As dusk falls in central Louisiana’s Cajun country, 57-year-old Michael Thomas, in a white V-neck T-shirt and tan Saints cap, smokes a cigarette in the orange glow of a streetlight and stares upon a row of dark, empty homes in his mostly abandoned neighborhood. “It would be real nice if we had neighbors,” he says, “people we can talk to at night.”
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, an altruistic Austrian-Canadian auto parts tycoon named Frank Stronach resettled about 300 of the city’s residents on a 1,000-acre sugarcane plantation in rural Louisiana. The community was initially called Magnaville, after Stronach’s auto parts manufacturing company, Magna International, based in Aurora, Ontario, but it came to be known as Canadaville—since Canada was the source of the unexpected benevolence. It was intended to be an agrarian refuge for the urban poor, an opportunity for city dwellers, nearly all of whom were black, to have a safe new home in the country (with a five-year financial commitment by Magna) and learn new skills, like how to farm organic vegetables and rear goats. And just maybe, imagined Stronach and his team, the project would help spawn a new chapter in development aid by proving to the world that corporations could inject themselves into the aftermath of a natural disaster and not only introduce quick relief but also solve endemic inner-city problems by bringing people back to the land.
If it sounds like a beautiful vision, in many ways it was, and if it sounds like a misguided vision, in many ways it was that too. In the long and troubled history of development aid projects, Canadaville may be one of the strangest.
Party Friday to Monday
It all began August 23, 2005, in the Bahamas, as a weak blob of wind and thunderstorms called Tropical Depression Twelve. By August 27, Hurricane Katrina was a formidable storm, with winds of 115 mph, bearing down on the Big Easy. Per tradition, many residents were celebrating at hurricane parties, “drinking and drinking and drinking,” remembers Lower 9th Ward resident Neal Dupar. The next day, Katrina morphed into a monster Category 5 hurricane, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (now serving a 10-year prison sentence on corruption charges) ordered a mandatory evacuation. “We’re facing the storm most of us have feared,” Nagin announced at a news conference. But he also revealed that the city had no plans for evacuating the 112,000 residents who didn’t own vehicles, or those who were too old or sick to leave on their own.
On Monday, August 29, at 6:10 a.m., Katrina came ashore. By noon, levees were failing, and within hours much of the city was inundated. Residents trapped in attics and on rooftops cried for help, bodies floated through the streets, government aid organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency were paralyzed, and the world watched, stunned, as a major American city crumpled. That’s about when Stronach stepped in to help. “When people are drowning, you don’t form a committee and talk about how to save them. You jump in and throw them a life preserver,” says Shane Carmichael, a Toronto consultant tapped by Stronach to manage the Canadaville project.
About a week after the storm, around 330 people—most of them residents of New Orleans—were transported to a thoroughbred racehorse training facility Stronach owned in West Palm Beach, Florida. About half of the future Canadavillians were taken there by bus, and half were flown in a plane used by the American Red Cross to evacuate people. The Red Cross also helped Magna choose the residents who would populate the new community. Once at the racetrack, people stayed in dormitories meant for jockeys, who were gone for the summer. Meanwhile, Magna went looking for a place to build his refugee paradise.
He settled on Simmesport, a town of about 2,200 in Avoyelles Parish, just a few miles from the spot where the Atchafalaya River snakes off from the Mississippi and beats its own shorter path south to the Gulf of Mexico. The town was poor—about a third of the residents lived below the poverty line—and the port commission hoped that Canadaville would bring development and maybe even spark interest in the port. It sold Magna a 900-acre plot of land on the outskirts of the town.
Magna scurried to put together the basis for a brand-new community. A team of carpenters from Canada, along with local contractors, built 49 single-family prefab homes, plus a baseball diamond, basketball court, community center and other amenities. By the end of November, Canadaville had been built, and Air Canada flew residents at no charge from West Palm Beach to Alexandria, Louisiana, where they were put on a bus to Simmesport.
They all were to receive free housing for five years, and in turn had to actively participate in the functioning of the community. A document called the “Covenant of Responsibility” required adult residents to be in school and either employed or looking for work. They also had to do eight hours of community service a week, choosing from activities such as coaching in the basketball league or tutoring children in an afterschool program.
