A friend of ours who blogs anonymously as Invisible Man sent us this three part story about his experiences at work and beyond. It’s powerful stuff about work, class, race, and the struggle to keep on keeping on.
C’est pas un pays, c’est un hiver
The Suit Shop
It was late in the afternoon and the sweaty, noisy, humid factory day was almost finished.
It was bitterly cold outside, but you wouldn’t know it from the inside of the suit factory. And you could easily forget that it was winter, because at Men’s Clothiers International where I worked, there were no windows to the outside. But 2003, my first winter in Montreal, was one of the coldest winters on record.
The shop steward came over to my machine and leaned into my ear.
“You want to learn French?” he bellowed over the constant whoosh of the steam presses.
“Yeah,” I yelled back, my hands continuing their work automatically.
“I saw your application. You can go down to the union hall after work. They’ll put you in a class.”
I had signed up for the classes because learning French was one of my main objectives in moving to this city. It was one of the goals in life that I wanted to accomplish. Here, even homeless people asked for change in two languages. You had to sink or swim, linguistically: that was part of the appeal.
I’d come to the city telling myself that I’d work for a year, take a break from university, learn French, and then go back to school. Six months later, reality was beginning to sink in. I had my BA, but the only job for someone with an arts degree was to work at a call centre. As the employment counselor had told me, with my degree I’d make my way easily into lower management. That was about the last job on earth I wanted.
So I’d taken the first job I’d been able to get. It was filled with several successive generations of first-job immigrants – Italians, Haitians, Chinese, Latinos. A wave of Sri Lankans would arrive while I was on the job.
I was working the factory job because my degree was useless. I was trying to make my way ahead learning the French language. But finally I was beginning to discover that the promising expectations I’d had of this exciting new city were unrealistic – that I would get no opportunity that I had not fought for, on my own, every step of the way.
Born here, but still an immigrant.
It was one of the ironies I was learning to appreciate. I spoke my broken French and simplified my English so that people would understand me – just like everyone else in the factory. I didn’t put on airs; didn’t talk about my degree; didn’t try to stand out. The warm, affectionate women and the reserved, taciturn men would all give me friendly advice on how to deal with Montreal girls; I’d try to take it (with limited success).
I knew the basics of French vocabulary and grammar, but hadn’t had the chance to practice. Whenever I tried to speak French in the downtown area where I lived, people switched me to English. I understood the etiquette, but it was still difficult to make real progress. When the union offered us these courses, it was the best of all possible worlds. The classes were free, after work, and right near my apartment.
I’d take the bus and Metro after eight hours of work and make my way down, tired as all hell, to the union hall. Everyone else was a recent immigrant and thirty years older than me. If it was hard on me, it was sheer courage on their part.
I was the only student from my particular workplace. People didn’t seem to know my factory. There was Jack Victor, situated downtown; there was Peerless, deep in the East. But MCI didn’t seem to be on most people’s radar. To hear people tell it, it was the last factory to offer the “piecework incentive” system – or what was known in the Soviet Union (I was reading Trotsky at the time) as the Stanakhovist system.
Only to our French teacher could I open up a little about the other side of my life. He was a Black Franco-Brazilian – his father a diplomat – who smoked Camels on the steps during our breaks. I was the only other smoker, so we’d talk. He encouraged me to take my education to a higher level; I could only try to express my despondency at my rejection letters. The weather got colder.
The French teacher was patient, but, as the son of a diplomat, knew nothing of factory life. No matter. He tried and succeeded to make the language accessible to us, the newcomers. He taught us Quebecois swear words, so we’d know when we were being insulted in French. “In Quebec, almost all of the swear-words come from the Church. It’s because they were oppressed for so long by the Church and their government.” He taught us how to address bosses and co-workers: in French, the grammar is different for each.
And he showed us the classic Quebecois song, “Mon pays, c’est pas un pays, c’est un hiver.”
“My country is not a country, it’s a winter” – the poetic lament of a Quebec long past. A Quebec which didn’t have immigrants, which had forgotten its Native population, a Quebec which could build a powerful and revolutionary nationalist movement in reaction to its own oppression.
One day I arrived to class late and flustered. I’d just witnessed a scene of racist police brutality in the Metro and I described the scene to my class. My teacher nodded, then said quietly, “That is life. The same thing happens here, in America, in Brazil. Life is always the same.”
“My country is not a country, it’s a winter.” How much more true must that feel now, I thought, for those who arrive without anything but the suitcases they can carry – refugees of war and unemployment fleeing the warmth of their own countries, into a land encased in ice for half the year, hoping to find there a country they could at last call their own? But no matter how far you run, the problems you’re trying to escape – ethnic strife, joblessness, underemployment and unemployment – they pervade every aspect of life when you’re poor and have dark skin and are trying to make your way ahead.
