Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The single largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada is at Cargill Ltd.’s beef slaughterhouse near High River, Alta., where 921 workers have tested positive, including one who died. The second largest is another meat-packing plant – JBS Canada’s beef facility in Brooks, Alta., where 390 workers have tested positive.
The two plants alone have more cases than the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island combined. Each of the facilities has recorded one COVID-19 death.
The outbreaks at the two of the largest meat-processing plants in Canada have underscored the risk at facilities where employees work cheek-by-jowl and where there are language barriers among a staff made up largely of new immigrants and temporary foreign workers.
Kathryn Blaze Baum, Carrie Tait and Tavia Grant have been investigating what happened at the Cargill plant, speaking to 21 employees across multiple departments, as well as union representatives, politicians, food inspectors, doctors, immigrant services providers, and community members.
Employees who expressed privacy concerns or fears of workplace reprisal were granted anonymity. The Globe obtained correspondence between Cargill and the union representing the workers along with notices posted to the plant’s bulletin board, company letters to employees, and a recording of a town hall call with provincial officials, employees and executives.
Their investigation revealed an environment where workers say they felt pressured – even incentivized – to continue to work. Some workers said medical staff cleared them to continue working despite ongoing symptoms, positive COVID-19 test results, incomplete isolation periods, and recent travel abroad.
Employees who missed work for reasons related to COVID-19 were eligible for up to 80 hours of their regular pay, but employees who didn’t qualify were initially told that if they weren’t willing and able to work, they would be temporarily laid off. They were also offered a $500 bonus for not missing a shift in eight consecutive weeks.
Employees weren’t required to wear masks until mid-April and there wasn’t a consistent policy for supplying face shields.
The company did take steps to keep workers apart, including staggering break times, putting up heated outdoor tents and opening new spaces for workers to eat lunch. The company also installed dividers in the cafeteria and locker rooms, ramped up sanitation protocols, reduced the size of training groups, and screened employees for signs of COVID-19 before they entered the plant.
Health officials in Alberta repeatedly said the plant was safe. While it shut down briefly in the face of the outbreak, it is expected to reopen on Monday with reduced capacity and mitigation measures.
Cargill did not respond to questions from The Globe. JBS Food Canada issued a statement that said the company has taken “extraordinary measures” at the plant in Brooks to minimize the risk of transmission, including slowing down production to facilitate physical distancing.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
AROUND THE WEST
FORT McMURRAY FLOODING: The northern Alberta town had its second state of emergency in April as river water flooded the town because of an ice jam. But on Thursday, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said that the ice blockage was 13 kilometres in size Wednesday night, down from 25 kilometres two days before. Earlier in the week more than 13,000 residents left home because of the threats posed by the rising waters. But not all residents wanted to leave, for fear of looting or moving into an oil sands camp, a hotel room or going anywhere near large groups for fear of COVID-19. On Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney also announced northern Albertans who evacuated because of the spring floods will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent child, as an emergency-support payment. By Thursday, the first flood-related death was reported. Fort McKay First Nation, about 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, reported a death of a community member related to the flooding. RCMP said in a news release late Wednesday that officers responded to a request to help two people stranded on the Athabasca River, northeast of the hamlet of Fort McKay. They say two men were on ATVs on a trail when water levels surged and they ended up in the river. The men were able to hold on to a log until they could be rescued, said police. On Friday, the regional government released a preliminary plan to get people home. The plan is to open businesses before allowing residents back to the community. Officials said Thursday it would be at least a week before evacuees could return.
INQUEST: In a letter to B.C.’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe and B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, a group of nearly 40 rights groups, led by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, cites various reports stating that administrators at the Correctional Service of Canada mismanaged the outbreak response at Mission Institution by failing to implement adequate prevention measures and are demanding a public inquest. As of Wednesday, 108 inmates at the prison had tested positive for the new coronavirus – more than one-third of all inmates, and more than any other federal institution in Canada. Twelve staff members have also contracted the virus. In a statement to The Globe and Mail, the BC Coroners Service said Wednesday it is unable, under the Coroners Act, to comment on continuing investigations but that Ms. Lapointe will be speaking with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association about the request.
RESTAURANT RENT: The federal government’s recent announcement of a large-scale rent-relief program seemed to offer what restaurants had been asking for, but many are discovering that the program may not be enough – and in some cases may not help at all. The rent-relief program, which includes federal and provincial support, can cover 75 per cent of a business’s monthly rent, but it requires the landlord to participate. It’s been met with mixed reactions within the industry.