One goal of the project was to make it easier for residents to produce their own food. It featured a catfish pond, a pecan orchard, organic chickens, a pasture with goats and a developmental farm upon which residents were supposed to tend their personal vegetable gardens. Agriculture experts from nearby universities were brought in to study the feasibility of growing organic vegetables in Louisiana soil and help residents new to farming with their gardens. There was counseling for residents with drug and alcohol problems. There were also regular community meetings, with mandatory attendance.
“The plan was to create environmental social change through corporate social responsibility,” says Carmichael. “It was to be a hands-up, not a hand-out, project.”
But not all Big Easy transplants were fond of the rules. “A lot of people are going to make it seem like it was a good place, but it was like we were in jail,” says Dupar, who spent three years with his family in Canadaville after Katrina destroyed their home in the Lower 9th Ward. “There was all these different types of rules. You couldn’t have a gun on the premises. You had to go to the meetings. You had to do the community service. I’m not going to say Shane was a slave driver, but I wanted to bust him up a few times.”
Still, Dupar, who before the storm was the chef at a French Quarter restaurant, did well in Canadaville. He found a cooking job at a nursing home in Simmesport and did maintenance work around Canadaville. He also helped import some of the musical and culinary spirit of New Orleans to the countryside. “Everywhere we go, we make a party,” says Dupar. “We did roasts. We did briskets. We did gumbo. We boiled crawfish out back. We had DJs and music. We used to party from Friday all the way up until Monday.”
Eventually, Carmichael learned the pace of the place. For example, to entice residents into tending their gardens, he brought beer and music into the fields, transforming the tedious act of weeding into a group party. “That was a victory,” he says. The community was also safer than the New Orleans neighborhoods where many of the residents came from. “We didn’t hear ambulances. We didn’t hear police cars. We didn’t hear gunshots. It was real nice and quiet,” says Dupar. “And the people in town were very friendly people.”
But not all Simmesport residents were friendly, and the meanest among them just might have been the mayor, a corpulent man named James “Boo” Fontenot. When Magna arrived, Fontenot saw dollar signs. He demanded the company buy him police cruisers, an upgraded sewer system and a sporting facility—and it did. But Fontenot also whipped the town into a frenzy of prejudice, publicly chastising Canadaville’s residents and promoting the unsubstantiated claim that their presence had increased crime. Folks from Simmesport became suspicious of their new neighbors.
Tonya Nelson, a native of the New Orleans area who had been living in coastal Mississippi and working with Oreck, the vacuum company, had evacuated to Houston. She heard about Canadaville from a longtime New Orleans friend, Jessica Thomas, and after passing the background check required for all residents, she moved to the settlement with her husband and four children. At a Christmas parade in downtown Simmesport, tensions between townspeople and Canadaville residents exploded. A mob of children attacked Nelson’s youngest son and nephew. “They stomped on them,” says Nelson. “My son was all messed up, and my nephew ruptured his spleen.”
“It was a very, very difficult transition for the kids,” says Nelson. “I remember I had to have the racism talk with my children. I had never had that before.” Though in general, she says, frictions weren’t as much racial—Simmesport is 47 percent black, 52 percent white—as they were an issue of city versus country. “Quite honestly, there was a fear factor for folks from Simmesport,” says Carmichael, “when all they heard was talk of rape and pillage in the Superdome and the guns and gunfire that these people would be importing into their community.”
And then, perhaps, there was also contention because some were lucky enough to have received a new life from a Canadian corporation and others were not so fortunate. “Canadaville was nice new homes,” says Nelson, “but the kids in Simmesport were basically living in shacks.”
‘A Drug-Ass Town’
To this day, Simmesport is tormented by tragic poverty. Prostitutes strut down shady side roads, drug dealers patrol tumbledown back neighborhoods and there are numerous men without jobs, or any prospect of getting them. “Man, this ain’t nothing but a drug-ass town,” one porch-sitter called out when asked what the community was like. “I sit on this porch every day, and you don’t see nothing but crack addicts and dope dealers. I wouldn’t want to raise my kids up in here.”