The class ended and we were all tired, the cold having sapped our energy to the core. Night had fallen outside the union hall. I made my way on foot up the hill between Ontario and Sherbrooke, while the bitter wind tore fluidly through my layers of winter clothing. It was one of the coldest nights Montreal had ever seen; homeless people were freezing to death that night.
When you’re poor and have dark skin and you live here, you have no country. But you get the winter all the same. I had to run all the way home, just to keep myself warm.
I pulled the yellow cord and the bell shattered the suspicious stillness. I waited for the bus driver to stop, and then dismounted into the clear morning chill. The day was bright without warmth. On either side, snow banks towered high over my head. Ice crystals glittered like fragments of false hopes amid the early-morning frost. A sheen of clear, hard, and treacherous ice lay hidden beneath a light dusting of snow. The city workers hadn’t been out yet. Or were they on strike? I shook my head, as if to clear it. The world gleamed clear white as far as I could see.
I’d quit the suit factory on November 30, 2005, my twenty-fourth birthday: which was also the day that our union contract had expired. Montreal’s textile and garment industry had collapsed; I’d gotten out in the nick of time. So I went directly to trade school, as I had planned, and had been there now for a year.
I had chanced to meet a Turkish guy I used to work with at SFI, riding the evening bus, and he’d filled me in on the details. The union had negotiated a new contract with the new American employer. Six months after I’d quit, the company had shut its doors and shipped production overseas. Everyone I used to know was unemployed.
Just before the closure, my friend had injured his hand permanently on one of the machines. He couldn’t work anymore, even if there’d been any jobs to be had. He was accompanied by his wife and two small children when I saw him. “What can we do, brother?” he complained quietly, with that tired smile we all have. “This is life. We must enjoy it while we still are alive.”
It’s not as if it all hadn’t happened before – a contract negotiated, then broken, in dire economic times. Now all those thousands of immigrants, who’d counted on a steady if meagre income, were out on the job market – driving down wages and spreading panic. These were the days of deciding how many immigrants were “too many:” the accommodation debate was in full swing. Thank God for my Italian name; in times like these, it helped to secure the first interview by phone.
I’d been living on EI now for a year; the government was paying for my job retraining as a machinist. The price of food was going up; the Hydro bill had increased several times though I kept the thermostat low and shivered beneath piles of blankets. That government cheque could only go so far. My belly had finally growled loud enough that I took the day off school to attend this interview.
I was late. I was lost. I stepped into a gas station and looked at a map: yes, I was in the right area. I crossed the icy bridge over the Louis-H. Lafontaine Tunnel and was where I needed to be. Precision Tools International.
A lurch of liquid acid bubbled up sharply from my empty stomach. Just as I was swallowing it back down, the crystallized snow skidded beneath my boots over the invisible ice. I fell to the sidewalk with a crunch, striking my hip hard, and landed on top of the canvas bag in which I was carrying copies of my resume.
Appropriate. A trickle of blood oozed from my knuckles. I stood, straightened my shoulders, raised my chin, and took a deep breath. No one else is going to do this for you. Stay dignified. I walked through the imposing doors of the company and asked the secretary for the foreman. He would be about fifteen minutes.
As I waited, I thumbed through a copy of a trade magazine. A high-end manufacturer had discovered a counterintuitive method of raising productivity. Normally, one would finish urgent short orders first, tackle long orders next, and finish the business quarter with the less-urgent short runs. But by constantly alternating long and short runs on its manufacturing line, a computer model had predicted greater efficiency.
I derisively imagined how that would work out on the floor. Constantly reconfiguring the machines for the different orders, changing programs, tools, and machine components, screws getting lost, skinny engineers with glasses running around trying to tell mechanics their business, grease-spattered mechanics waving large wrenches in engineers’ faces, machine operators sitting idly at home on temporary layoff, waiting for the production lines to restart…. Productivity? Ha!
I’d forgotten my roiling hunger. But I’d have to wipe that cynical grin off my face. The foreman emerged, a tall, thin man with slightly stooped shoulders and a trimmed moustache. He waved me into his office wordlessly. He sat, then motioned for me to sit. I obeyed in respectful silence, smiled, and waited for him to initiate the conversation. He introduced himself: an Italian name.
“You’re from Montreal?”
“Yes, that’s right. I’ve lived here for four years.”
“You have finished your diploma?”