WESTERN FIRST NATIONS: Federal officials say the next two weeks will be crucial in trying to determine the scope and severity of the spread of COVID-19 in First Nations communities. Cases of the virus have begun to present within Indigenous communities across Canada, including the first case in Nunavut – something health officials have been bracing for, given the many vulnerabilities among Indigenous populations. An outbreak in the Dene village of La Loche in Northern Saskatchewan has prompted deployment of rapid testing and health workers to the area to help contain the spread.
ALBERTA’S REOPENING PLAN: Alberta will allow some businesses to reopen as early as May 14 but only if a series of public-health measures, including increased testing, expanded contact tracing and stricter border controls, are in place by then. Next week, Alberta will resume non-urgent surgeries and allow medical services such as dentists to open. The province will also lift most restrictions on provincial parks, camping, golf and other outdoor activities. If infections and hospitalizations remain stable for the next two weeks, the province will start the first phase of its economic relaunch. Retailers, personal-service businesses such as barber shops, museums and galleries, and daycares will be permitted to open, as will cafés and restaurants at reduced capacity. The current prohibition on gatherings of more than 15 people will remain in place. The third and final stage will include all other businesses, larger gatherings and events such as festivals and sports events, gyms and fitness facilities, and industry conferences. There would no longer be restrictions on non-essential travel.
POULTRY PLANT OUTBREAK: Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, said on Thursday a COVID-19 outbreak at two federally regulated chicken processing plants in Metro Vancouver demonstrates the need for provincial guidance on pandemic safety plans, which the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was supposed to have ensured were in place. Earlier this week, B.C. Premier John Horgan rebuked workers in the poultry plants – including the federal inspectors who were found by provincial health officials to be working while sick.
TEACHER LAYOFFS: Edmonton’s Catholic school board announced an additional round of layoffs on Thursday, the latest job cuts in Alberta schools that have been closed for classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Edmonton Catholic School District said 67 custodians would be laid off, in addition to 708 job cuts that were previously announced, adding that all of the layoffs were a result of a $5.7-million cut to the board’s funding. The earlier layoffs affected educational assistants, replacement staff and other non-essential workers.
SICK PAY: B.C. Premier John Horgan says there’s a need for permanent measures so workers do not report for their jobs when sick, but that his government has not yet come up with a solution. The Premier told a news conference on Wednesday the government is engaged in the issue, but has no deadline for taking action. Any solution, he said, would involve co-operation among government, industry and WorkSafeBC, the provincial workers’ compensation board, but he did not provide any other details.
PRIDE: Canadian Pride festivals are marching on despite bans on mass gatherings that have forced the cancellation of annual parades, finding new ways to connect, from streaming live concerts and hosting virtual talent shows to encouraging people to hang rainbow flags in their windows. In Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Halifax and elsewhere, Pride groups have been forced to cancel parades, festivals, concerts and all other in-person events as prohibitions on mass gatherings are expected to last until at least the summer. Calgary Pride said it would stage live concerts, workshops, interviews and community newscasts that would be broadcast online. Vancouver Pride has decided to take its events entirely digital. The sunset beach show, for example, will become an online variety talent show.
Bronwyn Bragg on the Cargill COVID-19 outbreak: “The crisis has also revealed the way public policy intersects with an unequal labour market to exacerbate those vulnerabilities that temporary workers in particular face. While policies around temporary foreign workers change depending on prevailing political sentiments and public attitudes, the fundamentals of the program remain largely unchanged: Workers are recruited for labour that Canadians are unwilling to do.”
Kelly Cryderman on Michael Moore’s new documentary: “As much as Planet of the Humans is wrong, it’s also an in-your-face notice that every source of energy – no matter how green-sounding – has environmental consequences.”
Gary Mason on a COVID-19 vaccine: “There are well-intentioned scientists here working toward a vaccine but the odds of them beating the rest of the world in this race are long. The government has provided a pittance of financial support for the various projects under way, compared with what is being spent elsewhere. The good news is a vaccine will almost certainly be developed this year. The bad news is Canadians will likely have to wait a long time before they’re able to benefit from it.”
Adrienne Tanner on housing: “Could we instead use this moment to provide everyone in Canada with a decent place to live, which the federal government in its National Housing Strategy Act acknowledges ‘is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person.’ Despite the travails wrought by this pandemic, we remain a wealthy country. And Ottawa will be looking for public infrastructure projects to spend money on as a way to boost employment and lighten the recession that is already smacking us upside the head.”