Register Tuesday | April 16 | 2024

Welcome to Canadaville

A corporate vision of hope in rural Louisiana

It’s near midnight on Independence Day and Shane Carmichael is covering himself in mosquito repellant. The overworked barbecues simmer while fourteen-year-old Brandon Grant and his friends set off firecrackers in front of the half-finished Welcome Center. They yelp and holler as they ignite the wick of another ten-ball roman candle.

“Which one of you guys is going to rebuild the Welcome Center if it goes up in flames?” Carmichael jokes.

“You will Mister Shane,” one of the boys shouts back. Carmichael laughs nervously. It’s the third time in forty-five minutes he’s made a joke about stray sparks hitting his Welcome Center.

Carmichael is no mayor or sheriff, but he runs the show in Canadaville, an upstart cluster of prefab homes located one kilometre outside of Simmesport, Louisiana. He calls himself a project manager, which tells you more about the nature of Canadaville than what it is he does here. Canadaville is more project than town, more refugee camp than community. Of course, Carmichael wants that to change, and the Welcome Center represents a key step toward the vision of those who sign his paycheque.

That vision, which involves turning this glorified trailer park into one of Louisiana’s largest organic farms, belongs to Frank Stronach, the Austrian-Canadian billionaire who runs Magna International. Stronach, now seventy-four, is a figure around whom swirl many carefully crafted stories, some of which are already hardening into myths. The best known: that he came to Canada with a measly $200 in his pocket, started making car parts in his garage, and now presides over a string of companies dealing in everything from auto parts to real estate to racetrack gambling—a $20 billion business empire that employs some eighty thousand people.

The latest Stronach story, the one in which Carmichael plays a part, begins with the magnate watching CNN. Stronach is deeply moved by images of the destruction left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. He gets on the phone and dispatches one of Magna’s directors, former Liberal MP Dennis Mills, to talk with officials from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Red Cross. A deal is struck, and by mid-September about 250 survivors from the Lower Ninth Ward—a depressed and notorious urban ghetto that was among the hardest hit areas in New Orleans—are airlifted out of New Orleans and given food and shelter at one of Stronach’s horse-racing facilities in Florida.

But Stronach isn’t satisfied. Over the years, he has grown tired of the arms-length approach to corporate philanthropy and ineffective donations. Seeing a unique opportunity for a hand up rather than a handout, Stronach launches into a corporate project that rivals in ambition any merger, acquisition or foreign-market expansion. He buys eight hundred acres of land beside the Atchafalaya River and decides to build a farming village from scratch, in the middle of sugarcane fields. Canadaville, the farm, is expected to double Louisiana’s paltry production of organic produce in a few short years. But more importantly, it will give shelter to people who have lost their homes while giving them job training and economic opportunities. The brochure could read: “Live for free and build a new life as an organic farmer—in Canadaville!”

That, at least, is the goal. In the eyes of Louisiana’s tax department, Canadaville is simply the non-profit company registered as Magnaville Louisiana USA Inc. At present, it consists of four paved roads, neat rows of mobile homes (designed by Toronto architects Giffels/NORR), some basketball courts, a catfish pond and the Welcome Center. A baseball pitch, a multipurpose sports-field and a community centre/storm shelter are in the works.

Nearby Simmesport (population 2,300) could certainly use the help. What industry it had closed shop during the 1990s and headed south to Latin America. Simmesport’s biggest business these days is a women’s prison. But if an economy is to emerge from the Canadaville project, its uprooted urbanite residents will first have to learn the disciplined rhythm of farming life: planting and tending to vegetables; buying, selling and caring for livestock. “Once people see this thing set up,” Mills has been quoted as saying, “it’s going to be a model of dignity and hope.”

Transforming city people into country folk is not easy, even in exchange for the five years of free rent that Stronach has promised Canadaville’s residents. Magna, to its credit, seems aware of the obstacles, and is starting small before it plunges headlong into the large-scale operation envisioned by Stronach. But Canadaville’s commercial centrepiece is still expected to turn a profit within a handful of years. The pressure is on.