“No, sir, but I have only three more months left in my courses.” (I bowed my head briefly as I spoke, but kept a confident tone.) “I’ll be finished soon, but I want to get my foot in the door with some practical experience. If I could work on the evening shift, that would be ideal for me.” (I kept my hands still and folded in front of me, knees at a ninety-degree angle, with my back straight.)
“What machines can you work with?”
“In school, we learned the lathe and the milling machine, both conventional and CNC – but I can learn anything, no problem.”
“Do you have a preference?”
“I like to work with the conventional lathe.”
“Well, we don’t use the conventional lathe very much, mostly CNC. Here, we make cutting tools. Do you know about end mills?”
“Yes, actually, we have to work with end mills every day in school.”
“Good. Now our clients are mainly in the aerospace sector – Bombardier, McDonnell-Douglas, that sort of thing. We need people to work on the cylindrical grinders. Do you like that?”
“Absolutely, that would be great!” Not too foolishly enthusiastic, but enough to let him know you want the job.
He shifted in his chair: “Now, your name is Italian. But you don’t look Italian. Where are you from?” He paused, kept the smile on his face, but narrowed his eyes slightly. Do you want the job? Then suck it up.
“It was my grandfather who originally came from Italy, from Campo Basso. My father was born here, and my mother is from Sri Lanka. I was born in Canada.” (I knew that one by heart by now. The Italian was actually my great-grandfather, but if you put in too many details, people will get confused. You have to use your pauses effectively, or the listener gets lost.)
“It’s a beautiful mix,” he smiled indulgently. (If they say anything after that, then that’s what they’ll say.) “You can start on Monday at seven o’clock?” He was asking me to quit school and come work for him.
“Of course! Thank you, sir.” I extended my hand; he shook it.
I walked out into the crisp whiteness of a Montreal morning: February, 2007.
I started my training on the cylindrical grinders, Monday at seven. My instructor was a twenty-year veteran of the company, and also the shop steward. He was Haitian. That should have told me something right away.
Like the suit factory, the demographic of the machine shop was equally split between Haitian workers and Italian workers. A Haitian president of a mixed-race union either meant that a) the Italians were very open-minded, or that b) they were apathetic about the union. Since the employer was Italian, I should have been able to figure it out.
About a week later, the foreman transferred me off the cylindrical grinders, where the shop steward had been training me. I was sent to the “Green Beast,” as my co-workers had named it – the worst, most boring, least demanding machine of all. My job was to feed oven-hardened steel slugs into a centreless grinder, ensuring a precise diameter. The steel slugs, with a conical point at one end, were to be exactly two inches long, with a diameter of precisely .4375 inches.
They were bullets. We are in a war, after all.
And so, day after day, I allowed my mind to wander while my hands fed the bullets into the grinder. I produced four boxes of bullets – about three thousand in all – every day. Every day, I counted the hours until quitting time; every Thursday I took my cheque and cashed it.
It’s a living, and much better than starving, I tried to tell myself. And I knew I was right. But my mind kept creating images of those bullets going into human flesh. These were huge. When that thing hits you, you’ll just bleed to death; there’s no hope.
There’s no hope. No escape.
I thought my friends would be happy for me, getting a steady job with excellent benefits, in place of the usual minimum wage crap. I brought them scrap bullets as souvenirs. They all thought the bullets were kind of cool. But no one shook my hand, no one congratulated me, no “Good for you, right on, man!” It seemed they’d liked to see me poor and starving because it made them feel better about themselves. We began to drift.
Whenever I met people, they’d ask me what I did for a living. I’d always tell them bluntly that I made bullets – because it was true, but also just to see how they’d react. No one’s reaction was positive. I guess for some, a bearded Brown guy making the bullets wasn’t their idea of secure war production; while for others, being employed in a steady job wasn’t worth “being a part of” the evil war machine.
I never felt it necessary to point out the obvious. It wasn’t about individual moral choices. It was about survival. I was hired to do this work because the “war on terror” had turned me into cheap labour. I had the option of taking the job I got, or starving: literally starving, as I had been before I took the job. So the racism of the accommodation debate, an extension of that climate, was just a way to keep White people in the better war production jobs, while we worked even more cheaply. (On the other hand, as a low-level worker in the arms industry, I would be uniquely placed to help halt bullet production, if ever the labour movement took it into its head to strike against the war.)
But no, nobody ever really got it.
I noticed right away that the company was not deducting union dues from my cheque. I discreetly showed my weekly statement to the shop steward. He expressed his concern, but the next week it was the same. And two weeks into the job, a union meeting was posted. Topic: the future of the union at Precision Tools.
