If you eat Alberta beef tonight, odds are it was processed by one of the 2,300 workers at the sprawling XL Lakeside Packers facility just outside of Brooks. The plant is the largest slaughter house in Canada and the largest employer in the region. It began its life in the mid-1970s supplying cow carcasses to other companies.
Today Lakeside produces boxed beef. Along with the smaller Cargill Meat Solutions in High River, the plant handles over 90 per cent of the cattle processed in the province.
But who are these workers? Until the 1980s, meatpacking—in Brooks and elsewhere in Alberta—was a decent job. Workers were usually unionized and the pay was good. Edmonton’s four plants made it the meat packing capital of Western Canada.
In just a few decades, everything changed. Salaries spiralled downward and jobs were concentrated in fewer and larger plants. The job became more demanding and more repetitive as line speeds increased. Fewer and fewer Albertans were interested in the job, so the packing companies started to recruit from farther and farther away.
Now Alberta’s remaining meatpacking plants are changing again, looking to an even more vulnerable workforce—temporary foreign workers (TFWs). These men and women, recruited from some of the poorest countries in the world, don’t have the same protections as refugees or landed immigrants. Losing their job at Lakeside doesn’t just mean unemployment, for example; it can mean being kicked out of the country.
For Brooks, these changes have meant a population boom and the challenge of providing services to a constant influx of newcomers. Over the last 15 or so years, the city has gone from being a white, blue-collar prairie community to being a multicultural boomtown—“The City of 100 Hellos.” For meatpackers—formerly members of Alberta’s urban working class—these changes have seen them pushed to the province’s margins.