Nga Nguyen, husband of Cargill worker Hiep Bui Nguyen, at a memorial for Bui on May 4. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

ANALYSIS: In Cargill, Alberta faces a question of morality

Is economic productivity worth more than workers’ lives?

Bui Thi Hiep was born in Vietnam, and immigrated to Canada with her husband in the early 1990s, settling in Calgary. For over 20 years, Bui worked at the Cargill meat processing facility in High River, Alberta—a facility responsible for more than a third of Canada’s beef production.

However, the Cargill facility is likely better known today as the epicentre of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Alberta Health Services has linked 1,560 cases to the Cargill facility out of the 5,893 infections that have been documented to date province-wide.

There are more COVID-19 infections linked to the Cargill facility than the total number of positive cases identified in Nova Scotia.

Bui was one of the workers who contracted COVID-19 from the Cargill facility. On April 19, 2020, Bui died of complications associated with the disease. She was 67.

Fellow workers affectionately referred to Bui as Candy Momma, for her tendency to hand out candies to her colleagues during shifts.

At her small memorial, Bui’s husband, Nga Nguyen, described her easy-going nature and the deep sense of loss her passing has left in his life: “There were just the two of us. She’s gone now and I am on my own."

A larger question looms over Alberta in the wake of the Cargill outbreak. It’s one of morality and its currency in Alberta politics.

There are serious questions that must be asked of Cargill, the Alberta government, and Dr. Deena Hinshaw for allowing the plant to remain operational without adequate safety measures in place to protect workers.

Many had raised concerns over the lack of safeguards and dubious workplace policies that appeared to place workers at greater risk of infection.

The workers’ concerns were ignored, and when it became clear that they shouldn’t have been, government officials suggested that the workers themselves were responsible for the outbreak.

After a brief closure, the Cargill facility reopened. Despite continued concerns from workers about their safety and risk of exposure, Premier Jason Kenney refused to shut down the plant for longer, claiming that reopening the plant is vital to the province’s interests.

There is a larger question that looms over Alberta in the wake of the Cargill outbreak. It’s one of morality and its currency in Alberta politics.

Kenney’s politics have long been marked with a propensity towards the cruel and inhumane.

A year ago, Albertans emerged from a bruising provincial election that appeared to pit the notion of a compassionate, inclusive Alberta against an economically prosperous one.

Many Albertans were apprehensive about Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party, given his history as an activist and elected official that seemed preoccupied with the singular focus of disenfranchising minorities.

Kenney’s politics have long been marked with a propensity towards the cruel and inhumane, buttressed by an unwavering ideological commitment to a rigid, socially conservative agenda.

From his years of campaigning against LGBTQ2+ rights, including preventing the partners of gay men who were dying of AIDS from visiting their loved ones in San Francisco hospices at the height of the HIV epidemic, to denying refugee claimants in Canada the right to access free health care.

Many downplayed or ignored Kenney’s past, believing that it wouldn’t figure into how he would govern the province if elected.

Most Albertans don’t hold the same views as Kenney on these issues. And, despite the reservations they had about them, a majority of Albertans cast their vote for Kenney last April. Many downplayed or ignored Kenney’s past, believing that it wouldn’t figure into how he would govern the province if elected.

After a year in office, it’s apparent that Kenney hasn’t changed.

His policies have left the vulnerable in our society even more vulnerable: de-indexing AISH benefits, rolling back protections for LGBTQ2+ youth in schools, slashing affordable housing, undermining harm reduction programs across the province, and decreasing the maximum age eligibility for supports intended to help youth in care transition to sustainable adulthood (full disclosure: I am the lawyer to a group of youth challenging the constitutionality of this decision).

For the most part, Kenney framed these changes as being necessary to get the Alberta economy back on track. That there was some greater economic good to be gained by these measures, even though actual human lives hung in the balance.

On some level, this is what Albertans voted for: a government focused on the economy, led by a Premier with a disregard for the rights of vulnerable people.

The lives of hundreds of Cargill workers are part of the bargain.

The lives of hundreds of Cargill workers are part of the bargain, along with AISH recipients, the homeless and precariously housed and youth who’ve aged out of government care.

The failure of this government to act, to heed the warnings of the workers forced into an unsafe workplace and shut down the facility until there is no further risk of infection, brings this trade-off into sharper focus.

The immorality of this government is no longer considered in the abstract, but embodied by Bui and her husband, and the life they lived together being cut short for reasons that can never be rationalized.

The question is whether the lives of these Albertans matter enough to us.

Avnish Nanda is an Alberta-based public law litigator who teaches constitutional law at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Law.

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