A silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic has been to illuminate the ways that unsung workers in various sectors make vital contributions to our economy and society. These essential workers, overlooked for decades, are now receiving the long overdue attention and praise that they deserve.
One of those workers who has spent her career serving others in the food retail industry, first in England and now Winnipeg, is Kathryn Lunt. This is her story.
Originally from the Yorkshire region in northern England, Kathryn Lunt arrived in Winnipeg in 2007 after reuniting with and later marrying a childhood friend that emigrated to Canada in 1974.
You know, I’m not sure I’m really much of an immigrant. You’ve got the English language here, and fish and chips, and you’ve got lots of people here from the UK, including Scottish and Welsh. So it’s easy to fit in, isn’t it, when you’ve got a lot of people here from your home country?
I came here on my own. I’ve got a son and three grandchildren that are still in England. My husband, the man I’m with now, we grew up together in the same village in Yorkshire, England, but he moved here in 1974. I was still a teenager then, and we both ended up marrying other people. He got married to a different English girl and they came over here. And then in 2001 he had to come back over to England for a family funeral, and that’s where we met again for the first time in twenty-odd years.
We were both newly divorced, and we never would have met again except for my friend and me would go to the gym every day at the same time, except this one time she had to work late, so I instead went to the gym a bit earlier, and that’s when I met him again! And it really just turned into one of those love stories. He had a week left in England, and I had me own car so we spent a lot of time together. We had a lot in common, and if you believe in this whole soulmate thing, well…that’s us.
He had a good job here in Winnipeg, working in maintenance at Misericordia Hospital, and I was working at a supermarket in England at the time, so we thought it would be better if I came over here because he had a good pension and everything to eventually fall back on. So we got married in Gretna Green in Scotland in 2005 – we eloped!
After that we started the immigration process and it took about three years, and all the paperwork and documents were quite daunting. You kind of felt like you were never going to quite get to the end of it, you know? All the questions and everything.
And I had never heard of this place Winnipeg, ever. So I thought I would come over to get the gist of it, and I came over for three different seasons over three different years, including the summer and the winter, so I knew what to expect. And so when I came over to live I just fit in. I got off the plane, and I just felt this is home. I love the area, the zoo, the walks, there’s just so much to do in Winnipeg.
A photo of North America’s Great Lakes region, which straddles the border of Canada and the U.S., and contains one fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. Foreigners arriving in Canada often underestimate Canada’s sheer size. Photo: NASA/Flickr
But to be honest I was surprised at the vastness of the country. You know, you take geography in school and learn about Canada and its wheat fields and all that, but you can’t really get the gist of how vast Canada is. So when I first came, flying from Toronto – and this was all the first time I’d ever even been on a plane on my own – looking out the window I couldn’t take me eyes off the all lakes, you know! The Great Lakes, it was just awesome. So that was a good introduction to Canada as a whole – the vastness of it all.
When I first came over I thought the most important thing to do was to get a job so that I could get some friends, basically. Socializing, I suppose. I had been a senior cashier at a supermarket in England, so when I came here I figured the first step was to join a union. It was a bit of a shock, actually.
Over here it’s quite different – over here when you’re working in the supermarkets you’ve got to join the union, whereas in England it’s optional, but it was part of my job at the time to pitch joining the retail workers union to other people. It didn’t always work! Typically, it was easier to do when something went wrong and workers would come to me asking for help and the first thing I’d say is, Are you part of the union? And if they said no, well there you go! That was the only time they wanted to join.
My first job here I worked for Safeway, one of the big supermarket stores, and I didn’t really understand this seniority thing. We didn’t have that in England, so as a newcomer I found it hard to even get a single shift sometimes.
So I stayed at Safeway for six weeks before giving my one week’s notice and quit. There was one of their competitors nearby and my husband said I should go try that one, since I had 18 years of working the cash registers in England. So I went over there and applied and got the job straightaway. And I got as many hours as I wanted!