The money for Canadaville comes mainly from Magna and its subsidiaries, and not from Stronach’s personal fortune. Magna’s corporate charter calls for the company to set aside 2 percent of its yearly profit for philanthropy, which is a greater percentage than many, if not most, big corporations are willing to shell out. The $10 million that Canadaville will receive over the next five years is intended to help wean its former Big Easy residents off the culture of dependency. Canadaville encourages residents to find a job, Carmichael explains, and will give them the tools to do so. Those who don’t find work are expected to volunteer around the site. “Community service contains the idea that you give something back,” he says. “It’s the idea of abundance whereby you foster opportunity for yourself.”

Carmichael certainly knows a thing or two about fostering opportunity. A Toronto event planner specializing in corporate barbecues, Carmichael made his reputation at the height of the mad cow epidemic in 2003 when he organized a quarter-mile of smoking grills and enlisted Canada’s top politicians to flip burgers. But he never thought he’d find himself managing a place like Canadaville. “I never thought I would be doing this,” he tells me. “But I’m not surprised given the Magna approach.”

The Magna approach, he explains, is what allows executives who normally run an auto-parts company to shift focus mid-gear, so to speak, and concentrate instead on building a housing subdivision. Instead of “profit,” the goal becomes “results.” It’s an expression of the peculiar type of free enterprise that Stronach has always advocated, one that goes easy on the rules of corporate governance but raises the bar for corporate charity.

Carmichael isn’t, however, doing it alone, nor is he the only one who believes in the project. Lisa and Jay Johnson, along with their thirteen-year-old daughter Jeralyn, count themselves proudly among Canadaville’s citizens. They had a mere $400 when they fled New Orleans. Watching footage of the flooded city a couple of days later, Lisa Johnson saw the wreckage of the hotel where she worked. “I fell to pieces,” she said. She was rushed to hospital not long after. “Devastation is something that you never know until you go through it. And I been there.” Her voice has a metallic lilt with soft edges, which lends it a certain warm sternness. Miss Lisa (as she is called here) is the community’s resident office manager and Carmichael’s right-hand woman. She speaks in a matter-of-fact tone and portrays a confidence in the present order of things. She is someone the psychologists might say is coping well.

“I don’t wonna people to think, hey, she’s in it because it’s free,” she says. “I’m here because God wants me to be.” God and Magna often get mentioned in the same sentence. Describing Carmichael, she says, “He’s the most wonderful man in my life, besides my husband.” Her husband, Jay, has several duties. Officially, he is the maintenance manager, but he does a bit of everything—mostly manual labour and what you might call motivational speaking. His role is largely symbolic: the affable liaison between management and the workers (or residents) enlisted to build Stronach’s enterprise. “Some of them just don’t want to work,” the former semi-pro quarterback admits. “No different from anywhere else, I s’pose.”

Despite all the project’s rent-free, crime-free, socially progressive glamour, many Canadaville residents have not been able to cope as easily as the Johnsons. Trauma, something the people here know well, represents the great intangible, the variable that infinitely complicates the equation Carmichael is trying to solve. A counsellor has set up a permanent office in the Welcome Center and his time is booked solid. The psychological impact of the hurricanes has left many unable to work as they battle personal demons (the suicide rate has nearly tripled in New Orleans since last fall). Children wet their beds dreaming about rising floodwaters.

Underlying all this is an attempt to rediscover some level of normalcy. Lonely women complain about how hard it is to find even casual partners. “They don’t need nothin’ on,” says one woman, after applying green paint to a series of fence posts—part of her training to become an organic farmer. “No toothbrush, no socks. Nothin’. Just a coat and a condom.” Fights have broken out between residents frustrated at having to share space with strangers. Canadaville may be in the middle of an open field, but it doesn’t take much for it to feel cramped.

Unemployed residents (about 40 percent of Canadaville’s population) bide their time, some doing just enough to keep Carmichael off their backs. “If you get used to the quiet,” Michael Thomas explains, “you be fine down here.” Thomas is standing by a tired-looking pick-up truck with empty beer cans and a broken fishing rod in the back. He spent twenty-four hours in traffic fleeing Katrina and ended up back in Simmesport—the same town he left twenty years ago after getting sick of early mornings on catfish boats.

