minority populations.

Most of the upsurge is occurring in the large cities and the suburbs that surround them. Courtesy of the Maple Leaf plant that opened in 1999, that upsurge is being felt in Brandon.

In the plant’s early years, employee turnover was almost 100 per cent a year, a company spokesman said. About a quarter of the work force was aboriginal. The hours were strict and the work–what the company calls “disassembling” hogs–was hard and repetitive. The aboriginals left, but so did almost all of the original employees.

The company tried recruiting in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, but with little success. The first Mexican workers came as part of a pilot program in 2002, and the influx has continued.

The amazing part of the influx–and the good news for Brandon–is how many workers stay on after their two-year temporary work visa. They apply for permanent status, bring their families and settle down. Some of their wives quickly enter the work force in fast-food restaurants and other entry-level jobs.

Last year, the company counted 1,812 people it had brought to the plant, of whom it had retained 1,457. Recently, about 250 Chinese workers became eligible for permanent residency. Only nine did not avail themselves of the opportunity, and 40 of them bought houses as soon as their permanent status was confirmed.

When vacancies arrive, the company has to convince the Canadian government that it’s trying to find Canadian employees. But local unemployment is very low, as it is across Manitoba. And Canadians apparently don’t want to work in this kind of plant.

Potential immigrants do. The company’s last overseas recruiting effort was in Honduras. Maple Leaf representatives interviewed 600 applicants there and offered jobs to 88.

Brandon had experienced small waves of immigrants before, but that was long ago. The eastern Europeans who arrived have been thoroughly absorbed, although self-reliant Hutterite colonies still dot the landscape of southwestern Manitoba. So having people from El Salvador, China and Honduras was not exactly something for which Brandon was prepared.

Brandon was a kind of “set in its ways” city, with its old university, community college and agriculture service industries. It has voted Conservative federally forever. The provincial NDP can win one seat in the east end of the city, but the rest is blue, as are all the rural ridings.

At dinner the other night with community leaders, and during a conversation with the mayor, it seemed Brandon is largely very supportive of the immigrants. Yes, there are challenges for the school system in teaching English as a second language. (A program financed by governments, the union and the company offers English instruction to about 1,300 employees.) Housing in the city is tight. And there is the Canada-wide problem of having people working in a hog-processing plant who have professional qualifications from their native countries.

But a survey taken last year showed 89-per-cent approval of the immigrants in Brandon, especially since there have been few run-ins with police and the immigrants have helped to keep the city’s population from declining. The decision of so many plant workers to settle in Brandon displays a commitment that impresses residents.

Community leaders, satisfied thus far, ask the right questions. Can we continue to keep the arrivals? Can our educational system cope? Can we avoid intercommunal misunderstandings?

So far, though, so good.