I walked in late. The meeting was being held in the company cafeteria on a Saturday morning. The air was charged, tense. I glanced over the room.
All the Italians sat together in a front corner, facing at an angle toward the rest of the group. The foreman’s cousin (who was technically an employee but had just as much clout as the foreman) sat in the back, his massive arms folded over his chest. The Haitians all sat together. There was an interspersion of Quebecois, and me. Harsh, revealing sunlight gleamed in off the snow and through the large windows. The room boiled quietly.
From the front, the shop steward outlined the situation: a motion had been advanced that our local should disaffiliate from the main union federation, and that we be renamed the Precision Tools Employees’ Association. He opened the floor for discussion.
The room seemed to explode all at once.
“What the hell does the union do?!” sneered an Italian man.
“It does what you people want it to!” shot back a Haitian woman. “What if we need to go on strike? Where will the money come from if we aren’t affiliated to a federation? Who will hire the lawyers?”
“You need money? You take a pistol, you go to the bank, there’s your money! All the union does is sit on its ass and take our money every payday; what do they do? Nothing!”
The union brass had sent in a negotiator. He sat up front next to the shop steward, cowed, wordless, and terrified. He might as well not have been there. “Order. Order!” The shop steward struck the table with his gavel. At first no one listened; but gradually the voices died down. The arguments continued. Everyone talked past each other. Everyone talked over each other. They all started to shout again. People jumped onto their feet and pointed fingers at each other.
And then they took it to a vote.
I’d seen union meetings like this before. I cast my ballot, folding it carefully in half to hide the marking I’d made. The ballots were counted; the results were announced.
“On nous a fait fourer!” yelled the Haitian woman bitterly. Yeah, they’d screwed us, all right. By a margin of four votes, the company had won. There was no more union. The meeting began to disperse.
I walked past the punch-clock into the work area. The foreman, seated behind his desk, looked into the shop through the large windowpane of his office. There was a thin smile on his lips. Now you will work, though you may freely choose starvation at any time you wish. My vote, strictly speaking, should not have counted anyway. After all, I hadn’t technically been paying my dues! Welcome to the trade!
When the Italian crew found out I was half-Italian, they warmed up to me. I wasn’t rude, and I didn’t get too close either. Keeping in mind the scene I had witnessed, I calculated that I shouldn’t be seen to associate too closely with those guys. It would reflect badly if there was a union battle. But that day never came.
I worked my ass off and I was always tired.
Beside my Green Beast, working on a computer-controlled lathe, was Kumar. He’d been an engineer in India – but here, they wouldn’t recognize his credentials. So (like how many other people I’d met in these factories? – like all the Arabs, like all the Chinese guys) he’d retrained as a machinist.
“Well, what can we do, my friend? There are no opportunities for us; we only work for our children. I have a son and a daughter. One in university, one in CEGEP.” (He was clearly proud of them.) “When I am old, they will look after me. You, you finish your education. Otherwise, you will have no future. You will die in this place.” (I hadn’t told him that I had a degree. I never told anyone that. It just complicated things.)
Kumar taught me something about racism I’d never thought of. At one point, it came time to empty the large coolant tank, where pounds of filthy residue built up. I’d never done it before, so I went and asked the Quebecois what I needed to do.
Pierre simply took my coolant tank and poured its contents into Kumar’s machine.
“Hey!” protested Kumar. “Why do you dump this shit in my machine? I just cleaned everything yesterday!”
“Oh, the shit, it’s in the bottom,” said Pierre dismissively. I hadn’t known he spoke English. “It’s only water.”
Kumar was visibly upset. “Why you are doing this, my friend? I work hard like you. The machine needs to be clean!”
Pierre waved his hand. “You, you don’t know what you are talking about.” He gave a desultory snicker, turned on his heel, and dragged the coolant tank on its wheels behind him.
“This is not good, you understand?” Kumar turned to me. “Now the machine will not run well and I will have to clean it again. You understand?” I nodded. “Do you think it was right, what he did?” I shook my head. His eyes flashed slightly, and he repeated a little louder, “Do you think it was right what he did?”
“No,” I told him.
“This is a Cubecwa. He is a good man. I may even say he is my friend. But that is that arrogance. You understand what I mean? He is my friend, but that is that arrogance!”
Arrogance is what some Brown people call racism: it places all the wrongdoing on the responsible party, without making you sound like a victim.
“They don’t think we know what they know.” He turned.
I felt sick. I hadn’t stood up for Kumar. I felt like I had been a tool of this White man. And if I wanted to keep the peace in the factory, I would not say anything. I might have to see these people every day for years if I stayed working here. Kumar knew it, and I knew it, and there was nothing either of us could do about it.
