MISSOULA, MONTANA - There is a hidden America. In this nation of plenty in which fly the banners of so many a proud heritage, a country rich in variety and strengthened by diversity, there are untold stories of hardship. The American story includes the narratives of those shadowy figures that hover at the periphery of mainstream life, eking out what they can from the margins, getting by while hiding out and hoping for a better day, if not for themselves, then for their children.
Such are the stories of the tens of millions of Canadians who cross their country's vast border with our own each year seeking opportunities undreamt of in their glacial homeland. Some come on foot, braving the elements, skittering along makeshift rope bridges spanning the icy chasms that separate the world of their birth from the world of their ambitions. Others come by leaky canoes, poled along by human traffickers known as kayotes. Some stow away aboard lumber trucks destined for the gilded frontier. Others crowd together and storm border crossings in plaid avalanches that claim dozens of lives each year, human statistics trampled beneath the lemming galoshes of their countrymen.
But however they come, man or woman, young or old, they come in their multitudes, desperation in their steely eyes, the pulse of thick, cholesterol-dense blood in their blue trappers' veins, and wherever they settle down they transform the communities they join, whether for better, or, as many sources claim, for worse. In this series we will uncover just some of the truths that lie hidden in this secret America, this world of oddly pronounced vowels and conspicuous courtesy, this dark, secret world of the Sapbacks.
At the turn of the current century, Missoula was a town with a population of a mere 65,000 souls, most employed as insurance underwriters for one of the three-dozen agricultural giants that base out of the area owing to its low taxation and historically lax enforcement of industrial regulations. Packaged food giant ConAgra Foods, the largest employer in the region, moved its headquarters to Missoula from Omaha in 2004 when regulators overseeing its previous site stalled the company's plans to launch a line of all-sodium drink additive under the brand name "Mister Quenchy." Since its relocation, ConAgra has begun full-scale strip-mining of Western Montana's MSG deposits. In that undertaking it employs some half-million miners at the state minimum wage of three dollars a day plus once monthly use of the company's mule. Almost all of the miners employed by ConAgra come from Canada. Most of them have been displaced from their traditional sources of livelihood. Virtually none have valid immigration documents.
As a result of large-scale industrial undertakings like ConAgra's, Missoula today is a sprawling metropolis of over four million. The wretched conditions of its makeshift shanty-towns place it just ahead of Detroit on the United Nations' list of places not to be visited by Asian dignitaries during photo ops to put a kind face on globalization.
Sol Epstein is an undocumented Canadian employed in the ConAgra mines. Like most Canadians, Sol speaks no English. He communicates with his fellow Canadians in a pidgin known as Canglois, a blend of several tribal dialects and Canada's official language, Sumerian. Through an interpreter, Epstein shared part of his story with me.
"I am a furrier," he said. "Like my father and his father before him and also my Aunt Vicki, who was accepted by the men for her mustache, I furred. For as long as anyone in my village can remember, we trapped the beaver. Great Father Beaver gave us his oily pelts and his scaly tails and we thanked him with offerings of sorghum. Like furriers all over the world, we furred by day, slept by night and biddy-biddy-bummed like wealthy men. But then the Yanqui came and told us we must fur no more. So instead we planted the Yanqui's maize. But it would not grow in our soil of pure gypsum. So then we went hungry. Some of us would try again to trap Great Father Beaver, but he would give his pelt and tail only grudgingly and when we could gain a pelt, we could not sell it for today the Yanqui wants only hats made of the Southern Man's cotton. So we starved."
By his own account, Epstein has been in the U.S. nearly five years now and has returned home only once, to attend his daughter's fifteenth birthday celebration, a traditional ceremony called, in Canadian, a soixante-sans-quarante-cinq-aǌera.
"I miss my family," he says. "This winter my oldest son, Mgabo, will undergo the manhood rite. Should he pass his trial, clinging to the braided whiskers of a caribou as it tramples a warehouse floor of threshed rye, he will become a leader in our village. But I will not be there to see it. The company charges me almost as much to rent a shovel as it pays me in one week. What little I have left I must spend on Sterno to warm my lentils. I haven't any means to travel. Some nights I curse the gods for making me be born Canadian."
In the ghetto Epstein calls home, scurvy, cholera and scabies are widespread. Occasional visits from Doctors Without Borders do little to halt the spread of disease.
"Each week," says Hans Frenkle, a volunteer surgeon, "I see more cases than the week before. We have typhus here, malaria, smallpox, and more herpes than you can shake a stick at."
And the situation is not restricted to the camps. According to Missoula officials, nearly one-third of all students in the city's public schools are Canadian, some born in the U.S., others smuggled across the border by their parents. "It's a difficult choice," says Monica Byrd, principal of South-Central Missoula's Sutherland Middle School. "Either we refuse to educate the Canadians, and accept their presence among us as unwashed barbarians, or we teach them the best we can, disrupting the progress of our own children and bleeding our public coffers dry."
School officials we spoke to were reticent to comment upon the incidence of violence associated with the growing population of Canadian students. But while we were in Missoula, two Canadian students at Guy Lombardo High, on Missoula's gang-ruled North Side, pelted a native-born Montana boy with rocks while screaming at him, "Give us us free!" The victim, seven-year-old Stephen Furman, was admitted to Missoula General Hospital and treated for third-degree shame.
In future installments we will examine the deeper issues that affect Canadian immigration. We will consider the views and opinions of experts on both sides of the debate regarding our more than 5,000-mile northern border and we will explore programs underway to halt the tide of Canadization in states like Montana through relief and development of Canada's own resources. We offer no platitudes about this difficult topic and we promise no clear answers to the complex questions that arise when considering the lives of our fellow human beings. But we promise to look at the problem from every angle.
In Part Two of this series, "A Home at the End of the World," we will examine the squalid, prehistoric lives of Canadians in their natural habitat to gain a deeper understanding of how and why our desperate neighbors in the frigid north have become a force that each day furthers the mapling of America.