“This used to be a busy little town,” says Earl Adams, who with his wife runs a small clothing store across the highway called Granny’s Hope Chest. “You had hotels, a mechanic’s shop, several gas stations, four or five bars, six grocery stores, two or three barber shops, a sewing factory and a skating rink. You even had a theater.” But those times are long gone. “All the money people died off or the casino broke ’em or the Wal-Mart pushed ’em out,” says Adams. “As far as businesses, there is nothing here.”
Despite these difficulties, some residents of Canadaville did well. Nelson got a job as Carmichael’s assistant, even traveling with him to Toronto to speak to Magna executives about community needs. “I personally enjoyed being there,” she says. “To me, it really was a successful program, and a tremendous give-back to a community in need…. I will forever be grateful for what they did. I just thought he had a big heart to do something like that.”
By 2010, the original end of Magna’s commitment, even the big heart of Stronach was flagging. The worldwide economic recession had led to slumps in the auto industry, which meant the automobile parts business was also hurting. We hit a huge downturn in the economy,” says Carmichael. “As a company, we had to be financially responsible to our shareholders, and making huge-risk investments in organic farming in Louisiana was not on the high end of the priority.”
Magna decided it had fulfilled its mandate and wound down the project. In November 2011, Stronach and the Magna Corporation donated the community to the Avoyelles Parish Port Commission. “It is not a bad thing to have a start and end to a program,” says Carmichael, “but it was painful to tell residents that our mandate was ending, and it was time to move out and go out into the real world.”
Most of the residents moved back to New Orleans to be near friends and family and find work, as there was more economic opportunity in the city. But some residents stayed on, like Jessica and Michael Thomas, paying rent to the Avoyelles Parish Port Commission.
A lack of long-term commitment is one reason why international development experts like Lisa Ann Richey remain extremely skeptical of corporate-funded development aid projects. “Corporations can never provide democratic accountability in a community because businesses are for-profit, that is why they exist, and their responsibilities are to their shareholders,” says Richey, who is director of the Doctoral School of Society and Globalization at Roskilde University in Denmark. “I am not a complete critic and saying that corporate philanthropy can’t raise money quickly,” she adds. “But the problem with philanthropy is that it says people with a lot of power and money can assert their will on other people.”
A variety of recent reports have shown that philanthropy is a field fraught with problems. In May, the Federal Trade Commission revealed that four cancer charities were run by members of the same extended family and had cheated $187 million out of donors—only 3 percent of donations went toward helping cancer patients. And an investigation conducted by ProPublica and NPR earlier this year reported that the Red Cross had raised half a billion dollars in response to the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, and although the aid group had made housing a priority, five years later only six homes had been built.
As David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philosophy, a news site covering the nonprofit sector, recently noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Philanthropy, we are learning, is a world with too much secrecy and too little oversight.”
‘Aren’t Scared of the Storms’
The community formerly known as Canadaville is still run by the Avoyelles Parish Port Commission. Only now the Thomas family has new neighbors. Homes have been made available to a select cast that includes the Simmesport town superintendent, the chief of police, employees of a local construction company that uses the port for shipping and a group of out-of-state construction workers who have been repairing a nearby bridge over the Atchafalaya River. Still, much of the neighborhood is deserted.
“We’re the last of the last,” says Michael Thomas, taking a drag from a cigarette and staring down his street of darkened homes and out into the night. But the couple isn’t planning on leaving. For one, they like the quiet of the country, and Katrina taught them a new reason to fear the city. “I don’t want to have to relocate every five or six years there is a storm,” says Jessica Thomas, who is inside cooking a crawfish dinner. “Being up on the road, trucking up, I don’t ever want to do that again.”
And if there is one thing that seems certain in southern Louisiana, it’s that there will be another storm.
Back in New Orleans, it’s a warm spring Sunday in the Lower 9th Ward and former Canadaville residents Neal and Debra Dupar and doing what they know best—cooking up a pot of gumbo and throwing a party. Although the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has reopened those wounds and reminded residents of the risks of living in below sea level near the warm, hurricane-prone Gulf, the Dupars don’t plan on leaving. “We aren’t scared of the storms,” says Neal Dupar. “This is our home.”
But some lessons from Canadaville live on, even here in the city. As Debra Dupar dishes out bowls of her gumbo to some neighborhood friends, she reminisces about her time in the country. “The organic vegetables there were bigger,” she says, with a smile, “and the chickens tasted better!”