Harriet’s Legacies: Race, Historical Memory and Futures in Canada
Brock University 2015
In May 2005 I was invited to help with the music at a church service for Caribbean workers. CWOP, the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project, was run by Grace United Church in Niagara on the Lake on Sunday nights in May and June.
My knowledge of Caribbean culture was limited to what I read in the Toronto papers. I guessed that the population of farm workers was 75 to 100 during harvest season.
I never had contact with the workers I saw frequently in town or riding by on their bikes in the evening. When passing them in the grocery store aisle I would avert my eyes to avoid making contact. 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.
Out of curiosity, I accepted the invitation to visit their service one Sunday evening. There were about fifteen men dispersed throughout the auditorium. The music was rather lethargic as the pastor attempted to lead with an electric guitar that buzzed and crackled. The preaching, however, was energizing and enthusiastic, punctuated by hearty amens throughout the room. I enjoyed the friendly conversation over refreshments at the end of the service and was a little surprised to hear myself agree to help with the music.
I inquired if there were any Jamaican musicians in the area and was told of a guitar player nearby called Winston. They were unable to provide his last name or contact information. A few days later I set out to find him in the neighbourhood to see if he could teach me some of their songs. I thought that it wouldn’t take long to locate him, that there were only a few men living close by. To my surprise I discovered about 100 men from Jamaica and Barbados living on farms within a 10 minute walk from my house. It was getting dark when I finally found Winston in a little house in the middle of a peach orchard. He enthusiastically agreed to assist me. He soon became a regular visitor to our home until he returned to Jamaica in the fall.
I had no idea that the walk through my neighbourhood that night was the beginning of a journey that would take my life in a new direction.
The following winter I met with some retired farmers in my neighbourhood, eager to learn more about the challenges of farming and the need for the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program ( SAWP).
I learned that after World War II many farm families began seeking work in the booming manufacturing sector in the Niagara Peninsula. Farmers began losing their crops due to lack of reliable labour during harvest season. In 1966 a pilot program was started, bringing in the first flight of 253 men from Jamaica. Each year the number of Caribbean farm workers increased and in the early 1970’s Mexico worked out its own deal with the Canadian government. By the late 1990’s there were over 2000 offshore labourers working in Niagara on eight month contracts.
The tender fruit and wine industry would not exist without this reliable source of skilled labour. Greenhouses, orchards, and vineyards are a substantial contributor to the economy here in the Niagara Region and without migrant workers, the industry would be less viable, if possible at all.
In Niagara, gross farm receipts of $725 million in 2015 generated an estimated $2.7 billion annual economic impact on the regional economy from primary production .
As I learned about the nature of their work in the years following, I was impressed with the skills required and the endurance necessary to work 10 to 12 hour days. Some farm workers put in 80 hour work weeks starting from when they arrived in March until they left in September to harvest apples in other regions.
I also experienced restless nights during the summer, lying between cool sheets in air conditioned comfort knowing that some of my neighbours were tossing and turning, exhausted but unable to sleep in close to 50oC temperatures. In some “bunk houses” there was no place for the men to escape the heat, exacerbated by the fact that there were two or more stoves in use for meal preparation, the intense heat spilling over into their sleeping quarters.
At the very least, I began to appreciate every piece of fruit that I enjoyed, realizing the amount of work that went into producing that perfect peach on the grocery store shelf.
For some workers it was the stress of loneliness and homesickness that took it’s toll. I remember one of my early conversations with Mila, a Mexican woman, who worked in the packing barn just down the road. She told me that she and her coworkers accepted the strenuous work, it was the nature of their job. What they found the most difficult was being invisible in the community. When they walked down the street or passed locals in the grocery store there was no acknowledgment of even being seen, something unheard of in their culture back home. I began to understand why the men appreciated being greeted by name in the grocery store. I made a consistent effort to remember names and which farms they worked on.
As my friendships with the men and women deepened I was amazed that these were the same people I had viewed with caution for so many years.
Some of them invited us to come visit their families in Jamaica to learn about how they “do church back home” and in February 2007 we made our first trip. My daughter Kit, Josh Toal and I landed in Montego Bay with a pocketful of phone numbers and a borrowed map and set out to find our friends. For 10 days we travelled from the west coast of the island to the east, staying in their homes, and soaking in the crosscultural experience and warmth of their families.
