'I was so sad': Brandon students speak out against federal cuts to Maple Leaf English classes

Workers at Brandon's Maple Leaf Foods plant are speaking out against proposed cuts by the federal government that would impact their English language training.

The plant's union says federal funding will run out at the end of June

A class of EAL students at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 832 in Brandon, Man. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Workers at Brandon's Maple Leaf Foods plant are speaking out against proposed cuts by the federal government that would impact their English language training. 

"I was in shock," said Tetiana Melnichenko, who works on the cut floor at the pork-processing plant. "It is very important for me and for our family to study English and to improve our English. I was shocked in a bad way."

United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832, which represents workers at the processing plant, says the federal government has given them notice that their funding for the language training will be "largely or completely" cut at the end of June.

"I'm still hoping the problem will be solved and we'll have a chance to continue our lessons," Melnichenko said.

She and her husband moved to Canada from Ukraine three years ago. They had been living in Thompson, but moved to Brandon specifically to take English courses. 

Tetiana Melnichenko, who moved from Ukraine to Canada three years ago, hopes to work here as an accountant. Without English classes, she won't be able to. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)
She's currently working on level 7 English classes, the second-highest of the the Canadian Language Benchmarks system — the system used to measure standards for English and French in Canada

A university graduate and accountant in Ukraine, she was working at Maple Leaf to upgrade her English to enable her to enroll in school, with hopes of working in accounting here.

UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger said without the funding, the union will longer be able to offer classes above level 4. 

'I want to keep studying'

Zhen Li, who also works at the plant, is at level 5. She had high hopes of opening a restaurant in Brandon with her husband. Without taking English classes while she works, those hopes may be dashed for now.

"I was so sad," Li said when asked for her reaction to hearing of the cuts. "I want to keep studying." 

Li said she may have to study on the internet if she can't continue classes, and hopes she can help her husband with his English skills.

Zhen Li hopes to open a restaurant with her husband in Brandon one day. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)
Traeger said the union graduates about 200 people from language training per year. It operates 10 classes per semester with 10 students each. After federal funding runs out at the end of June, Traeger said the union may have to cut back to six classes of eight students.

"We're going to do everything we can with or without government funding," Traeger said at the UFCW's Brandon training centre on Tuesday. "There have been some really good success stories."

Claudia Colocho is a union representative in Brandon and went through the program. 

"I can't even explain it … it was my basic learning of English," said Colocho, who came to Canada from El Salvador in 2005 as a temporary foreign worker. "It was the basis for learning all of the English I know now.

Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832, said the union will have to scale its English language classes back due to federal funding cuts. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)
"My only training was a month of English instruction in El Salvador," she added. "I learned the colours, the seasons and the numbers one to 10. And now I'm able to file a grievance and represent my fellow immigrant community."

The program is funded by the government, the union and Maple Leaf. Traeger hopes the union can work out a deal with Maple Leaf to keep programming running after the federal funding runs out. 

Melnichenko hopes so as well. 

"I would like to continue education here in Canada," she said. "I feel like every day I make myself better ... it is very very important for me." 

The federal government told CBC News earlier this month that it could not discuss funding decisions for specific organizations.