Down the road in Brandon, Maple Leaf Foods owns its own vast city of sows and market pigs, processing more than four million of the latter a year, conking and cutting them, one every eight seconds, round the clock, month in, month out. The $150-million plant, intended to make Maple Leaf a global competitor in pork, was not an immediate success when it opened in 1999. Having swallowed up processors such as Burns, Bittner’s and Schneiders, the company envisioned a quick ascent to a production capacity of 90,000 hogs a week. But initially there were supply issues and dissatisfied employees (yearly turnover was 100%), as well as a controversy over Mexican workers paying significant sums of money to get into Canada to work at the plant. Then came a tainted-meat scandal at the company’s Toronto plant in 2008. All of which, it is said, made the company more resilient.
So competitive is the Brandon plant today—so slim the margins, so pressing the requirement to keep the machinery and employees working max flat out all the time—that Maple Leaf employs a “Procurement Service Team,” guys with briefcases and managerial ambitions whose job title might suggest foot soldiers to the sex trade, when rather their role is to locate every pig they can, in every corner of the West, so that the immense roaring flesh factory on Richmond Avenue just east of town never has to stop producing.
For decades there have been rumours about slaughterhouses (never eat meat from such-and-such a plant, whisper those who have worked and quit—it’s rotten, it’s diseased, it’s covered in shit); the words “nightmare” and “hell” surface routinely in descriptions of, say, the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, where 36,000 pigs are bled out and butchered a day. Into the 1960s, pigs and steers were killed with a blow to the head or 300 volts to the frontal lobe, followed by a shiv to the jugular. The boxer George Chuvalo hardened his muscles wielding a sledgehammer at the Burns plant in Toronto’s west end in the 1950s. Servicemen in Vietnam were said to be “on the killing floor.”
“It’s not pretty,” says Vielfaure at HyLife. Nor is it sweet-smelling. Nor quiet. Yet on a day when, like the rest of the industry, Vielfaure is awaiting W5’s indictment with a certain restlessness—a day on which he has everything to lose and everything to gain—he has decided to take a visitor on a tour of what he innocuously calls “the plant.” The place is a steamy factory of stunning architectural banality set amidst wheat and soybean fields on a part of the prairie where if you can get up to a height of 20 feet above ground level, you can see more or less to the ends of the known universe.
The view inside is an end of another sort. And is a means to an end for Vielfaure, who would seem to have a plan, albeit a modest one that suits his visitor. “We have nothing to hide,” he says (summarizing said plan) as he and his guest don high rubber boots, quilted vests, white butcher robes and hard hats.
Not only does Vielfaure have nothing to hide, he is proud of what he and his family have built: of the barns and plant—and of their contribution to the community, where a century of traditional demographics has been sent hock over searing-kettle by the farm siblings from La Broquerie.
The gist of the change is that during the past couple of years, some 800 Filipinos and Koreans have moved to Neepawa, many of them to take jobs at the rapidly expanding plant. What was for decades a rather staid and very pale-skinned population—of Anglo-Saxons and Icelanders and Ukrainians—is suddenly a place where a fifth of the population converses in neither of the country’s official languages and the supermarkets stock Cebu dried mangoes and 50-pound bags of Manila rice.
In the plant, obligatory ear plugs reduce the howl of the machinery to a white din that under the Vegas lights, before the conga-line of dead pigs, is as isolating and unreal as a misadventure in LSD. One of the first things you notice is that almost every one of the hundreds of people clomping around in rubber Wellingtons, wearing hair nets, hard hats and white gowns, is swinging an unsheathed and magnificently lethal butcher knife. Or they are at a saw that, in the blink of an eye, severs a head or cuts a carcass into hams, shoulders and a couple of keyboards of ribs.