It was that first trip that inspired us to create an official welcome event, a concert to show our gratitude as neighbours. I also hoped that it would begin to dismantle some of the stereotypes and negative attitudes that created barriers within the community.
The 2007 event held in conjunction with CWOP was a groundbreaking success, with Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs offering a heartfelt welcome on behalf of the town. It was the first time in 40 years that the workers were given official recognition. Newworldson performed some of their favourite Caribbean songs with vocalists and musicians from the farms participating.
By bringing in stellar musicians such as Newworldson and the Toronto Mass Choir in the years that followed, we wanted to show the community that these men and women are well deserving of worldclass musicianship. We never anticipated the Niagara Workers Welcome would become an annual event that would still be growing 10 years later.
Every year we deliver posters to over 60 farms when the men begin to arrive as early as February. Extending a personal invitation to their employers has provided an opportunity to learn about the many challenges facing the family farms as they seek to compete with global markets. It also reinforced my resolve to serve local produce at our bed and breakfast to showcase the fruits of their labour.
I have since made six trips to the island, accompanied by friends and family members. Our goal has been to meet the families of the men and women who work in our neighbourhood and to gain a better understanding of their culture and the challenges that they face.
We also have come to appreciate how painful it is to leave their families behind for eight months of the year. Saying what might be a final goodbye to a spouse suffering from cancer, kissing your four month old baby knowing they will not recognize you when you next see them, wondering if your house will provide adequate protection during hurricane season in your absence, leaving a teenage son struggling with adolescence – so many concerns that those of us with privilege can scarcely imagine.
As the years passed, I felt a growing unease at the disparity between the rights that Canadians take for granted and the system that seemed to offer so little protection to the offshore workers.
In the past ten years I have witnessed seemingly minor problems with health care, transportation and communication quickly escalate into situations with major consequences for not only the farm worker but also their families back home.
Simple misunderstandings within the workplace result in reprisals and firings with no chance for an appeal. The resulting “black mark” on their record removes them from the work program permanently without once having a chance to offer an explanation. Government liaison services offer little in the way of advocacy for such situations, concerned primarily with the priorities of protecting the program itself.
Despite their 50 year history of living and working in our community, social exclusion and isolation continue to be a concern. I have met men who have been coming up eight months of the year for over 40 years who are still considered strangers.
CWOP ( Caribbean Workers Outreach Project) started in the mid 1990’s and in recent years has been run by a small but dedicated group of seniors from Grace United Church. Their friendships with the men have been literally life saving to those who are isolated and marginalized. They offer Sunday night services and social events in May and June, and bring in a Jamaican pastor to preach at the services and visit the farms during that time. Bethany Mennonite Church hosts the CWOP services during the two months.
There are ten remaining months in the year when there is absolutely no social or spiritual support for the men and women. Some arrive as early as January and others remain as late as December. Many suffer alone as they struggle to deal with the death of a spouse or family member, work related health concerns, heat exhaustion, and financial pressures.
Churches are the most well positioned to meet this urgent need, especially in light of their professed mandate to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Although there have been one or two events held by out of town churches in past years, there seems to be little interest in cultivating ongoing relationships within the local faith community.
With the exception of a few, the attitude of most churches in Niagara on the Lake/Virgil has been one of indifference. A few outreach projects were started, after which articles and photos quickly appeared in denominational magazines giving glowing impressions of a caring church. There were no follow up articles a year later portraying the abandonment of the people in the “projects”. I have wondered if the publicity surrounding these ill fated “projects not people” is another form of exploitation of migrant men and women.
In 2013 the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) hosted a meeting for Mennonite pastors to discuss the urgent need to develop a plan to connect with their brothers and sisters on the farms. CWOP leadership spoke about the need for the Mennonites to take responsibility for “loving their neighbours as themselves”. With an aging congregation at Grace United, they were faced with the reality that they were running out of resources and volunteers.
