Never Lose Hope ~ An Obituary


                                                NOTL Local – Feb.25, 2024


It was the video clip of a young boy dancing that gutted me. He was wearing a jacket that was way too big, hands waving in the air, while the band played his father’s favourite old time Jamaican gospel music.

Jamar should have been celebrating his 10 birthday. Instead he was wrapped in his daddy’s favourite suit jacket surrounded by family and friends at his father’s wake. It will be the closest thing he will ever feel to his father’s hug now.


His father was Jeleel Stewart, born on July 25, 1974 in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

Jeleel was the oldest of 5 children in a close knit family. His father worked in the sugar cane fields in Florida for several months of the year until that day when the family received the news that he would not be coming home. On the farm program he was simply another casualty, a faceless statistic.

Up until then it had been a typical childhood for 13 year old Jeleel– attending school, caring for younger siblings, doing chores, playing soccer with friends and attending church. Instead of attending school, he now had to find a way to help support the family.

He began to get up at 4 in the morning and scan the surrounding hills for the distant glow of fires to guide him. He rode his battered bike for 2 hours in the pitch black of the rural countryside to the burning cane fields where he would work with the men all day, often arriving home in the dark.


Despite the hardship, his capacity for caring and nurturing continued into his adult life. After he and his wife Suzan married, they created a home that, although modest, was welcoming to everyone. If any neighbourhood child was hungry they knew that there would always be an extra plate set out for them. No one ever left the Stewart home without a hug and a full belly.


In 2007, now with children of his own, Jeleel applied for the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program and was sent to work at a nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We met on a Sunday night at the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project (CWOP) church service. He joined the music team for a post-service singalong, enthusiastically raising his arms and lifting up his voice in song. Before he returned home in November he invited us to meet his family in Jamaica.


In February my friend Jodie Godwin and I travelled to Jamaica and took him up on his invitation. We received a warm welcome, with extended family and neighbours joining in on the feast and the lively music that followed. The respect and affection for Jeleel in his community was obvious. A man of large stature with an even bigger heart, he was known for his compassion and care for his neighbours.


We could never have imagined what would unfold only a few months later.  After his return to Niagara, a forklift slipped and crushed Jeleel’s hand at work, severing his nerves and tendons. He was fully conscious during the 3 hour surgery that followed.


The following weeks were agony, with the pain medication providing little relief. He had no money for food or necessities the following 8 weeks. After 4 months he was sent home with assurance from the Jamaican Liaison that WSIB would provide physiotherapy and sick benefits.

The sick benefits were sporadic and not enough to feed the family but there was hope that the physiotherapy would restore at least partial use of his hand.


In 2010 WSIB informed him that because the damage to his hand was considered permanent by the assessing doctor, the benefits and therapy would be discontinued because of a new policy known as “deeming.” WSIB stated that because there was a cashier job available at a gas bar in Niagara which he could perform with one hand, he would no longer qualify for assistance or physio.


In disbelief, Jodie and I assured the family of our support while we attempted to find answers from WSIB.

Instead it was to be the beginning of a nightmare, witnessing firsthand the damning impact the deeming policy had on the entire family. Trying to communicate with WSIB was a quagmire of misinformation.

When we connected with IAVGO (Industrial Accident Victims Groups of Ontario ) we  discovered that Jeleel was just one of thousands of injured farm workers who had been cut off because of the new deeming policy. Repatriated to their home countries because of their injuries or work-related illness they were abandoned by the system, forced to pay for their own medical bills.


We have visited his family in Jamaica on 4 occasions since 2010.

At the close of our 2014 visit he emphasized that we  “never lose hope” .

Airissa Gemma and David Arruda, his caseworkers at IAVGO (Industrial Accident Victim’s Group of Ontario, have worked tirelessly on his behalf, dealing with bureaucratic roadblocks and contrived complications the past 14 years.


We are immensely grateful for locals who have contributed generously over the years.

Despite our best efforts Jeleel and Suzan have to make hard choices between keeping the children in school or providing the proper nutrition for the family. This combined with the ongoing pain and stress of the past 16 years lead to a serious deterioration of his overall health and the onset of diabetes in recent years.


In 2022 WSIB issued a press release boasting of their $1.5 billion surplus. Jeleel is one of many seriously injured farm workers whose suffering has allowed others to benefit from the resulting rebates.


By 2023 he was in the hospital more than he was at home. His wife struggled to keep up with the demands of home in addition to travelling to the seriously understaffed hospital to provide daily meals and care.


In September 2023 WSIAT (Workers Safety Insurance Appeal Tribunal) ruled that WSIB’s policy of deeming was racist and illegal. Jeleel would now have the opportunity to appeal the 2010 decision.

He was admitted again to hospital in November and  IAVGO requested that his appeal date be moved up. We dared to hope that Jeleel would live long enough to have his appeal heard.


On January 24th we received a message from his distraught and exhausted wife that he had passed away.

Jeleel Stewart, who was a hero not only to his family but the humble community he cared for, is gone. He was just 51 years of age and a few weeks away from having his appeal heard.


The site of the accident has been bulldozed but Jeleel’s story, however, will not be erased.

The system is not broken, it was designed to work this way.

It works out well that Canadians do not have to witness the workplace related trauma and suffering that impacts workers and their families after they have been abandoned by our system.

WSIB is counting on the fact that injured men and women will give up or die before they will ever know justice. The story of Jeleel Stewart is just one more example.

The system was designed by Canadians. Canadians alone are the ones responsible, who hold the power to bring change.

This is our story, whether we choose to own it or not.

We refuse to lose hope. As a community we need to stand for justice.

Email your local MPP, your voice is important. Ask for justice for Jeleel Stewart.

Donations are needed for the Stewart family until they receive justice. For more information or to send an eTransfer contact  Please include your email address if sending an eTransfer.