Teen files complaint against Alberta meat plant after dad dies of COVID-19

CBC Kids News • Published 2021-01-13 16:18

Worker safety is top priority at Cargill plant, company says

Ariana Quesada is done waiting. She said she wants to “finally bring justice” to her family.

Her father, Benito Quesada, was hospitalized in mid-April after catching COVID-19 as hundreds of people got sick at the meat-packing plant where he worked.

He died one month later.

Ariana, 16, said she and her family have stayed quiet since his death — until now.

Last week, the teen walked into the RCMP detachment in High River, Alberta, and launched a formal complaint.

“My dad would want us to do everything that we can.” — Ariana Quesada, 16

She’s asking police to look into the death of her father.

“[It’s] the justice that he deserves, that he’s been deprived of,” Ariana told CBC News.

Her father was one of at least 950 staff at the town’s Cargill meat plant to have tested positive for the virus by early May.

Now, Ariana and her family are demanding accountability from Cargill, saying the company didn't do enough to protect Quesada from the virus.

An exterior view of Cargill's meat-processing facility in High River, Alberta.

Cargill's meat-processing facility in High River, Alberta, is now facing an RCMP investigation and a proposed class-action lawsuit following a large COVID-19 outbreak at the plant. (Image credit: Justin Pennell/CBC)

RCMP gets involved

On Friday, the RCMP confirmed it had opened an investigation.

This is the first known instance in Canada of police investigating a workplace-related COVID-19 death.

Staff Sgt. Greg Wiebe, the detachment commander, told CBC News that the investigation is in its early stages.

No charges have been laid and the allegations have not yet been tested in court.

Largest workplace outbreak in Canada

The outbreak at the Cargill plant remains the largest workplace outbreak in Canada. 

Slaughterhouses and meat-processing facilities were considered essential by governments because they are part of the national food supply chain.

Cargill stayed open as the pandemic worsened and continued operating until April 20, when it was shut down for two weeks because of the growing outbreak among its staff.

The company responds

Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan declined to comment without seeing the police complaint, but said that safety is a top priority for the company.

“Maintaining a safe workplace has long been one of our core values,” he said in an email.

A look inside the Cargill facility near High River, Alberta, before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. The picture shows workers working closely beside one another.

A look inside the Cargill facility near High River, Alberta, before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. (Image credit: Name withheld)

Complaints about conditions

The Quesadas allege that Cargill failed to listen to early public health warnings and failed to protect workers from a known, deadly threat.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that workers on production lines were not physically distant and lunchrooms were crowded, with tables less than half a metre apart.

The complaint also claims that the company’s medical personnel cleared workers for duty despite positive COVID-19 tests or symptoms and that workers faced unpaid, temporary layoff if they didn't report for work out of fear of the virus.

Ariana is 'fearless' and 'courageous,' union says

“Employers need to do far better than what happened in High River in the spring,” said Michael Hughes, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been helping the Quesada family with its complaint.

In filing the complaint, Hughes said, Ariana is “fearlessly and courageously facing down one of the largest multinational companies in the world.”

“Ariana is telling the world that her father’s life mattered,” he said in an email to CBC Kids News. 

“There is perhaps no act more courageous than that which Ariana is doing right now.”

What happens next?

It could take months or years for Ariana to get the answers she’s looking for.

Hughes said filing a complaint is just the first step. 

“Justice requires a proper investigation to take place,” he said, “and that just takes time.” 

“Ariana is aware that the wheels of justice turn slowly and that outcomes doesn’t always turn out the way we might like.” 

Meanwhile, Ariana and her three siblings continue to grieve the loss of their beloved father, who was a 51-year-old immigrant from Mexico.

Ariana during an interview with CBC News outside of the RCMP detachment in High River, Alberta.

Ariana says she and her family recently realized that their dad would want them to do everything they can to make sure something like this never happens again. (Image credit: Justin Pennell/CBC)

‘I feel wronged,’ Ariana says

“There’s not a moment that goes by that we don’t think of him,” she said.

Ariana said she hopes the investigation will prove that Cargill “knows what they did wrong” and give her and her family the courage to keep going.

“I feel very deprived, I feel wronged and I feel the need to make my dad proud — that what he went through, it won’t happen again,” she said.

"I will make sure that Cargill never forgets him. And I will make sure that neglect and my dad's name is always associated with Cargill,” she said.

Feeling worried?

It’s important to note that of 674,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada since March 2020, around 85 per cent of Canadians have recovered from the virus.

Feeling upset or stressed out about COVID-19? If so, Kids Help Phone is here to help.

You can live chat, text or call the counselling service any time to a mental health professional.

With files from Dave Seglins, Sarah Rieger, Inayat Singh/CBC

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