Sunday, December 9, 2007



Canadaville a haven for Katrina survivors who can follow its strict rules Article online since June 29th 2007, 23:00 Be the first to comment this article

SIMMESPORT, La. (AP) - When her husband first told her about Canadaville, Dawn Charbonneau worried it might be a cult.
A place in the country, built by a Canadian industrialist, where families displaced by hurricane Katrina could live rent-free if they followed the rules. It sounded too good to be true.
Yet she was taken with Canadaville, a sprawling property where squirrels scurry in open fields and the songs of birds and bleats of goats carry on the breeze. It was a curative tonic after the cramped FEMA trailer park where the Chabonneaus and their three children had lived.
The slower pace of life, uncrowded nearby schools and corn-country peace have been good for the children, ages five to 13. "They can sleep at night without hearing gunshots," said Dawn Charbonneau, whose family fled both Katrina and the violence of New Orleans about 240 kilometres away.

Canadaville, with its goats and chickens, gardens and fishing holes, is the brainchild of Frank Stronach, chairman of Canadian autoparts maker Magna International. After Katrina hit in August 2005, Magna sheltered hundreds of evacuees at its Palm Meadows thoroughbred training centre in Florida. But Stronach also wanted to set up a place outside the hurricane zone where families could start over and build their futures.

"It's a hand up, not a handout," Magna spokesman Dan Donovan said.
Stronach, who was not made available for an interview, bought 365 hectares in rural Louisiana in September 2005, and Canadaville opened three months later. Total initial investment was estimated at US$7.5 million.
Officially named Magnaville, the site has been dubbed Canadaville. Canadian and U.S. flags fly side by side at the welcome centre. "This is just neighbour helping neighbour," Magnaville president Dennis Mills said.

People can live at Canadaville rent-free for five years if they follow a "charter of conduct." Among other things, they must work or go to school, volunteer at least eight hours a week, participate in the community council and stay away from drugs, project manager Shane Carmichael said.
There are after-school and tutoring programs for children, computer and job-training classes for adults and plans to operate an organic farm. While Magna provides housing and other activities, residents do not receive cash payments.

Canadaville's population stands at about 210, mostly black and from New Orleans; some residents have just arrived in the past few weeks. More than half the original 190 residents are still here, Carmichael said. Few, he said, have been evicted for breaking the rules.
Background checks are done on prospective residents, many of whom are referred by the Red Cross or word of mouth. Once at Canadaville, they can be tested periodically for drugs. Their guests must check in and get a pass if they're staying overnight. A guard sometimes mans a post at the entrance but residents are free to come and go as they please.

Quiet, paved streets with names like Pelican Place and Honey Bee Road wind past the 49 three-bedroom modular homes, each of which is about 111 square metres and has a close-cropped lawn, a stark contrast to swaths of New Orleans where neighbourhoods remain in ruins, with houses empty or moulding away.
Eli Bryant sees Canadaville as a blessing, with the laid-back lifestyle and outdoors work he longed for. For Barbara Stewart, it's been a culture shock: a Wal-Mart several towns away is the nearest major shopping venue.
The influx of Katrina evacuees also was culture shock for nearby Simmesport, a town of 2,200 people where outsiders are easily spotted.

That was a big deal when plans for Canadaville were first proposed, Carmichael said. Some Simmesport residents worried about an increase in crime.
So Magna pledged to buy patrol cars for the Simmesport police, pay for three more police officers for five years and build a sports complex and a recreation centre that would double as an evacuation centre. Mills estimates total corporate, private and nonprofit investment could reach up to $12 million. Canadaville has received no state or federal funding.
Simmesport Mayor James Fontenot has told The New York Times he was frustrated by fights and break-ins in town, which he blamed on the new residents.

"The mayor's just looking out for the best interests of the town," Hebert said, adding he's heard reports of increased break-ins but wasn't sure they could be traced to Canadaville.
Many have welcomed Canadaville residents and the money they spend in town. Some have hired the newcomers.

Jackie Quebedeaux, a convenience store manager, said it doesn't matter to her where the Canadaville residents came from, "as long as they're honest, and want to work."
Many residents don't have cars, so fare-free buses take them to work or stores. Longer trips to Alexandria, 80 kilometres away, cost $10 a day.

Bryant, a former construction worker from New Orleans' tough Central City neighbourhood, says the rules aren't hard to live by. He'd been hoping to leave New Orleans before Katrina. The storm took most of his possessions, but also gave him the final reason to leave town.
At 56, Bryant feels he's found his calling: farming. He likes figuring out what seeds grow in the clay soil and weeding rows of fruits and vegetables, and gathering eggs from the hen house.
Nearly two years after its inception, Canadaville remains a work in progress. In addition to working to have the farm certified organic, there's talk of a possible processing facility for biodiesel or ethanol, Carmichael said.

Canadaville's residents are encouraged to get to know one another and the broader community. Dawn Charbonneau's husband, Mike, organizes weekend barbecues and fishing derbies.
"It's a good place to try to prosper and rebuild," said Mike Charbonneau, now a shipbuilder in Simmesport. His family is even talking about buying a house.
Dawn Charbonneau remembers feeling free her first nights here, "like all my troubles were behind me. It's like this was a second chance for me, my husband and my kids."
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