A Debt of Gratitude – May 2008

Beyond Ordinary Living Magazine  May 2008

By Jane Andres

It is four in the morning and a city lies resting. On its southern shore it is bordered by the sea, mercurial waves lapping at its shores at this early hour. On the remaining three sides it is nestled in tight against a corrugated mountain range rising steeply out of the sea. Thin strands of amber lights twinkle from the mountain tops where the elite reside in huge mansions. They share the sweeping view with modest dwellings with zinc roofs, built by work hardened hands. At the base of the mountains the city is spread, waves of warm lights that shimmer and sparkle in the atmosphere.

In the northeast end, not far from the university, a dog starts to howl. Other dogs in high walled yards howl and bark in response and the sounds ripple domino effect until they echo throughout neighbourhoods far and wide. As if conducted by an unseen hand the howling stops almost simultaneously. Distant music from two separate sound systems pulses and ricochets throughout the empty streets, regardless of the early hour and the fact that many are beginning to rouse in preparation for the day.

A car is speeding down the deserted streets, its headlights illuminating the clean lines of uptown Kingston, Jamaica. Minutes later a different scene unfolds as the lights reveal a crumbling cityscape framed by razor wire and zinc barricades. I am in that car with my good friend Jodie Godwin, and we are driving to the airport to return to our respective homes in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario.  In Niagara, we live surrounded by beautiful vineyards and orchards tended by the skilled hands of offshore workers who travel here from Mexico and the Caribbean.

We have just spent two weeks in Jamaica, crossing the island from Montego Bay to Kingston to visit many of the workers and their families. We felt the hand of God on the second highest mountain peak in Jamaica and the next day heard the voice of angels in a dark corner of Spanishtown. We were humbled by this people’s simplicity, generosity and longing for fellowship and we are forever changed.

 

A Moment of Change

This spring marks the second anniversary of a moment when a simple invitation began to change the course of my life. Up until that point, my active and fulfilling life revolved around the music ministry of our church and running a successful Bed & Breakfast in Niagara on the Lake. My life was consumed by my work and I was unprepared to answer a request to help out with music at a local church service for offshore workers.  Mostly out of curiosity, I agreed to visit their service one Sunday evening in May of 2006.

My knowledge of Jamaican culture was limited to what I read in the Toronto papers. I am ashamed to admit that I had never had contact with the workers who I saw frequently in the grocery store or riding by on their bikes in the evening. I thought that there may be about 75 to 100 Jamaican workers in Niagara to help harvest. I assumed they spoke only Patois, their Jamaican dialect. I unconsciously avoided them when walking my dog in the evening due to well meaning advice from other locals to keep my distance

About 25 workers attended the service that first Sunday evening. They definitely needed help with the music but I was intrigued by the authenticity and dedication that was displayed. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share in conversation over refreshments at the end of the service. The service was run by the Caribbean Workers Outreach Program, a small but dynamic group of volunteers hosting non-denominational church services on Sunday nights throughout May and June. Each year they sponsor two Jamaican pastors who visit the farms and minister to the workers during those months. In May they also host a domino tournament and in June, invite locals to attend a cricket match followed by the service.

I agreed to help with the music and was handed an outdated book of choruses along with a suggestion that I try to find a worker named Winston who worked in my neighbourhood and played a bit of guitar. With only that information I set out knocking on farmer’s doors and asking for a man named Winston. I discovered that there were about 50 workers who lived within a ten minute walk from my house and met four Winstons before locating my guitar player at the end of the road.

My initial plan to build a music team led to opportunities to develop close friendships with both male and female offshore workers. They became regular visitors to our home and Tuesday night rehearsals became the highlight of our week. My daughter Kate and Josh Toal plunged into this new direction with great enthusiasm and before each rehearsal helped prepare enough chicken, rice and peas to feed a small army! Having played in a reggae/ska band for five years Josh was well prepared for his role in assisting with the music. He was new to the Niagara region, and ironically, it was the Jamaican workers who made him feel most at home in our community.

Later, much to my surprise, I learned that there are actually approximately 2000 Mexican and Caribbean men and women who come to Niagara each year as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program ( SAWP ). It is a program created in the 1960s by the Canadian government to fill the labour shortage on farms all across Canada. In fact, each year close to twenty thousand workers arrive in Canada, some as early as February, to begin pruning in the orchards and to work in the greenhouses. They work on farms in every province in Canada except New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, doing intense and often backbreaking work under unfavourable conditions to which Canadian labourers are unwilling to commit.