“We should be lovin’ it,” he says, “you know, truly enjoyin’ it. I mean this here, you ain’t got no noise anymore. You ain’t got no killing like New Orleans had. All that turf talk and war talk. Down here you don’t have that. So if we keep it as it is, less grey hair I got to worry about puttin’ in my head.” With jobs scarce, however, and nothing to look at but sugarcane fields, there is a suffocating emptiness to the place.

The job situation doesn’t much bother Clarence D. Brown, Sr., at least not personally. He is seventy-six and retired. Just before the storm zeroed in on New Orleans, he and all of his grandchildren, nieces and nephews fled their Lower Ninth Ward home for Lafayette. Today he sits inside his hyper-air-conditioned trailer—his position noteworthy only insofar as he is not on his porch. All the mobile homes in Canadaville have both front and back porches, built with the help of Canadian carpenters. Brown Sr. leaves his only during the violent summer thunderstorms, to watch episodes of The Roy Rogers Show and to sleep.

“Right now, we don’t have no place to go. We jus’ relaxin’ a little awhile. You got no jobs or nuthin’. They have some activity right now. Maybe later on they goin’ have some more.” His voice trails off, then picks up again. “It’s a little lonesome, that’s what it is.”

Brown Sr. lives with his forty-eight-year-old son—Clarence D. Brown, Jr.—who was rescued from Katrina when a boat came level to the second-story window where he was hoping to sit out the storm. Neither man minces words when describing the crime-ridden “Lower Nine.” Brown Jr. calls it “chaos,” while his father laments that simple porch-sitting was dangerous. “I can’t tell you if I’m goin’ back or not,” Brown Sr. says. “Kinda hard for you to make your mind up right now, you know. Yeah, jus’ relax a little while, see how things goin’ happen. You know, it’s nice. This is the first time I ever been in a trailer.”

Canadaville is rife with such expressions of gratitude. One young mother of four, who had served three years in Iraq as a military police officer, told me she broke into tears when she saw the seventy-nine-piece silverware set that comes with every mobile home. “And it’s not that cheap silverware, it’s that heavy good stuff.” The trailers also come equipped with furniture and appliances.

“Humanity comes before systems,” asserts Carmichael. Over the past year he has discovered many such basic truths, which he brandishes from time to time in conversation. In a place where people get emotional over knives and forks, even the most euphemistic forms of management-speak become meaningful. But the plans for Canadaville that were laid out in the Magna boardrooms didn’t call for widespread unemployment or another dressed-up welfare system. Canadaville was conceived as a liberating and empowering expression of corporate philanthropy, a long-term alternative to the temporary shelter afforded by the FEMA camps. To date, that vision has been slow to materialize; residents are struggling to go beyond the complimentary comforts and make a home here. Mike Thomas has been going back and forth to New Orleans looking for work; he’s grown leery of what Stronach is promising.

“These people need Canadaville right now because they can’t go back,” Thomas says. “But I be willing to bet you that if you go from door to door, and say I’ll put you in a place like this in New Orleans—would you give this up to be back in New Orleans—I bet you ten to one everyone up in here say yeah. Yeah, I’m ready to go.”

The one-year anniversary of the hurricanes—Katrina and Rita hit in the span of about three weeks, Rita reflooding many parts of the city—has recently passed. The Lower Nine, along with many other parts of New Orleans, is still wallowing in its own wreckage. Canadaville may be a haven, but the scrutiny of its successes and failures will become increasingly intense. People—particularly the Magna board—want to see “results.”

Many of Canadaville’s biggest problems are yet to be resolved. High on the list of challenges: how to convince the workers (residents) to buy into a vision that many of them do not presently share. Some, like Lisa and Jay Johnson, are fervent believers, but most people have signed up for Stronach’s social experiment for anything but idealistic reasons. So far, Canadaville’s true appeal to hard-pressed evacuees is its accommodations: with three bedrooms and two bathrooms (complete with Jacuzzi), these mobile homes are a world away from the dank 240-square-foot trailers that FEMA provides.