Following group discussion, pastors and leaders listed the reasons that their Mennonite churches have excluded farm workers:
- people do not want to leave their comfort zone
- racist attitudes in the church
- fear of unknown
- we don’t speak their language, we can’t understand them
- there is a perception that they are dangerous
- they are not part of the church’s mission
- no money in the church budget for outreach
- people have no time, it’s not a priority
- some farmers that attend local congregations are afraid of interference
- we want to avoid feelings of shame because of the long history of their exclusion
- we do not want to know because it will require us to change
The conversations that followed offered hope for change.
In 2013 and 2014, MCC hired a community engagement intern as part of the Welcoming Communities program. Social worker Rachel Pellett Gillette was well equipped to take on the challenge of laying the foundation for this vital ministry. The goal was to partner with and provide volunteer support to CWOP, as well as initiate practical ways for local Mennonite churches to engage with offshore workers during the months when there was no spiritual or social support. Although it only ran from May to October it filled a tremendous need and was deeply appreciated by the farm workers.
As people of racial and class privilege we do not understand how challenging it is for these men and women to put their trust in relationships that are so easily dismissive of their value as a friend or equal. For many of them it was the first time in many years of coming to Niagara that they began to risk investment in deeper levels of friendship and community.
After only two years, in February 2015, the program was abruptly cancelled due to lack of support/interest from local churches. The termination of the highly successful program was a severe blow to the men and women on the farms. The farm workers felt abandoned and extremely frustrated that they had no way to communicate with MCC to express their concerns. They asked to have a video recording of their concerns brought to the head office but those in charge declined to watch it.
It was a painful reminder that they are considered easily discarded projects, not individuals worthy of relationship.
In fall 2015 Robert had his first Sunday off in four months. He was excited that he could finally go to church where he had attended Bible studies the previous year. A phone call was made early in the week to the church office requesting a ride. Emails were sent out to various church committees. They finally responded that they were not sure if they were going to continue to have a “ministry” for farm workers. I told them to connect with Robert directly to give him their answer. Robert sat dressed and ready for church but nobody came. Nobody called. At least 30 half empty cars pulled into the parking lot that morning. It was a grand morning, full of joy and music as people celebrated Thanksgiving and a bountiful harvest. Celebrating a harvest that could not have happened without the farm workers who were not invited to the table.
Let me introduce you to your neighbour Michael.
He has been working and living in your neighbourhood for over 20 years. Every week he has ridden his bike into Virgil to buy groceries and do his banking at the credit union. One Friday at the grocery store he felt nauseous. As he rode his bike home on Four Mile Creek Road he lost consciousness. He made it back onto his bike before shortly passing out again on the grassy boulevard. This happened four times before he finally reached his bunk house a short distance away, almost an hour and a half later. Despite it being a busy evening in Virgil, nobody stopped to see if he needed help.
His coworkers called the ambulance immediately upon his return. He barely made it to the hospital where emergency heart surgery saved his life.
I asked why he didn’t call for help at one of the homes he passed. At least four of the houses belonged to Christians, one of them a pastor. He looked at me incredulously and then away, embarrassed.
“They wouldn’t have answered the door, we know what they think of we Jamaicans. They would have called the police and I didn’t want to get in trouble. I’d get a black mark on my name and never be able to come back.”
With 60% damage to his heart he will never be able to work again.
Meet your neighbour Mark. We visited his family in Jamaica on numerous occasions. Two months after our first visit to his family we invited him to come to our house for Easter dinner. He had been working with the same farm for 32 years. It was the first time that he had been invited into a Canadian’s home!
Meet James, your neighbour for over 24 years. I ran into him and a co-worker in the waiting room at the health clinic one evening last summer. They had worked 10 hours that day, then rode their bikes in the baking heat almost 11 km to the clinic. They hadn’t had supper yet because they had to make it to the clinic before closing. They were both struggling to breathe because of the pollen and dust blowing about in the fields. It had been a prolonged dry spell and the dust was laden with fungicides and pesticides.
A well groomed woman walked past us in the crowded room and muttered something in their direction before leaving the clinic. The men looked down at their shoes, humiliated. When I questioned him, James explained what had happened when they first arrived.