Something about the way he said it struck me. “This is my friend, but that is that arrogance.” This is what our friendship means to them, he seemed to say. And what I’d experienced from my friends, earlier on, seemed to make so much more sense.
After about six months of work, I developed some problems with my breathing. I couldn’t sleep at night. I mentioned it to Jacques. “You see that?” he pointed upwards. On cue, a plume of dense grease smoke billowed from a machine vent. “They don’t want to open a hole in the roof, so they vent it in here. Do you get little zits on your body?” I indeed was getting zits. “You’re developing an allergy to the solvents and the fumes,” he told me.
Then he took me to the workstation of a quiet Mauritian worker, whose hands and arms were spotted with rather large growths. “There’s a bacteria that lives in the old oil. It causes those. You need to keep your hands clean. And always make sure you wash your hands before you use the urinal. There’s no telling what’s in that coolant that’ll get into your dick.”
Words to live by.
Around Christmastime in 2007, the foreman asked me to switch machines. Somebody had quit. They needed me to work at the beginning point of the bullet production process. I was to work under a Romanian, who was familiar with the machine, and learn how to run it.
Miri was a friendly guy, and tough. He knew everything there was to know about running and repairing machines: hydraulics, mechanics, computerization – and when to just pound the damn thing with a hammer. He started out speaking French to me, but when he found out I spoke English, he was glad for the chance to practice.
“Did you speak English or French in your interview?” Miri queried. English, I told him. “Good man. They pay you less if you speak only French. My friend over there, that’s what they did to him.”
His experience confirmed what I’d recently read in the newspapers. This was actually one of the conclusions of the Bouchard-Taylor inquiry into the accommodation debate: unilingual francophones were paid less for the same work. Makes sense – where else are they going to go?
A coolant pipe began to leak. Miri closed the spigot, cutting off the flow of coolant, and unscrewed the pipe below it with a Wescott wrench. He pulled a rubber ring from the pipe joint and held it up for me. “You see this?” He showed me the worn gasket. “I always telling them they need for buy new gaskets, they don’t want to listen. They’re cheap, this company. Italian people.” He swore under his breath, looking around for any listeners.
“So we, we fix it today, tomorrow it broke again, you see? They don’t care. Production, production, prodahction!” He abruptly broke off and turned back to the machine. He found some white sealant tape, lined the screw thread with it, and fastened it back into the main pipe. Then he wrapped the tape around the whole joint from the outside. “Not look nice, but it no leak for today,” he finished. He opened the spigot and the coolant oil gushed into the machine.
He asked me where I was from. I told him the usual, and then added that I had come to Montreal from Alberta. “Alberta?” Miri asked with surprise. “What the hell you live here for? Lots of money in Alberta!” I tried, lamely, to explain how Montreal has a better life, how you make more money in Alberta but housing and food costs more, and there’s nothing to do there. Here, in summertime, at least there are things to do.
He politely tried to hide his disappointment. “What it like in Calgary?”
“In Calgary, there’s lots of jobs, but if you look like me – you know, dark people” – I motioned toward the skin on my bare arm – “they don’t like you to come there. Here, there are more immigrants. You can find people like you. Maybe you have a Romanian community in Montreal?” I turned the conversation away from myself.
“Yes, but I don’t like them. They always want to know your business. Me, I talk, I say hello, but nothing else. I have one friend. He is also eemigrant.” He spat the word like a curse.
“You have your family here?” I tried to shift the subject.
“No, no family, only me. In Romania, no jobs, no good roads, no good schools anymore. Everything was better before with Communism, then these politicians come to tell us make changes. I was teenager then. Communist bad people, but before, you could live. Now everything shit.
“I coming in Canada because I think in Canada better life. No better life, same shit. Rent go up, food cost go up, but wages is always the same. Same like Romania. But now I don’t go back. If I go back, it’s like I tell my family that I give up.”
Miri cleared his throat and looked away. He felt like he’d said too much; now he changed the direction of the conversation. “You have other city in Alberta?”
“Ah. Ed-i-mon-ton. What Edmonton like?”
“I used to live in Edmonton. I like it there – better than Calgary, but not like Montreal. In Edmonton, the whole city is divided in two; there is a river that goes through it. If you live south of the river, you maybe have more money, but everyone on the north of the river is very poor. People in Calgary think they are better than us. Edmonton is dirtier; many people are poor there.”
“And that’s in Alberta!” Miri’s eyes widened, his tone depressed. Maybe he wanted to go to Alberta to work – I quickly added, “but no, a guy like you, you know machines, you have good experience in the trade, you can make good money if you go there.”