Nonetheless, the turnover of residents was significant during the first year, and Carmichael is now on deadline to brand Canadaville, to give it a distinctive, attractive identity—something that will draw more true believers like the Johnsons. After all, personal redemption and economic surety are both on offer. Last Christmas, when Stronach visited the site for the first time, he said to Canadaville’s early residents, “We want to show the world that no matter where you’re born, no matter how poor you are, that you can succeed in life.”

Such utopian thinking has been around at least since Thomas More penned his book on the subject. Precipitous, often narrow assumptions about human nature are a necessary corollary to idealistic visions of a better social order. For Stronach et al., that means a necessary belief that the right environment will liberate individual potential.

The nineteenth-century industrialist Robert Owen held similar views about the relationship between environment and character when he set about reforming the Scottish factory-community of New Lanark. Happy workers are more productive workers, he felt. What makes workers happy? The right influences. Owen concluded that “everyone should be placed in the midst [of] those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations.” He believed this would make people “truly intelligent, moral and happy.”

New Lanark proved successful at first, and Owen tried to set up similar communities elsewhere. But all of them failed, and Owen became merely an interesting footnote in the annals of management theory. “He inherited and propagated the fallacy,” historian Harry W. Laidler explains, “taught freely in his day, that reason was the prime mover in human action.”

The Canadaville project is in danger of becoming another New Lanark, for the philosophy behind it appears to be based on similarly reductive assumptions about human action. There is a feeling here that the most successful residents are those who are most willing to sever ties to their past lives. New Orleans is their scrapbook, “the city that care forgot.” Canadaville is, in a sense, an attack on New Orleans and its way of doing business, a rejection of FEMA and the Bush administration, and a disavowal of Mayor Ray Nagin’s confused regime. It is a criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers and their fatalistic battle with nature. Move on, says Canadaville, start again—this time from nothing. Such onerous requests often fall from the lips of utopian religious leaders with malevolent stars in their eyes. It’s hard to predict the success of such a strategy when it comes from a corporate philanthropy fund.

For some, it’s an easy judgment to make. Lisa Johnson worked at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, which laid off most of its employees in the days following the hurricane. She then found herself defrauded out of thousands of dollars in government compensation. “In New Orleans, there is nothing,” she says, “but everybody gonna promise you everything.”

The difficulty, as Shane Carmichael puts it, is “humanity.” Not everyone wants to let go of their past. Tents are popping up in the Lower Ninth Ward in areas that won’t be rebuilt for years—in places where rats probably outnumber humans one hundred to one. There’s nowhere else to go, someone told me when I visited. They’d rather stick with the devil they know than the devil they don’t. Or, as fourteen-year-old Brandon Grant put it back in Canadaville: “I hate it when I’m there, but I miss it when I’m here.”

“The average twenty-five-year-old from New Orleans can’t live in no country like this here,” says Mike Thomas, gesturing around Canadaville. “He never would get adjusted to the quiet, because he used to goin’ somewhere: to the mall, get pizza, Burger King, McDonalds—ain’t got that here. So they can’t stay.” Thomas shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head. “Ain’t nothin’ to do.”

He looks out across the horizon of sugarcane fields. “If they levees hold up, then I may go back because that’s where you make the money.”

Canadaville, ultimately, is just an option. It offers the believer something fixed and dependable—a rare commodity when dealing with the birth of one community and the unacknowledged death of another. During the past year, the residents of Canadaville saw their homes disappear amid the collapse of their city and the system that brought a modicum of order to their lives. And no matter how corrupt and decayed that system may have been, it provided rules to a game they played and understood. Now, through some combination of luck and goodwill, they find themselves faced with an entirely new system with its own set of well-crafted rules and guarantees. For now, the only thing to do is negotiate the sacrifices necessary to shed those monikers of displacement—evacuee, survivor, victim—and call some place home.