In Brooks, one in five of the southern Alberta city’s roughly 14,000 residents works at the local meat-packing plant.

Having a city so reliant on one industry has put residents’ jobs at the highest risk of automation in Canada, according to one government report.

But rather than focus on fears of job-stealing robots, experts say the city should keep an eye on a different bogeyman — letting worries about automation lead to a decision to let technology lag behind.

“My concern with these kinds of sensationalist arguments concerning automation-eliminated jobs is that the reaction to that will be to try and curtail Canadian companies’ adoption of technology and overall innovation within Canadian companies,” said Creig Lamb, a senior policy analyst at the Brookfield Institute who studies the future of work.

“When we’re talking about automation we’re talking about improving our ability to produce things more efficiently and that grows the economy.”

‘Innovation is … key to survival’

Lamb is one of the authors behind a 2016 report which was used by Finance Canada to develop an analysis that was presented to federal ministers to discuss the risks different cities face.

That government analysis, first reported on by The Logic, stated Brooks was at the highest risk from automation in Canada, with 27.4 per cent of jobs potentially vulnerable to the impacts of automation based on current technology. 

Brooks has faced widespread job losses before.

After a 2012 E. coli outbreak at the city’s meatpacking plant caused an international beef recall, 2,000 workers were temporarily laid off. 

XL Foods cattle processing plant workers attend a news conference in Brooks, Alta., in 2012. That year, 2,000 workers were temporarily laid off — a huge blow to the small city. (The Canadian Press)

Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita said when the 2012 layoffs happened, there was a massive community effort to band together and support those who were out of work — an effort that was repeated in 2015 with the oil and gas downturn.

So he said it was initially scary to consider another number that could portend yet another major loss of jobs for the city.

“[But] I didn’t panic about it … you know there’s opportunities there as well,” he said. “Innovation is going to be key to survival.”

Lisa Tiffin, Brooks’ economic development manager, said the city is well aware of its precarious position.

“We know that there’s one big employer in town and there’s small towns across North America that when the factory closes, you know, jobs are lost, or when the mine closes, jobs are lost, so we’re not necessarily living in a fantasyland that thinks that nothing could ever happen,” Tiffin said.

“We have had a number of scares over the years and I won’t say that we’re completely perfectly prepared for the worst-case scenario but we definitely don’t have our heads in the sand.”

Automation doesn’t necessarily mean fewer jobs

While it sounds scary to have such a high percentage of a city’s jobs at risk, it doesn’t have to be, Lamb said.

“The one big thing that I typically focus on is just because a job can be automated does not mean that it will be,” he said.

There are other factors that go into a company’s decision to adopt technology to replace workers, Lamb said, like the cost of new technology versus labour, or pressures from industry competitors. And, often automation can create jobs by increasing productivity or demand for workers in other sectors. 

Eliminating jobs might not be our problem. Our problem might be that we don’t adopt automation technology enough …– Creig Lamb, Brookfield Institute

Lamb said a good example is the massive change Canada’s agriculture sector has seen over past decades. An industry that used to employ 30 per cent of Canadians now only employs around two per cent, but unemployment overall hasn’t increased despite that massive change.

“Market forces within the economy overall translate into more jobs being created than lost,” he said.

“Eliminating jobs might not be our problem. Our problem might be that we don’t adopt automation technology enough to improve our productivity and remain competitive against other international competitors.”

Canada does generally lag behind when it comes to automation, Lamb said.

The federal government hopes to change that with a recent $49.5-million investment to automate and digitize the country’s agriculture industry.

That could mean funds to make southern Alberta’s agriculture industry safer, easier, more efficient, or even better for the environment, said Cornelia Kreplin of Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network.

And, Kreplin said automation could actually help keep rural communities vibrant.

“We have an ageing farming community … what we find with the adoption of technology from other sectors and also the innovation of new technologies specifically for agriculture, we find that younger people are more interested in making agriculture their career,” she said.

An automated crop seeder and sprayer is demonstrated in Olds, Alta. The federal government is investing in agricultural automation. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

JBS, the current owner of the city’s meatpacking plant, said it doesn’t currently have big plans for automation — a spokesperson said the company remains focused on its current workforce and has done little automation so far. But the company has invested in automation technology abroad.

Tiffin said other than the federal government’s investments in automation, the City of Brooks is also eyeing economic diversification efforts, looking to emerging industries like cannabis and alternative energy generation.

Mayor Morishita said he hopes this discussion brings awareness to what he sees as a bigger concern than automation for the region — reliable internet access.

Rural internet access is a big problem in Canada, with only 37 per cent of rural homes having access to 50/10Mbps speeds compared to 97 per cent of urban homes in 2019.

“It’s ironic for industry to move forward in AI and robots and all that technology, they need robust access to internet, they need robust bandwidth and high speeds,” he said. 

“The fact is, the world’s changing the way it’s doing work. It’s not just our manufacturing industry that’s changed … we need to be looking forward, and I think this just puts a little exclamation point on what we’ve been asking for. Support access to broadband, support better training, and people in communities will thrive if we’re in front of it.”