We talked this way every day for two weeks. I learned to run the machine, how to make temporary fixes on the decrepit machine, how to load the bar stock properly onto the automatic feeder so that it didn’t jam the machine, and how to adjust the computerized settings.
During these two weeks, I’d been working twelve hours a day. My back hurt. My feet hurt. My neck was pinched and tight. I finished the two-week training just before the Christmas holiday began.
It was midnight. I waved goodbye to the Romanian, punched my card under the surveillance camera, and walked into the cold winter air.
But after a year, I hadn’t gotten anywhere. I wasn’t learning anything new about the trade, and I wasn’t being allowed to learn anything. I saw White guys getting hired and being sent into more challenging jobs that I could easily have done just as well. I kept getting colds and coughs.
In January, I resolved to quit. I walked in on a cold and wintery Tuesday to pick up my toolbox.
As I walked out, I shook Kumar’s hand and thanked him for how he’d pushed me to go back to school. I shook hands with Jacques. I shook the hand of the shop steward. I shook hands all around. Miri had the day off; Pierre had quit the week before.
Another winter’s blast on a clear, cold day. I boarded the bus, a free man again.
I’d have my moments of regret for quitting that job. It was tough to make ends meet. EI wouldn’t give me benefits, because I’d voluntarily quit my job to go back to trade school. So I had to find part-time work in the evenings, while my girlfriend took care of the household with her $9-an-hour babysitting work.
I worked for a while at a call centre. The work was simple and undemanding. But the atmosphere drove me crazy; it was mostly teenage kids making pocket money after school. The few adults who worked there only reminded me of how little dignity there was in life. They didn’t want to be there; and neither did I. We did it for the paycheque.
I kept putting out the resumes. A month later I was called in for an interview at a plastics factory. I made my way down, after school, for the interview. The shop was deep in the East of Montreal – past the government offices in the Olympic Village, past the rust-riddled ports and the dockworkers’ union hall, past the gleaming Johnson & Johnson factory, beyond the military training area.
As the bus rolled by each landmark, I noticed campaign signs from the provincial by-election. “For an immediate freeze on immigration!” said the ADQ signs. They didn’t even bother putting up the candidate’s face; they were a party of the message. Parti Quebecois signs made a prominent point of featuring the dark complexion of their candidate Maka Kotto, a former actor in Quebecois films, who was an immigrant from Cameroon.
I’d never put much stock in the PQ – or tokenism – but for this move, I nodded automatically in approval. Kotto had moved from federal politics to the provincial scene that year, 2008. When he’d defeated a Quebecois Liberal candidate federally in 2004, the loser had commented “Go see the nigger that the people just elected.” Kotto had responded, “The term nigger is used to designate slaves, and I am not a slave.”
When I arrived at the company, there was a short interview, and I was hired on the spot. The personnel manager who had hired me, a Quebecois woman, took me downstairs to see the shop floor and introduce me to my new foreman.
The foreman – a thin, clean-cut Sri Lankan – asked me where I was from. The personnel manager stood to one side, as the 100-foot-long, two-storey high machines whirred loudly, spinning plastic threads into massive coils.
“I’m half Italian, half Sri Lankan, but born in Canada,” I recited.
“Oh!” exclaimed the Quebecois woman, “Sri Lanka! That’s good for you, there are many Sri Lankans here.”
The foreman regarded me with mild suspicion. “We’ll train you,” he said. I extended my hand and said it was nice to meet him. He shook limply, looking me in the eyes.
“You’ll be working in extrusion molding,” said the woman as we turned to see the rest of the floor. “Those guys are serious, they know how to work. Not like the guys in injection molding. I don’t understand, these people are all from the same country,” (she tried to hide her embarrassment as she immediately recognized her faux pas) “but some of them work hard, and some of them don’t.”
Her observation, of course, had led inexorably to the conclusion that one’s national origin is not a reliable measure of one’s work ethic. Apparently, it had come as some sort of shocking revelation to this pleasant and smiling woman.
At the plastics factory, most of the workers were Sri Lankans. In the lunchroom, the dominant languages were Tamil first, English second. Even the calendar on the wall was in Tamil. Yes, there were a few Arabs, a few Chinese people, some Latinos and some Blacks, but the place was run by Sri Lankan Tamils – from the management to the machine operators. It was the first time I’d been surrounded by so many of “my people.”
To them, of course, I was “Canadian.” I didn’t speak Tamil and had never even been to Sri Lanka. But, up to a certain point, I was one of them nonetheless.
