Two weeks ago, the union that represents the workers at the Cargill slaughterhouse near High River, Alta., announced that a third death had been linked to the facility: a 51-year-old union shop steward named Benito Quesada.
At the time, that outbreak represented the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak tied to a single location in Canada.
Quesada was described by the union as a quiet, gentle, and humble man. His family sought their privacy in the wake of his death.
But as the days went on, the family decided together that they wanted to tell Quesada’s story — especially with the facility and the larger economy reopening.
“We’ve had many people, even just neighbours, asking us what happened,” 16-year-old Ariana Quesada said in an interview Saturday. “We don’t want to give those answers, because we feel that those answers are really personal.
“But we realize this issue is bigger for us and our dad’s suffering shouldn’t be in vain.”
Quesada started working for Cargill in 2007, travelling to Alberta from Mexico City. His family stayed behind in Mexico while Quesada sent money home until they too were able to join him in Canada in 2012.
“He was really proud to work at Cargill. If anyone asked him where he worked, he always said Cargill with such pride,” Ariana said. “It was the job that brought his family here.”
Even if he needed to work more hours — which he did, even working two additional part-time jobs at one time — Quesada did so with dedication, loving to spoil his family with gifts when he could.
Even though he often came home from work exhausted, he would still make time for his family.
“My little sister, she’s five. That’s who he had the closest bond with. He would come home and they would hug and my mom would ask how his day was,” Ariana said. “He was a really, really caring person and he loved us very much.”
But as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread, Quesada would tell his wife, Mary, about what he was seeing at work.
“He would tell my mom that compared to schools and to stores and other places where they were taking the proper measures, Cargill was not doing the same thing,” Ariana said. “He did not have the proper gear to make this less risky and he was disappointed that such a great company was not able to provide the necessary gear.
“He often came back from work saying there was no distance between the workers themselves at all.”
His family began to quarantine, with the kids not leaving the home to go to school and only one family member attending a grocery store at a time.
They tuned in constantly to the advice of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, and began wearing masks and frequently cleaning.
Amidst the pandemic, Cargill began to offer its workers a bonus. Ariana said Quesada kept going into work to get that bonus.
“They were going to give them a $500 bonus if they didn’t miss a day of work,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’re a family of six, and a $500 bonus is going to make a difference in bills and in our lives. That was his main motivation to go to work. He wouldn’t have gone without that $500.
“Up until today, they haven’t paid it to him.”
More than 900 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in workers at the plant, most of whom have now recovered. As of May 21, five active cases of COVID-19 remain connected to workers.
One of the workers who became ill was Quesada. He grew sicker and sicker and was eventually admitted to the ICU.
At the start, his family was told they were not allowed to visit him unless signs emerged that indicated he may soon pass away. One morning that call came.
“We got to say goodbye. But he didn’t get that chance,” Ariana said.
WATCH | Ariana and Mary Quesada describe why they’re sharing their father’s story now:
Ariana and Mary were permitted to enter the room where Quesada lay in the hospital bed.
There were tubes coming out of his mouth and machines everywhere. It was immediately clear that Quesada had lost a lot of weight.
“You could see it in his face. His jawline was really, really prominent,” Ariana said. “His cheekbones were really raised and he looked really bad.”
Ariana said she always told her father that he was very pale compared to her siblings and her mother. That wasn’t the case that morning.
“He was orange. He wasn’t even pale, he was orange,” she said. “His fingers were really stiff. It was a really horrible sight to see.”
The image, even in its retelling, is devastating for Ariana to recall. She said she wanted to share that image — one that conflicts with the father who could do anything, the father who overcame any obstacle — because she worries about pervasive attitudes surrounding the virus as the economy reopens.
“To those people who think it’s not that serious or it’s just a regular cold, I would say this … look at us. We’re left without a dad. My mom is left without a husband,” Ariana said.
A family left behind
As the main provider for the family, Quesada’s death has left Mary and her four children with an ongoing struggle. Ariana, still 16, expects to have to begin working multiple part-time jobs to help support the family.
“When I said goodbye to my dad I told him not to worry. I told him if for some reason he felt the need to go, he knew we were going to be able to handle things,” Ariana said. “But the financial pressure, it’s really devastating.”
After Quesada’s death a Cargill spokesperson said in a statement that the company had been in recent contact with the family and would honour Quesada at the plant, flying a flag at half-mast in memory of the two employees who had died.
The family said they were never contacted by the company.
“Cargill themselves have not contacted us — coworkers and workers with my dad have, but Cargill themselves have not,” Ariana said. “I read somewhere that they had emailed their condolences, but we didn’t even get that.”
In a statement provided to CBC News on Sunday afternoon, a spokesperson for Cargill said they extended their “sincere, heartfelt condolences” to Quesada’s family.
The company said a health services manager was in contact with the family during Quesada’s hospitalization, and senior members of the High River facility undertook “multiple efforts” to contact the family.
“It is completely understandable why they would not be taking calls at that time. In the past weeks, the company has been successful in making direct contact with the family and has had several conversations regarding any support the company may be able to offer,” the statement reads.
Ariana said representatives with Cargill’s human resources department have contacted the family to help with documentation, but others from the company have not yet been in touch to offer condolences.
Ariana said Quesada was always proud to work at Cargill and even “gave his life” for the plant.
For now, the family continues to grieve alone, feeling unheard about what they say was a lack of safety measures implemented at the facility.
“They only saw the outcome. But they didn’t live it with us. They didn’t see how we were crying everyday, they didn’t see the trauma,” Ariana said. “They didn’t see me and my mom saying our goodbyes to him. They didn’t see him in that bed, lying lifeless. They didn’t see any of this.
“So they probably don’t feel the same remorse. But they need to.”