Lighting the Way

The Local, Dec.27, 2022

Last weeks storm was one for the books. Thanks to the howling wind and plummeting temperatures my memories of it will be frozen as solid as the water buckets in my chicken coop.

Christmas preparations were well in hand when the wind picked up so I decided to start a task I had delayed for far too long – sorting boxes of papers and files buried in my office. Much to my delight I found CD’s and flash drives loaded with photos, stories and documents from 2005 to 2010 from my first five years of involvement with our neighbours on the farms.

I was soon awash in memories of treasured friendships, many of whom I am still connected with 17 years later.                Although I had grown up in Niagara, with relatives and friends that owned farms, I knew very little about the men and women who were the backbone of agriculture in our community.

Daily notebooks were a reminder of this, full of scribbled messages revealing a steep learning curve those first few years.  I was also reminded of how seemingly insignificant interactions provided pieces that fit into a larger “puzzle” years down the road. Simple acts of driving our neighbours to an appointment, a backyard BBQ, a trip to the Falls or rehearsing music for church were opportunities for moments of illumination as they shared their experiences of their family life back home or of daily life on the farm.

When I began planning a bold new direction with the 2010 Welcome Concert I relied on information from these conversations to light the way. The initial concert was a daunting event to plan with plenty of risks and no funding in place, but there were enough little sparks of light to illuminate the path, one step at a time.

In the years that followed more locals became involved as the caring community and the capacity for gratitude grew.

After 2016 finding a local venue that could seat 800 or more for the Welcome concerts required a change in plans and the Welcome event evolved into the Peach Pickers Picnic the following 3 years. Expressing appreciation was something that our community thrived in! Over 1000 meals were served at the 2019 Picnic, set to the live music of Mexican and Jamaican bands comprised of both locals and farm workers.

Time seemed to blur during the first 2 years of Covid with some very dark moments that marked certain passages. Despite this, there were a growing number of lights that flickered during those dark times, as locals who respected and believed in the dignity of farm workers stepped up to contribute food and warm clothing as they arrived for the season. The ways we continue to create a warm and welcoming community have proven to be unlimited, thanks to the immense creativity and generosity of all those involved.

2022 sadly marked the passing of men who contributed so much to our community over the decades – Headley Vassal, employed by John Rozitis, Harvill Maye at Macsween Farm and Devon MacKenzie at Stratus Winery.  Harvill’s memorial service at CWOP ( Caribbean Workers Outreach Project ) on Father’s day was a tender memory of shared loss, grief and comfort.  Scott MacSween’s words of appreciation straight from the heart were a healing balm to the many who attended.

The previous week Harvill’s coworkers had hosted a traditional Jamaican candlelight service at the farm. Locals contributed giant pots for the traditional soup to be shared with guests and relatives. Another person contributed candles, someone printed the photos of Harvill to display, another dropped off strings of little lights to brighten up the night. The tantalizing aroma of jerk chicken wafted throughout the yard as two coworkers Kenroy and Shaun, displayed their DJ skills, warming up a sound system with Caribbean gospel.

When they began playing the popular song– The Goodness of God – men appeared in the doorways of their bunkhouses to sing along. It was a powerful moment to hear their voices lifted in song despite the loss of their dear friend and the challenges of the harvest season yet to come.

The glow of candlelight illuminated the warmth of the close-knit crew that night as they shared memories and stories of how they had been touched by Harvill’s life.

A few months later Stratus also hosted a memorial service for a much loved, long time employee Devon “Rocky” McKenzie . Family and friends listened as the tributes poured in to the gathering on the patio at the winery. Messages, songs and photos from family members in Jamaica were streamed on a large screen in a common outpouring of grief and appreciation.

The service ended as Devon’s little nephews from Toronto were driven off through the fields in his favourite tractor, a fitting end and tribute to their favourite uncle. It was easy to imagine Devon was there in spirit, laughing along at their excitement.

In ways I could never have imagined in those early years, the lights of 2022 have grown exponentially in warmth and brightness. Ceto Reid would add his “amen” to that.  The beauty of thousands of flickering candles at the Candlelight Stroll will continue to illuminate the path for us as a community.

The memories that stand out this year are those of candlelight – small, consistent flickers of light that continue to illuminate.  Just enough to see ahead one step at a time. One step at a time. 

The message of the song his coworkers sang in memory of Harvill still strikes a chord in my heart as I play it at the close of the year.

“You have led me through the fire
In the darkest night
You are close like no other
I’ve known You as a Father
I’ve known You as a Friend
And all my life You have been faithful
And all my life You have been so good
I will sing of the goodness of God..”