“At the end of the day we’re running a business here and people at the plant need a place to live. The only advantage they have is that they’ve got us making the phone calls for them.”
— The late Leo Collins, former Maple Leaf Foods plant manager
It never fails.
Whenever the city’s housing crunch has been in the news in this community, the words Maple Leaf Foods are never far from the lips of those with an axe to grind.
Inevitably, someone decides to trot out the tiresome suggestion that Maple Leaf should be building housing for all the foreign workers that they attract to Brandon. In fact, such an argument was once again made during the City of Brandon’s public budget roundtable discussion on Thursday evening.
We understand why segments of our society feel this way — Maple Leaf is indeed responsible for bringing thousands of new citizens to Brandon over the last decade, a situation that has squeezed the low-cost housing market and stretched the limited resources of our school division.
As we have said so very many times on this page, this is a fantastic problem to have — better a growing city than a city in decline.
Nevertheless, complaints that Maple Leaf is not doing enough to shoulder the city’s affordable housing burden occasionally bubble to the surface at meetings or in letters to the editor and Sound Off submissions when the city or other groups seek feedback from the public.
But there are two major problems with the idea that the hog processing company should get into the housing market.
The first is one of integration.
In an interview he gave years before his untimely death, former Maple Leaf Foods plant manager Leo Collins told the Sun that his company had no wish to create ghettos in Brandon. Separating their foreign workers from greater Brandon society would be a recipe for disaster for this community, he said.
Instead, the idea was to spread workers throughout the community so that they would be forced, by design, to better learn how to navigate the city, meet the locals and become productive members of the neighbourhood they happened to find themselves within.
Collins said that on a social level the company would steadfastly refuse to become landlords.
And of course, there are also financial impediments. Building new low-cost housing for its workers would be cost-prohibitive for any incoming company looking to set up shop in this city — not just Maple Leaf. To expect a company that brings in hundreds of new employees and their families to construct residential housing as a condition or pre-condition of doing business in the city would be a huge mistake.
It would be akin to putting a sign on the Trans-Canada Highway stating “your business is not welcome in Brandon.”
This city does have an ongoing housing crunch, though we note that construction of new apartments and homes has never ceased. The disconnect here is that the people who speak to the need for “affordable” housing are really talking about “subsidized” housing.
Before anyone starts suggesting that private companies pony up money to build cheap housing — keep in mind this is not what companies get into business to do in the first place — we believe our elected officials should study what the actual need is in this city, the hard numbers, so to speak.
Perhaps then we can have an informed discussion about what must be done to fix the problem and who should be responsible for paying for the solution.
Laying the blame upon foreign workers and the companies that employ them is unhelpful.