Fruit farms, orchards and vineyards are a substantial contributor to the economy here in the Niagara Region of south-western Ontario, and without migrant workers, the industry would be less viable, if possible at all. As I became more aware of their contribution to the local economy, it was hard to believe that we had lived in this neighbourhood for eight years and were unaware of the reality of their existence!

A Mexican worker who has been coming for nine years told me that the hardest part of her experience was to be invisible in our community. That comment resonated with me because she is right. It is not intentional on our part – we have busy lives with worthwhile activities – but also we have trained our eyes not to see.

 

Visiting Jamaica

 

In February 2007, Kate, Josh and I traveled to Jamaica for the first time at the invitation of the workers with whom we had become friends. We stayed in their homes, played with their children, visited their churches and were overwhelmed by their hospitality. We saw first hand a country decimated by the effects of globalization and policies inflicted on the Jamaican people by the International Monetary Fund. Offshore labour programs are the only option for families in a country where there is little hope for employment, skilled or otherwise. Families have to pay not only for their children’s tuition, books and materials but must bear transportation costs for school which is very expensive in rural areas.

It was emotional for us to meet the families that the men worked so hard to support and began to understand the difficulties that their loved ones struggled with during their long absences. Jamaica has more churches per capita than any country in the world and many workers’ families could not survive without the spiritual and social support of their neighbourhood churches.

That trip fuelled our desire to work toward creating more opportunities for relationships to flourish in our community. Many of my B+B guests enjoy the opportunity to meet the people that tend the orchard and pick the fruit that they enjoyed for breakfast that morning. A number of our worker friends are known to burst into spontaneous song as we enjoy a little fellowship and iced tea after a hard day’s work, much to the delight of our guests.

It has been exciting to see more local members of the community discover the joys of developing relationships with these people who work so hard. This past February ( 2008 ) it was a privilege to travel back to Jamaica with Jodie who also operates a B&B in Niagara on the Lake. It was her first visit to that beautiful island and I am sure it will not be her last! It was exhilarating for both of us as we traveled from Montego Bay to Kingston, leaving behind a trail of paper snowflakes and new friendships in our wake. God helped us live out the parable of the loaves and fishes as we offered our humble gifts and made ourselves available to His service. It was a life changing and enriching experience to develop these friendships. It was also challenging and has shaken us out of our complacency as we seek to inspire a more inclusive community here where we live. Photos of the faces of the children of the workers now grace the walls of our home – faces that reflect a spirit of generosity, love and hope for a better future. They are a reminder of the sacrifices of the migrant workers who live among us make, enduring loneliness and separation from the families they support back  home.

 

As our relationships with the workers has grown, we have become aware of flaws inherent in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and the lack of communication within the various government agencies both in Canada and the countries from which the workers come. Seasonal workers are paid minimum wage, which is understandable since farmers are under incredible pressure due to globalization and government policies which do not protect our Canadian food sources. But there are policies which further erode their earnings, such as  being required to pay into Employment Insurance although they are ineligible for benefits. An additional five per cent is deducted from their pay to be forwarded to the Jamaican Liaison Department. Airfare is $1,200, a cost split between the farmer and the worker. With 18,000 workers flying in from Mexico and Jamaica it is difficult to believe that these people are not entitled to the same less expensive charter rates as Canadians.

Their diligent workers labour for long hours under difficult conditions, enduring social isolation so that they can earn wages to send home to their families. The SAWP has been in existence for over forty years and yet it was only in recent years that the workers discovered that they are entitled to parents benefits. There are many other inequities depending on provincial legislation where they work. If workers fall ill in Canada, they are summarily dismissed and repatriated to their home countries where they are normally not covered by health insurance and cannot afford treatment. It is an unfair system which accepts workers as long as they are healthy and disposes of them as soon as they ill or injured, regardless of the cause. Canada has a moral obligation to take care of the workers who pay into the various programs that would normally protect Canadians, yet legally there is nothing to ensure it happens.

Many questions remain unanswered, and there is much that can be done to advocate for those who need voices to speak on their behalf. With the rising cost of transporting imported food to this country we would be wise to support our Canadian farmers and the migrant workers who make their industry sustainable. As we look forward to the season in which fresh locally grown produce becomes available, may we recognize the gratitude we owe and join in calling for changes that will reflect a Canada we can be proud of.

 

Jane Andres is owner of Applewood Hollow Bed and Breakfast . She is founder of Fresh START, an initiative to support Niagara farms and to inspire people to Think Little/Eat Local. Fresh START B+B’s agree to serve a minimum 85% local fruit and produce to guests and encourage sound environmental practices. https://www.bbniagaraonthelake.com