A mourner touches a photo of Hiep Bui Nguyen at a May 4 memorial for the Cargill worker. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Sprawlcast: Racial disparity and the Cargill outbreak

Are we really in this together?

Subscribe to Sprawlcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. A lightly-edited transcript of this episode is below, for those who would rather read than listen.

BASHIR MOHAMED: Clearly a lot of people failed here, and it's not only on the UCP.

MARICHU ANTONIO: This is a question of workers' rights and workers' security.

CESAR CALA: It is important to understand how this situation impacts various communities differently, even if the virus itself does not know race. But the situations of communities make them more susceptible to infection and impact.

JEREMY: Every Sunday I get The New York Times delivered to my door. Don't ask me how much it costs, because I think my special intro offer has run out, and I'm paying through the nose for it.

But anyway, on May 3, the cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine was about how COVID-19 has revealed the deadly realities of a racially polarized America. I opened up the magazine, and here's what I learned.

COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting areas with large populations of Black people. In New York, black people were twice as likely to die than white people. In Wisconsin, black people are 7% of the population, but 33% of the deaths. And so on.

These numbers paint a stark picture. But in Canada, that picture is harder to see, because our governments, and society at large, aren't particularly interested in seeing it.

A lot of people are taking an approach that’s racially blind… an approach that intentionally ignores race.

Bashir Mohamed,

Writer and activist

BASHIR MOHAMED: One interesting thing about COVID is that in Canada, it seems like a lot of people are taking an approach that's racially blind or whatever—an approach that intentionally ignores race.

JEREMY: This is Edmonton writer and activist Bashir Mohamed, and he was speaking to Michelle Robinson on her podcast, called Native Calgarian. This episode is from April 27.

MOHAMED: So if you look at the United States, for example, there are so many articles and so many people speaking about how COVID is impacting certain communities more than other groups. Well, in Canada it's much more difficult to have that conversation. I think it was Ontario, their chief medical officer actually pushed back on having race-based data, and the medical officer did that by saying that COVID does not discriminate.

JEREMY: This is David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, speaking on April 10.

DAVID WILLIAMS: In Canada, we don't collect race-designated cases unless there are certain risk factors in groups and areas of that level in that. Right now, we consider our main risk groups are the elderly, those with other co-morbidities, regardless of what race they are, as well as other health conditions that would reduce their immune status. So those are all priorities to us, regardless of race, ethnicity, or other backgrounds. They are all equally important to us.

Racism wasn’t really being raised in the mainstream public conversation — at least not initially.

JEREMY: A few days before Bashir Mohamed spoke with Michelle Robinson, he'd written an article for Progress Alberta's Progress Report. In that article he criticized the province for the disastrous and deadly COVID-19 outbreaks at unionized southern Alberta meat plants.

He didn't only criticize the UCP: He also criticized Alberta Health Services and the province's top doctor, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

He noted in his article that COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting the workplaces of vulnerable workers, and this is from his article: "Worksites [are] overwhelmingly staffed by low-income racialized people. This disparity is no accident and is a direct result of the incompetence from the government."

But this topic of racism wasn't really being raised in the mainstream public conversation—at least not initially. It wasn't something being brought up at the Alberta government's daily press conferences. Instead, it was being raised by Albertans like Bashir Mohamed and Michelle Robinson.

I’m always disappointed to read comments… dismissing racism, by folks that don’t experience it.

Michelle Robinson,

Host of Native Calgarian

MICHELLE ROBINSON: I'm always disappointed to read comments that dismiss the clear power dynamic when speaking about workers to employers, citizens versus temporary foreign workers—and then dismissing racism, by folks that don't experience it.

All the workers at these plants, to all of them, the employers failed you. The voters that vote in the government that does not address these workplace and citizen rights issues failed you.

I know firsthand how awful it is to read racist comments on issues that people don't understand, and how poor government policy affects all of us. As a Dene woman, I'm speaking for myself.

JEREMY: But now something is starting to shift, thanks to public pushback. The problem of racial disparity has become unignorable in the wake of these workplace outbreaks.

Our so-called Canadian “colour blindness" is really more of a willful blindness to inequality than anything.

And governments have had to start changing tack: Ontario, for example, has backed down from its initial position and is going to start collecting race-based data on COVID-19.

‘A failure of epic proportions’

So at a time when many of us were comfortably quarantined at home, massive outbreaks of COVID-19 were tearing through southern Alberta meat plants. Licia Corbella of the Calgary Herald has been one of the most dogged journalists on this story.

We're going to listen in now to a press conference with Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Health Minister Tyler Shandro on May 4, and here's what Corbella asked them at this press conference.

Why isn’t there a voice among community members, among Canadians… defending these workers?

