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Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 12:29 UK

New face of Canada's lumberjacks

By Michel Arseneault
Dolbeau-Mistassini, Quebec

It is already 4am, a little late for breakfast.

African lumberjack Jean-Pierre Murangira in northern Canada. Photo: Guillaume Simoneau
African immigrants make up the bulk of the region's forestry workers

In a fiercely-lit canteen, dozens of forestry workers in oilskin jackets are swallowing eggs and ham. It is a typical work-camp meal in northern Canada. Yet these workers are not typical - most hail from Africa.

The loggers are employed by a forestry management company, Amenagement Myr, which is based in a town called Dolbeau-Mistassini, 300km (186 miles) north-west of Quebec City.

The company has hired some locals, but none are around. They have all left the camp to spend a long weekend with their families in nearby towns and villages.

The Africans who work here do not take weekends off. Montreal, where they have left wives and children behind, is not a weekend destination. Driving there takes almost seven hours.

Raymond Bertrand Neabo, 28, worked for a French bank in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, after graduating from university there. After moving to Canada in 2006, he found that prospective employers deemed his business administration degree useless. So he started a second degree from scratch.

For him, logging is a well-paying summer job that has, however, forced him to leave his pregnant wife behind in Montreal. "It's very hard work," he said in French. "You cannot get used to it. It's like winter."

'Pay to learn'

Workers use brush cutters and power saws that look like oversized weed-whackers but roar like motorcycles, to "thin" the forest. This means removing small deciduous trees, usually birch, to allow commercially valuable spruce and fir trees to thrive.

Early morning breakfast in the canteen. Photo: Guillaume Simoneau
Life is tough away from home, and some get homesick

It is physically demanding work that many of the workers would never have done back home. Many speak a polished French that conveys their urban, middle-class backgrounds.

Amenagement Myr initially hired a man from Ivory Coast in the late 1990s. The word quickly spread in the African community that there was money to be made in the bush.

Now, the majority of the camp's 90 employees are African-born. Another local forest management company, Foresterie DLM, also primarily employs African immigrants.

After moving to Montreal, Thomas Shase, a 25-year-old Nigerian, first started working in telemarketing, phoning resentful people who sometimes told him to "go back to Africa".

He then heard about the forestry job. "It's hard, my brother, but it's better than Montreal," he said. "The forest is peaceful. You get to think. But the best part is the money."

At least these mosquitoes don't give you malaria
Leonard Haninahazwa
From Burundi

Amenagement Myr, who works under contract for AbitibiBowater Inc, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, pays them $500 (US$472, 266) per hectare "thinned". This means that experienced brush cutters earn good money if they clear three or four hectares a week. Beginners, however, do not earn good money.

"You pay to learn," admits Mario Richard, who owns and runs Amenagement Myr.

Some locals have accused him of luring Africans to work as cheap labour.

"I pay everyone the same," he says. "Whether you're black or white, green or yellow makes no difference to me as long as you can do the job."

Mr Richard believes that his African employees have more stamina, noting that the overwhelming majority tough it out until the end of the season.

Homesick

By 5am, the workers pile into a school bus that bumps along pot-holed forest roads and log bridges.

They have packed sandwiches, fresh fruit and pre-packaged desserts. But there is a cap on everything. The company says it is essential that no uneaten food be thrown out for fear of attracting black bears.

African lumberjack Diallo Mamadou in northern Canada. Photo: Guillaume Simoneau
The work is physically demanding

What loggers most fear are snakes. The land is covered in "slash", the unwanted branches, tops and stumps that were removed during clear-cut logging operations more than a decade ago. The garter snakes that live there are harmless, but workers remain watchful.

Mosquitoes are the real issue. The loggers douse themselves with a powerful insect repellent supposed to protect them for six hours, but they sweat it off in an hour.

Burundian Leonard Haninahazwa tries to see the bright side. "At least," he remarks, "these mosquitoes don't give you malaria."

The bus drops the loggers off. Within minutes, the brush cutters are whizzing and whirring. These workers are in effect selecting the spruce trees that will be felled in 30 to 40 years. If the brush wood is not cleared, it will take these trees twice as long to mature.

The school bus is back at the camp by 6.30pm. Visibly exhausted loggers fan out to their trailers. After a quick shower they return to the canteen for an all-you-can-eat supper.

By 9pm, those who are still awake are firing off e-mail messages on the one computer they can use.

Some workers look a little downcast. One African, who declined to give his name, said he was homesick.

"In Montreal, my wife massages me every morning," he said. "Here, I only get massaged by the mosquitoes."




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Canada
12 Jun 08 |  Country profiles

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