It worked out in the end, finding steady employment, but at first it really was quite daunting. I was only getting one shift a week at my first job and I didn’t know how I was going to manage.
However, I’m not working right now at the moment, given the coronavirus. I’ve taken some time off because I’m one of those that are at higher risk from the virus. The store I work for, No Frills, has been good in saying that I should just take some time off and come back when I feel comfortable. I mean, supermarkets being an essential service, they really are doing all they can to keep things safe. But I think a lot of people will permanently take to shopping online. Not just groceries, but other things as well.
Two of the many consequences of the pandemic have been the atomization of lives due to public health measures, and the massive shift in consumer behaviour toward online shopping and delivery. Above — Social distancing circles at Trinity Bell Woods park in Toronto, July 2020. Below — An Amazon Prime delivery vehicle in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 2020. Photos: Roozbeh Rokni/Flickr; Tony Webster/Flickr.
Basically, to me it kind of feels like we’re all going towards having very singular lives – not going shopping, not meeting each other. You know, when there’s a vaccine that might change a bit, but I don’t think that it’s ever going to totally go back to the way it was.
In a way, it’s been good though. The pandemic has made people more respectful, and made people think twice about doing certain things, and just made everyone a bit more cautious about their behaviour overall. And to me that’s a good thing.
You know, this culture of people being reckless and just doing what they want – which some of them still are doing, but they’re paying the consequences for it as you see the rise in case numbers in people who aren’t following the public health guidelines – it’s been good to see that turnaround for a bit at least.
When the pandemic first started in Manitoba, the case numbers stayed so low that I just thought: How glad am I that I live in Manitoba? It’s not where people come in droves from other countries to flock to the beach, or anything like that.
There’s people that come here as tourists, but there’s not really that beach culture. So I think that’s been one advantage that has helped us avoid the worst of the pandemic here. Really, we miss almost everything! Well, we’ve been having a few tornadoes here and there now, but we miss all the wildfires and hurricanes and the like.
The place I work now, No Frills, is a really community-based store owned by Loblaws, right. So some of these customers really become like your friends.
We have a chat with them, and I find it more easygoing than working a place like Safeway that is stricter and more concerned about its corporate image.
At my job, it’s much more relaxed, provided you’re still doing your job and not holding up the line. Because I mean, I can talk and do stuff at the same time. So I feel like part of my job is just conversing with people and being friendly with them so that they want to come back to our store, and to my till. You know, I’m quite outgoing!
We were actually planning on going back to England in October because it’s me son’s 40th birthday. We go back about every year, or every 18 months or so, but obviously that’s not going to happen now with Covid-19. So I’ll just have to wish him happy birthday over WhatsApp or something.
The Yorkshire Dales, a historic national park area in northern England near where Kathryn Lunt lived prior to emigrating to Canada. Photo: david_pics/Flickr
And I’ve still got lots of friends in England, and when I go back it’s like I’ve never been away. We get together and go for an Indian curry, and have a night out. Twelve months in-between seems to really fly by actually – it seems like we’re back in England more than we really are.
I actually had to paint the picture of Canada for one of my friends before. I mean, she’s wiser now because she’s been to Australia and other places since then, but before when she was planning a trip to visit me here in Winnipeg she said: Well I’ll come to get you, and then we’ll nip on over to Vancouver, and take a day trip to Niagara Falls…And I were like, Linda, do you realize how big Canada is?!
I had to explain to her that it takes longer to get from Toronto to Vancouver than it takes to get from Toronto to Manchester. You know, it’s an eight hour flight, getting on and off planes – you aren’t just going to do it in a day. But now she knows!
But Winnipeg, like I say, it’s not uh, really a city that that any of my friends or family had previously heard of. They only know what I’ve told them. I tell them about how I go walking.
I thought to myself, how did people ever come to live here? There’s no hills. It’s weird, isn’t it?!