“We were just waiting for the doctor when she told us in front of everyone that we Jamaicans are full of crap. She said that we were just using the system. We were so embarrassed!
I told her we didn’t want to make any trouble, I was just having a little conversation with my friend. Another lady who was waiting too told us to not pay any attention but everyone in the room could hear what she said. “
I bought them some bottles of water for the long ride home. The wind had picked up, it was going to be an exhausting ride back to the bunkhouse at the end of a long day, especially when you can’t get enough oxygen into your lungs.
Every year I meet injured men spending days, sometimes weeks, alone in their bunk houses feeling sick, confused, and extremely anxious. The uncertainty and stress alone takes a toll on their physical and mental health. Despite claims that they are covered by health insurance, they receive little to no financial support. They have no money for groceries, much less to send home to the families relying on them.
Even more disturbing is the systemic injustice inflicted on the injured by the WSIB.
In February 2008, my friend Jodie and I visited our neighbour Jeleel Stewart in Jamaica. We were so impressed with the warmth of his close knit family, it was one of the highlights of our trip.
That spring Jeleel returned to Niagara to work at a local nursery. In May his left hand was crushed when a forklift dropped on it. A three hour surgery to reattach severed tendons and nerves was unsuccessful. The following two months he suffered lonely days in great pain, unable to cook or care for himself with only one hand. Although he was technically covered by sick benefits, he returned home after two months without having received a penny. Upon his return he received physiotherapy three times a week. Months later when he began to receive sick benefits it was barely enough to feed his family. Jodie and I began to help out financially so his children could attend school and have enough to eat.
In November 2010 he received a letter from WSIB stating that his compensation would be terminated. It informed him that there were jobs available at gas bars in Niagara that were suitable for a person with one hand. It was of no consideration that he did not live in Niagara or in fact would ever be able to receive a work permit from the Canadian government in order to take the available job.
Former slave Robert Jupiter risked his life and lost everything, putting his faith in the system. His simple desire was to work as a free man, to support his family. He suffered a slow death in a distant land, a broken man abandoned by the government he trusted.
Two hundred years later, men and women are coming to Niagara with faith in the Canadian government and the hope that they can provide for their families.
Jeleel Stewart is part of a disposable workforce, abandoned after having his hand and his hopes crushed. He is dying a slow death due to related complications, in and out of the hospital almost weekly now. He is in constant pain eight years after the accident, fighting serious depression and thoughts of suicide. He has lost his home, everything, and his family clings to the hope that someday justice will be served. Men like Jeleel are not even included in the statistics, simply disappearing from the records after being sent home. WSIB and our community have turned their backs on those suffering from permanent injuries.
Early church buildings such as St. Mark’s Anglican and St.Andrews Presbyterian are indicators of the wealth and prosperity that was created through the economic structure of slavery.
The migration of Mennonites from the 20’s to 30’s was directly related to the fact that this was prime agricultural land. It wasn’t until the mid 60’s when the farm work program was implemented that they could expand their farm operations, confidant that they now had a reliable work force. The fresh wave of prosperity allowed new churches to be constructed or extensively renovated – Niagara United Mennonite, Bethany United Mennonite, Niagara Chapel, Orchard Park Mennonite Brethren and Virgil Mennonite Brethren. Virgil MB was later rebranded as Cornerstone Church . It is ironic that the people who provided the work force to make this growth possible have not been welcomed. Leadership would argue that they are welcome but in the past 50 years it has only been as observers, not participants. There are a few exceptions as individuals but collectively resistance to inclusion still stands.
In museum exhibits I study the faces in sepia tinted photos, men and women who risked their lives travelling as many as a thousand miles or more in their search for freedom. Many of the stories behind these dusty photos are finally coming to light more than 150 or 200 years later.
I wonder what kind of questions people will be asking 100 years from now about our time period. Will the men and women working in our orchards and producing worldclass wines also be nameless and disposable?
I don’t pretend to be an expert on these matters but I do know that I can’t “unsee” how they have been treated with indifference or outright contempt, even by neighbours who claim to worship the same God.
I wonder how much progress has been made in 200 years.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the farm worker program in Niagara.
Maybe it’s not too late to write a new ending in this chapter of our history.