Marichu Antonio,


LICIA CORBELLA: Cargill and JBS have as many confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 as the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador combined. And when community spread is included, they make up more than 40% of all of the confirmed cases in Alberta. Cargill's outbreak is the largest workplace outbreak in all of Canada and, apparently, on the continent. Two workers—one at each plant—have died.

I'd like to hear from both of you on this to get your perspective. For those of us looking on and who have had the opportunity to speak with these distraught workers at those plants, this is a failure of epic proportions. I'm curious to hear how each of you would describe these outbreaks.

DR. DEENA HINSHAW: What I will point out with respect to these outbreaks, from the information I've received from my colleagues in Alberta Health Services, is that, again, if we focus only on the site, we will fail, because these are not simply site outbreaks.

There is absolutely a site component, but the intertwined nature of the communities, the sites, the families, who live in large households—this is absolutely not the fault of the workers. However, it is reflective of the fact that when you have an outbreak in people who are living, working very hard, often working multiple jobs, with intertwined families working in different sectors, that virus spreads very quickly. And that's what we've seen in these outbreaks.

TYLER SHANDRO: To echo what Doctor Hinshaw said, the spread of COVID-19 and the response to it is complex. It's a complicated issue. There are a number of factors involved in its spread and the response to it.

It's happening in other places in this country and throughout the world, and we have committed, as a government, to making sure that after the response to COVID-19 that we will be taking a robust approach to our review of our response to the pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 and the response to it is complex. It’s a complicated issue.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro

JEREMY: That was Minister Shandro not answering the question.

But like Corbella said, this is a failure of epic proportions. Staggering investigations by The Globe and Mail and CBC revealed just how poorly the company handled the situation.

MARICHU ANTONIO: The situation that the Cargill workers are experiencing now only goes to show that the working conditions that they are in is not decent, and it has to change.

JEREMY: This is Marichu Antonio, and she's the executive director of a group called ActionDignity.

ANTONIO: It's a not-for-profit organization that serves as an umbrella for more than 80 ethno-cultural organizations. I'm also an activist by heart, and a grandma, and I've been in Canada for around 24 years now, enjoying Canada as my new home. I immigrated here from the Philippines in 1996. Some of the workers approached us, and they happened to be workers from Cargill. And these workers—some of them live in High River, but a majority of them, around 70% of the 2,300 workers, live in Calgary.

So what happened was, around April 12, I think, there were only 38 cases—around that much—of COVID-positive in Cargill. And so the community, as well as the union, demanded a closure in order to protect the workers from the company. What did the company do? Of course, and sanctioned by our government and Alberta Health, they continued to open this. After less than a month, there's now over 900.

TFWs are especially vulnerable, because their stay in Canada is dependent on their employment.

Cesar Cala,


JEREMY: ActionDignity set up a memorial for the Cargill worker who died in April, Hiep Bui. Bui immigrated to Canada from Vietnam and had worked at Cargill since 1996.

ANTONIO: These workers are grandparents, or a mother, father, or a single individual, or maybe a parent whose family members are still in the Philippines, and now they're being told to go back to work, and afraid that if they don't go back to work, they may lose their jobs. And some of them, their immigration status banks on their workplace, because they're only tied to one employer while they're here.

JEREMY: The Globe and Mail put it this way in its investigation: "They are the people who do the jobs that Canadians don't want—and don't want to know much about."

CESAR CALA: A significant number, probably majority, of the workers, are of Filipino background. There are also many Mexicans, Ethiopians and Eritreans.

JEREMY: This is Cesar Cala. He's a community organizer, and he's part of a group called Filipinos Rising for Inclusion and Equity to Nurture Democracy – or FRIENDS, for short.

CALA: But also, some of them are temporary foreign workers. TFWs are especially vulnerable, because their stay in Canada is dependent on their employment in Cargill. That's what we call a single-employer visa, so they have to be in good graces with their employers to be able to stay in Canada. Many are permanent residents and refugees as well. This is a job that attracts members of the communities, and also, a lot of them are new citizens.

And then many of them, because they are TFWs, it's important that people would know that they come here as individual people, individual workers. Their families are back home. They cannot bring their families with them.

It is important to understand how this situation impacts various communities differently, even if the virus itself does not know race.

Cesar Cala,


JEREMY: These meat plant workers are often characterized—not inaccurately—as "hard-working," and their shared living arrangements are often portrayed as cultural. But Cala points out that the quick spread of COVID-19 has more to do with economic precarity.

CALA: You're looking at a racialized population. Even if they don't take that statistic, we all know that these outbreaks are impacting people of color—you know, in the meat plants. But at the same time, there are—when we talk about social distancing and other health advisories, there are communities that have a bit more difficulty doing that, just because of the way they need to share resources as part of their economic situations.

JEREMY: Cala notes that it's easy for people in privileged situations to follow the health directives on social distancing. If you have your own house, it's no problem. But not everyone has that choice.