So it took a while to get used to that, and it took a while to get used to roads going north-south, east-west; I’m used to these winding roads that meander around. Plus there was getting used to driving on the other side of the road. But I love driving, so I soon got used to that.
The first winter though. I love snow – just love snow. So the first winter, I was kind of awestruck. It was 2007 when I first came to live here and it was either that winter or the winter after, there was just huge snowbanks, and I just loved it. I love the fact that you have four seasons here. You have the spring, summer, autumn and winter. And you know by just looking out the window how to dress.
A photo of Winnipeg’s Osborne Village neighbourhood after an autumn snowfall. Photo: Kyle Hiebert
Like right now, you can tell its fall because the leaves on the trees are yellow and orange. But when it is winter and you look outside and see the snow and ice you know that you probably have to put ten layers on, even ski goggles or whatever!
And each season has its own challenges. Like right now you’ve got all the wasps that coming flying after you, but you get used to all that. It’s all part of living in Canada – or Winnipeg especially.
And before I even came here, I loved the First Nations’ cultures. But obviously, when you arrive you find it it’s a much different situation than you were taught in school. It’s shocking to see the poverty of some of the places that Indigenous people are living in. They haven’t got clean water, for instance.
But then you come here and you see all the poverty – that’s a culture shock. But at least there are programs and services in place to help those that want it. Because that’s the other thing I guess, that some Indigenous people or communities don’t seem to always want the help, which was another shock to me. It’s all very complicated.
But for myself, now I’m at an age where I’m thinking about retirement. We just moved into a condo from a shared duplex with yard, and it’s been good to be able to downsize. Now, whenever the coronavirus subsides, it’ll be nice to just lock up the condo and be able to go about traveling or whatever knowing that there’s people looking after the place.
And like I said, I’ve really enjoyed my time working at No Frills. And one thing I did recently, it was about three years ago, I was able to be one of members of the labour negotiating committee for the No Frills franchise in Manitoba and we negotiated the first collectively bargained contract for any No Frills in Canada. We were able to have some things added to it for workers that none of the other provinces got. And that was AWESOME. I would do it again.
A No Frills location in southern Ontario. No Frills discount supermarkets fall under the umbrella of Canada’s retail giant Loblaws, with No Frills franchise locations found in every Canadian province except for Quebec. Photo: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr.
You know, meeting the people that pay your wage, and realizing that they are just normal people who are working to earn their own income, it’s exciting. I mean, they’re still CEOs and they’re still obviously arguing on behalf of the company’s corporate interests, but you see the human side of the company.
So that was absolutely awesome. Since I’ve come here, that was the most productive thing I’ve ever accomplished – getting a contract that represented some firsts in Canada at the time was amazing.
The contract we negotiated is now standard for all No Frills locations across the country. There were some long days – long evenings after work and then you had to be back at work at 8am the next morning. Plus there were times during negotiations where you would suddenly just have four hours to sit around and do nothing. At least it was summer, so we’d go for walks and whatever.
But it was just a great to be around other workers that you’d never met and share that experience with them. We made a real good bond. The former members of the negotiating committee still have get-togethers when we can! Obviously not since the coronavirus broke out, but before that we would go for supper and what not.
For example, when you apply for your papers you have to have all these tests done and things, including a police report. And when I came to Canada, I planned to spend the first night in Toronto before going to Winnipeg because I assumed that the immigration process was going to be more complicated. But when you arrive at the airport and go to the immigration offices you get this envelope, and it’s sealed – you can’t open it, the immigration officer has to open it.
So I gave him this envelope, and he opened it and he asked: Have you got a criminal record? I said no, and then he says: Welcome to Canada. And that was it!
So I had to stay in Toronto for a night when I could have really just hopped on the next flight on to Winnipeg. I thought the process was going to be long and drawn out, but really it wasn’t at all. So looking back I think I wish I hadn’t over-thought things so much, as they usually end up being simpler than you think they will be.
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