Calgary

'I am so, so sad': Husband, friends of Cargill worker who died from COVID-19 honour her in memorial

Friends and family held a memorial Monday for Hiep Bui — a southern Alberta woman who is the only person to have died from COVID-19 among hundreds of workers with confirmed cases at the Cargill meat-processing plant in southern Alberta.

Friends and family hold memorial for Hiep Bui, who worked at meat-packing plant for more than 2 decades

Hiep Bui, left, and husband Nguyen Nga. Bui, as she was known to her co-workers at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., died of COVID-19 amid an outbreak that has affected hundreds of her fellow workers. (Left, ActionDignity Facebook page/right, Dave Gilson, CBC)

Friends and family held a memorial Monday for Hiep Bui — a southern Alberta woman who is the only person to have died from COVID-19 among hundreds of workers with confirmed cases at a meat-processing plant in southern Alberta.

Bui, as she was known to her co-workers, died in late April shortly after contracting the coronavirus while employed at the Cargill plant near High River, south of Calgary.

Her death remains the only fatality out of 921 cases of the virus at the plant — the largest outbreak linked to a single location in North America, according to Canadian and U.S. health figures. The facility has 2,000 workers.

  • Watch as workers return to the Cargill meat-packing plant despite COVID-19 fears, in the video below.
Meat-packing plant in High River is up and running once again, despite COVID-19 fears 2:26

Since her death, few details have been known publicly about Bui — which was one reason that community social justice group ActionDignity helped organize a memorial that was streamed live via Facebook on Monday, the day that the Cargill plant was reopening amid union attempts to block the move.

The non-profit group says it helps Calgary's ethnocultural communities strive for full civic participation and integration through collaborative action. Many of the workers at the Cargill plant are immigrants or temporary foreign workers.

Bui Thi Hiep loved her job at the Cargill meat-packing plant, her friends said. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Bui, who was in her sixties, had worked at the plant for more than two decades since moving to Canada from southern Vietnam.

"Hiep Bui does not deserve to be simply known as 'The Vietnamese worker from Cargill who died of COVID-19,'" ActionDignity said in a release.

"She loved working and diligently did so under refrigerated temperatures eight hours daily going to work, and has been with Cargill for more than 23 straight years, meticulously picking out beef bones from hamburger meat."

The woman's husband, Nguyen Nga, speaking through a Vietnamese interpreter, said he was touched by the love demonstrated by the memorial event.

"I am so, so sad. I am speechless, because I know I will not see my wife again," he said.

He explained that it all happened very quickly, and that, at first, they believed she might just have the flu.

Nguyen also said he hopes Cargill is able to ensure the plant is safe so there are no more deaths.

Cargill announced April 20 it was temporarily shutting down operations for two weeks at the plant, which provides about 40 per cent of the beef processing in Canada.

It said that one shift would resume work on Monday with bolstered safety measures.

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw has said Alberta Health Services officials have done on-site inspections and have been assured the facility is safe.

But Thomas Hesse with the United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 401 said workers are scared, and the local tried to get a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. On Monday, he said that effort had so far failed, but that negotiations were ongoing.

A statement from Cargill said all employees who are "healthy and eligible to work" have been asked to report for work for the plant's two shifts.

"According to health officials, the majority of our employees remain healthy or have recovered. We are grateful for our workers' dedication and resilience as our plant and community walks through this heart-wrenching pandemic," said the statement.