Hired alongside me was a man in his thirties from Cote d’Ivoire. He spoke excellent English and impeccable French. He’d literally just arrived in Canada three weeks earlier, and was now working to save enough so that he could sponsor his wife and children. And he was going to do that making $8.75 an hour, just like me. Then he was going to go to university at UQAM or Université de Montréal for four years, so that he could regain the credentials that the Canadian government refused to recognize.
What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
“What did you do in Cote d’Ivoire?” I asked over lunch.
“Law.” He spoke in a tone of pride mixed with apprehension.
I’d nearly forgotten that I’d been to university, once, too. And I had completely shut out the memory that I’d once wanted to become a lawyer. These dreams had no use when the primary objective was to avoid starvation.
Neither my body, nor my mind, was capable of dealing with the pressures that trying to get my machining diploma, paying the bills, and eating properly all at the same time required of me.
If everything went correctly, I’d get up at 6:45 AM, be out the door by 7:15, and make it to school by 8 o’clock. Then, after seven and a half hours of trade school, I’d ride the bus for an hour and put in six solid hours of work every day. Then I’d ride the last bus of the night, an hour and a half back to my apartment. Often, I’d miss the bus and I’d have to walk two or three kilometres to another route. By the time I got home it would be midnight. Then I’d try to get to sleep for another seven hours. It didn’t take long for the cycle to utterly break down.
I was always exhausted, but my body refused to shut down at night. The twin battles against insomnia and starvation became the defining challenges of my life. If I wanted to get to sleep, I’d have to reduce the amount of time I spent working in front of machines and breathing industrial fumes. If I wanted to pay the rent and buy food, I’d have to work. So the choices were to sleep and starve, or to eat and stay exhausted. I began to arrive late to school in order to catch a few hours of sleep.
The foreman’s assistant, another Sri Lankan, took a liking to me. He’d help me out and show me what I needed to do. He saw how tired I always was, but tried to push me to work harder. I honestly did my best: I took pride in doing my job well and in earning the approval of my co-workers with my work ethic. But right from the beginning I could tell my days were numbered. With my constant insomnia and the long day that had already passed at school, I was too tired to work as hard as the job demanded. I resolved to make the best of it, to make the job last as long as I could, before the inevitable.
One night, after about two weeks of training, I was working at the machine when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a White man. It was the first White person I’d seen on the shop floor since the day I’d been hired.
I threw my shoulders back a little to look more professional and concentrated all the more studiously on my work. As tired and foggy as my brain was, my instinctive reaction showed that I knew he was the “big-boss.”
“That is the boss,” the assistant confirmed as the White man left. “We have to show him that we work hard to impress him. We are not White people, my friend; no one will help us if we don’t have job. We have to stay working, so we have to show him we are working.” His tone was strained, urgent, as if he were trying to convey something to me that I was having difficulty understanding.
I say this because there was no object to this feeling of hatred. Did I hate the boss? No, he hadn’t personally done anything to me except smile and shake my hand to welcome me to the company. He was the boss and I was a new worker. If the power dynamics of capitalism in the workplace were unjust, there was still really no point in pretending there was any other option in the immediate future.
Besides, many other companies would turn you away immediately upon seeing your skin colour; here this White man hired you at minimum wage – but he’d allowed several Sri Lankans to work their way up into high-ranking management positions. There was no other company I’d seen which had done more to help establish the Sri Lankan community in Montreal.
Did I hate myself for reacting so instinctively to the presence of white skin? No. He really was the boss, and I was correct in assuming he was the boss because he was White. And in front of the boss, you show how hard you can work.
Did I hate the racist way in which class distinctions overlapped with national and racial backgrounds? Not anymore. I didn’t have the energy to be angry at such injustices when they formed such an integral part of my daily life. It was more important for me to bring home a paycheque.
So as I watched the retreating form of the decrepit man who had given us work, I merely hated.
The Sri Lankan foreman was constantly shouting at my Ivoirian co-worker, although he never raised his voice to me. As a new employee, I couldn’t do anything about it, but I wanted to say something to show the Ivoirian that I was a fellow worker, that I wasn’t bound by ethnic loyalties.
I tried to tell him once how I didn’t like the way the foreman was always shouting at him – sometimes for mistakes that I had made. Before I’d finished my sentence, he interrupted me with a laugh. “He’s not doing anything to me,” he contradicted, “He’s not treating me differently.”
Ok. I didn’t push the point.
One day, I overheard as the foreman ordered his assistant, “Tell him if he doesn’t want to work properly, he can go home early today.” Since he spoke in English and not Tamil, I’m sure the foreman intended me to hear and understand. He was showing that he – just like the boss – had the power to decide whether or not you would eat.