But this issue isn't just about migrant workers at these two meat plants. This is the big headline story right now, but Cala says the situation has brought to the surface issues that have already been simmering in Canada.

CALA: There are also many workers in the informal economy who are undocumented, or whose status are in limbo because of many other issues around employment and abuse. There are thousands of them in Alberta—tens of thousands of them in Alberta—and hundreds of thousands of them across Canada. So they're falling through the cracks.

In normal times, they are filling in the gaps in our economy, providing support in service industries and caregiving and cleaning and all of that. But during the times of crisis, they fall through the cracks, and they are an invisible population. And, again, this is a very racialized population. No one's even talking about that.

JEREMY: Cala says temporary foreign workers should not be temporary: They should be granted residency so they're not stuck in these precarious situations. And their concerns about workplace conditions should be taken seriously from the get-go—not just when it becomes a national scandal.

CALA: Many of the workers feel that their voices are not being heard. Even if they have—they have a lot of information about their own conditions and situations, no one cares about their voice. They should be part of any changes and actions moving forward.

JEREMY: Marichu Antonio believes that the outbreaks at the meat plants should have Canadians asking hard questions about the essential workers that we claim to value.

ANTONIO: They have been encountering these issues about workplace safety and environment even before COVID-19 came. They've had surgeries—we've spoken to workers who've had surgeries and then not being able to brush their teeth anymore with their right hand, and instead they use the left hand; or when they carpool, they would drive, and one of their arms would just drop down because they were not able to manipulate the steering wheel anymore.

And we should also ask the question: Oh, why did they open this up to temporary foreign workers? Why did they open this up to workers from other countries? Why don't, you know, Canadian-born workers apply for this job? And we should ask that question.

Avoiding the issue of systemic racism

JEREMY: After presiding over the worst workplace outbreak in the country, Alberta's UCP government has downplayed the racial disparities at play. Instead, they've tried to recast it as an issue of racist comments and behavior being directed at these workers.

PREMIER JASON KENNEY: We've heard a growing number of stories that really concern us, quite frankly, about prejudicial attitudes, and even outright bigotry, being directed at some Albertans coming from immigrant backgrounds.

JEREMY: This is from a video that Kenney posted online on May 6.

PREMIER KENNEY: We thank and respect the folks who work in those plants, and new Canadians who have chosen Alberta to be their home, to bring an amazing work ethic, to start families here, to build our communities. All Albertans, of all backgrounds, are equally valued, and we must together reject attitudes of exclusion or suspicion. The only way we're going to get through this is together.

JEREMY: We hear this sentiment a lot—that we're all in this together. And there's truth in that, for sure: We need each other. We need a society where we support and care for one another.

But as time goes on, I am more and more suspicious of that slogan. It can become a thin sentiment used to obscure the realities of what people are living through—and the disparities at play in our province.

Something I saw recently on social media stuck with me: "We're all in the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat."

As we move into whatever new normal will happen, it’s time for us to really reflect: what kind of a society do we want to build?

Cesar Cala,


CALA: I think as we move into whatever new normal will happen, it's time for us to really reflect what kind of a society do we want to build, and confront the issues that this crisis has really brought to fore—the kind of issues that we need to face as a community, and the valuing of people and the work that they do.

JEREMY: I'm going to give the last word here to Marichu Antonio, and I asked her what she takes away from all of this.

ANTONIO: One of the big lessons that I have learned this past several weeks is that—and I've been asking this to myself, too—why isn't there a voice among community members, among Canadians—among us Canadians—defending these workers? Why are we leaving it up all for them to speak up, when they are in a very difficult situation of recovering from the virus with their family members, and having financial difficulties, and having all these dilemmas?

Why isn't there anyone speaking up for them?

Why are we seeing them as, you know, just workers. As we've been saying, they're not simply statistics, but they are human beings. They are people that need our support.

We should put humanity into the face of these workers.

Marichu Antonio,


So when we put a face and humanity into the worker who died, Hiep Bui—and we did that at a memorial yesterday, where her husband spoke about how devastated he is. His wife for more than 20 years, and at the age of 67, the two of them living together, no children. When we put the story out, that's when the people, the community members, started to feel that—hey, these are human beings that deserve to be appreciated, that deserve to be treated with dignity.

And when we started getting all these stories about how she would wear her five layers of sweater in a refrigerated temperature in the workplace while she's picking out bones from the meat that is processed into McDonald's hamburger, people started to realize how many sacrifices she made. So she epitomizes the other essential workers, who we should see as human beings. We should put humanity into the face of these workers.

This issue is not just about profits. It's not just about, you know, the beef industry and the economy. This is an issue of people. And so therefore, we must see them with dignity, with respect, in the same way that we treat each other here in Canada.

So, yeah, we need to be just and fair to these essential workers.

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