Uniting Canada — western style

  • Oct. 27, 2010 12:00 p.m.

By Dale Cory

Au revoir Jessica.

The Hamilton’s IGA ‘family’ recently bid adieu to a co-worker, a friend, and a western Canadian — if only for a couple of months.

Jessica Chasse-Carpentier was an Albertan, and a resident of Ponoka for a six-week stint after Jim Hamilton of Hamilton’s IGA in Ponoka decided he would build up the relationship between Alberta and Quebec — two provinces that may seem vastly different to most people, but are uniquely similar, insists Hamilton.

Call it — Canadian unity, Ponoka style.

It all began last fall during an awards ceremony for the grocery industry that Hamilton attended. While there, the owner of a grocery store in Montreal asked if his daughter could move out to Ponoka for a short time, work at Hamilton’s IGA, and improve her English language skills during her stay — along with learning a little more about Western Canada.

Hamilton jumped at the chance, even offering his home so that the girl had a place to stay in Ponoka. A friend ended up ‘hitching a ride,’ and both Audrey and Melissa of Quebec spent six weeks in Ponoka, working at Hamilton’s IGA, and learning all about Alberta.

“It’s kind of an exchange program in a very casual, off-the-wall way. The two of them came and lived with us for six weeks, and it went really, really well. When they went back to Quebec and gave a report to the grocery association, one of the other grocery store owners told his family about the concept, and his daughter said she would like to come out.

So, Hamilton decided to do the same for Jessica Chasse-Carpentier, who arrived in Ponoka in early September. Chasse-Carpentier could always be found working in the bakery.

“Jessica’s English was probably only a third of what the other two were, so she had problems when she first came. She was a little scared, because anyone who spoke quickly was tough for her to understand. She would just ask people to talk slow,” says Hamilton, who insists the store had zero customer complaints. In fact, what he heard was very positive, and customers wanted to know where she was from, and more about her background.

“All three girls had a real perception of redneck Alberta that they were going to be lynched and run out of town if they couldn’t speak English. That wasn’t the case. They all went back saying, ‘Wow, we’re very much alike.’” Says Hamilton. “They found the mentality and attitudes of Albertans and Quebecers were very similar. They had a warm, fuzzy feeling here. When they go to Ontario, they don’t have the same feeling. They found we were far more similar to each other, and both provinces distrust Ottawa.”

During her stay, Chasse-Carpentier visited many of Alberta’s tourist destinations, including Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefields, Johnson Canyon, the Badlands in Drumheller, and of course, West Edmonton Mall.

“I have a very nice experience. I never forget the people and the mountains. In Alberta the landscape is gorgeous,” said Jessica in her broken English. “Ponoka is a quiet town, with really nice people.”

More than anything, Jim Hamilton’s experience has revolved around a renewed sense of national pride.

“It made me proud to be a Canadian, especially an attitude that we are all Canadians first. The press often takes the bad things that happen between the French and English and blow them out of proportion,” says Hamilton. “Instead, it was a warm, fuzzy feeling that this may be good for the unity of Canada, and all of us understanding where we come from. The other thing is, their work ethic is phenomenal. Staff reacted well, because the girls all pitched in and did their fair share.”

Hamilton will attend meetings in Quebec in November, and will give a speech, through a translator, explaining how well this exchange program has gone. The possibilities for the exchange are endless, because Hamilton believes it doesn’t have to only include entry-level staff.

“Maybe we exchange deli managers, because they do some different things in Quebec,” says Hamilton. “Quebec doesn’t have scratch bakeries, so maybe our baker goes there to teach them some things. Jessica had us making sugar pies while she was here.”

Down the road, you can watch for sugar pies to be made available in the Hamilton’s IGA bakery — and maybe some Alberta perogies on the shelves in Quebec grocery stores.