Niagara concert welcomes migrant farm workers : Toronto Star

By NICHOLAS KEUNG   Friday, May 3, 2013

It is not often migrant farm workers get to party and go to a concert after a long day of back-bending labour in the field.Certainly not a concert dedicated to them, with black gospel, reggae and R&B music by their host community.   Jane Andres, who runs a bed and breakfast in Niagara, started the Niagara Workers Welcome concert to show the community’s appreciation of the hard work by migrant farm workers.  (JOEL HANNIGAN PHOTO)


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Ryan Gaio, son of Niagara farm owners Walter and Katherine Gaio, and Jamaican migrant farm worker Mike Young performed Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” at last year’s FARM WORKERS WELCOME concert in Niagara. (JOEL HANNIGAN PHOTO)


That is what makes the Farm Workers Welcome concert, which takes place on the first Sunday of May at Niagara’s Orchard Park Bible Church, a unique affair.

“I love the warm welcome and the fellowship at the concert,” said Leonard James, who has been coming here from Jamaica for the last 13 years. “We really appreciate the chance to socialize and meet with the local people. We have few opportunities to hear music of that calibre when we are here.”

While the media often focuses on stories of abuse and exploitation of migrant farm workers, the Niagara community — with 42 farmhouse locations — has been quietly hosting the annual concert since 2007.

“It gives us an opportunity to say thank you to these hardworking men and women who are traditionally invisible in our community,” said Jane Andres, owner of the Applewood Hollow Bed and Breakfast, who spearheaded the event after coming across migrant workers through her church volunteering.

“Music has the power to transcend cultural barriers. There is something about farm owners letting their guard down and having a good time together with the workers.”

Andres, who has lived in the area since 1997, said migrant workers don’t have the means of transportation and bussing them to the venue can be chaotic.

More than 26,000 migrant farm workers come to Canada each year through the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, most of them to Ontario and about 7,000 to the Niagara region.

These workers from the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America spend a maximum eight months in Canada and must leave the country during the off-season — an opportunity for them to spend time with their families back home.The concert, free for migrant workers and $20 each for employers, is set for early May to fit in the farmers’ work schedule, to ensure as many migrant workers can attend.

“These guys get up at 4 a.m. and most work on Sunday. You have 18 guys but four showers. More than 300 people need rides,” said Andres with a laugh. “It’s a real challenge.”

Elly Hoff and Fred Meyers, owners of the 68-year-old Meyers Fruit Farms, are strong supporters of the event. Their daughter, Julie Hoff Thompson, is performing at the concert with their migrant workers, Courtney Mitchell and Delroy Myrie, and Earl Newell from nearby Abe Epp Farms.

They managed to rehearse a week ago for an old gospel tune called “God’s Unchanging Hand” and a medley of Caribbean choruses backed up by the Toronto Mass Choir and Fyah Brigade, a drumming group.

“It is something to make them feel at home and be part of the community. And we appreciate their presence and help,” said Hoff, who brings in 50 migrants a year to work in its greenhouses and on its orchards and vineyards.

Karen Burke, founder and director of the 50-member Toronto Mass Choir, said the concert has opened the eyes of her members, including her husband, Oswald Burke, a Jamaican native.

“In Jamaica, my husband saw people going off to work in Canada but knew very little about them. Migrant workers are a mystery to us here in Canada and in Jamaica,” said Burke.

“We all love food and we are thankful to the migrant workers for doing the thankless job. The concert is our opportunity to give back and bring circles back together.”

Penner MacKay, a local professional drummer and percussionist, said he loves the vibe of the concert.

“Everyone is on their feet, clapping, singing and dancing. It’s always standing-room only. It is a feel-good thing and everybody wins,” said MacKay, who is planned some jamming sections with a group of drummers made up of migrants and farm owners.

“At the end of the night, we all feel on top of the world and you can feel the liveliness, enthusiasm and exuberance.”