“It’s only because I’m new, I’m not used to the work,” protested the Ivoirian. “I want to work, I just have to learn, that’s all.” But it did no good. He hoisted his bag on his shoulder as he walked out the door.
It was very quiet but for the constant hum of the machines.
I straightened my back and tried to apply myself to my work.
The Ivoirian came in for work the next day and we worked alongside each other. I said hello. He responded, and we both looked away uncomfortably.
And as we worked, utterly alien thoughts began to form in my tired mind. I’m too ashamed of what I thought to record it in print. I began to feel a sense of superiority to this immigrant, this Black man. I felt an irrational disdain for him, though I knew this was completely illogical given my race, my own position in life and my puny status in this company.
I tried to shove the thoughts out of my head, but they came back with all the more force. I don’t know if what I was thinking was written on my face, but I’m sure it must have been.
Late that night, I boarded the bus and the day passed before my tired mind. In a flash of recognition, I realized that I now, for the first time, understood what it was to be White. I suddenly realized why every White person I’d ever met seemed to display some variant of condescension or hostility.
These racist ideas running around in my fevered brain were the insults and stereotypes I’d picked up about Black people when I myself had been on the receiving end of White racism. They were there, in my own mind, beneath the surface, just like they were for every White person – indeed, for everyone in a racist society. It had taken specific conditions of stress and environment, but now they were beginning to express themselves consciously in my mind.
In this factory, I rarely, if ever, saw a White person. The environment was almost wholly Sri Lankan, and so was I. The visible authority figures were Sri Lankan. If I tried to fight them, I’d lose my job. I had therefore identified, at a subconscious and unwilling level, with the foreman against my co-worker.
And in this insular environment of belonging to the majority, that hatred without object which I felt – the blunted, wandering hatred of capitalism and racism, and that feeling of powerlessness before a White boss and a Sri Lankan foreman – had altered into a feeling of superiority over a picked-on minority.
I suddenly understood, with far more clarity than I’d ever had, why the ADQ had been so successful, if only for a while.
The White workers of Quebec, like us, had been oppressed by a declining health care system, a shrinking economy, and an increasingly inaccessible education system for their children.
They hated, as we hated.
Our collective anger had at first been directed at the government, building toward a general strike in 2003, but the labour leadership had deprived us of a constructive outlet for that justifiable rage, by scuttling plans for the strike.
The student demonstrations of 2005 had been a vicarious outlet. People showed up in the tens of thousands to demonstrate alongside the students. But as much as it tried, the student leadership had lacked a full political understanding of how to appeal to workers and bring them into the strike movement. The student strike had dissipated without answering the problems of the workers.
But for the White workers, though they hadn’t been able to fully understand it, a part of them psychologically identified with the very people who were making our lives so difficult. Their political leaders and their employers were White, as they were White. After the failure of the strike movement, it was easier to feel superior to immigrants and minority workers who were more vulnerable than they were, than to fight against someone who exercised so much power over them.
The “accommodation debate” was a conscious attempt by a threatened section of the capitalist class to stir up this underlying feeling, to redirect class hatred by publicly picking on minorities, and channelling the political discontent with both the PQ and the Liberals through the false “alternative” of the ADQ.
This is exactly what had broken the union at Precision Tools. The inaction of the union movement, coupled with preferential treatment from the Italian employer, had served as a justification for the Italians’ ethnically-driven identification with the employer. They turned around against the Haitian workers who had never had a choice but to support the union: the employer wasn’t doing them any favours.
And we, the minorities, could not respond in the face of such crushing force. Some of us might now hate White people instead of the government, but even if we did, there could still be no outlet for that hate. White workers still had more power than we did because of what they had in common with the employers and politicians – their skin colour.
So we would redirect that hatred once again upon the less powerful – to hate the Arabs when we were not Arab, to hate Blacks when we were not Black, to hate ourselves and deny there was a problem: rather than raise our heads before those who wielded such power over us.
This is how you divide and rule. The strategy the ADQ was using had worked with White workers across Quebec. The boss had used it on the Italians at Precision Tools. In the hands of a Sri Lankan foreman at this plastics factory, it was beginning to work on me.
I called in sick the next day. I had only been at the job for three weeks, so I knew what would come. That Friday, I was laid off.
The following Tuesday, I received a letter from the trade school administration informing me that, due to my constant tardiness, I had been deleted from the machining program.
I’d lost the battle with insomnia and starvation.
The ADQ lost the by-election to Maka Kotto.
Mon pays, c’est pas un pays, c’est un hiver.