The Clarendon Connection – Ernie Bell Retires

Ernie Bell is winding up his 39th and last season on a Niagara farm.  (Jane Andres)

The parish of Clarendon lies in the heart of Jamaica’s mountainous countryside. Few Niagara locals have even heard of this area, yet many of us have been influenced by or benefitted from the “Clarendon connection.”

Most of us are familiar with Dr. Gervan Fearon, former president and vice-chancellor of Brock University (2017 – 2021), who spent his formative childhood years in Clarendon before moving to Ontario.

Juliet Dunn is a familiar name to music-lovers, one of the key figures responsible for keeping the jazz scene in Niagara thriving. Juliet’s father hails from a tiny hamlet high in the mountains of Clarendon, a short distance from the town of Sandy River.

In the spring of 1982, a young man in Sandy River, Ernest Bell was packing his suitcase in preparation for his first trip to Canada on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

It was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to refuse, and he joined many young men flying for the first time out of Kingston airport. The headlines in the airport newsstands heralded U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s successful visit to Jamaica, promising hope and new opportunities for trade with their beleaguered economy. In reality, heavily subsidized American produce was flooding the markets, forcing Jamaican farmers to look for employment overseas.

The SAWP began in 1966 as a short term fix for labour shortages on Canadian farms. Many of the men who were hired also thought of it as a temporary way to earn income until the economy improved in the Caribbean, not as a career choice.

Ernie was newly married to Lillian, the love of his life, and as the family grew so did his responsibilities. It was a challenge to maintain strong connections with his five children during the eight months away, especially during the early years, when making contact via phone was difficult. As with almost all farm workers, there was little time for a holiday upon their return home. The first morning after arriving home at the end of each season Ernie was anxious to survey his own fields of cabbage, yam, and lettuce crops. He had to start planning immediately for the preparatory work that needed to be accomplished before leaving a few short months later.

Ernie has seen a lot of changes in Niagara-on-the-Lake over the many years he’s been working and living here. In 1982, Bob Hunter was his energetic, enthusiastic employer, well-known for his involvement in the church and community. His son Ken was just in his 20s, but already following in his father’s footsteps. Hunter Farms relied on Ernie and his co-workers to prune the trees in early spring. By mid-May the peach trees required thinning, a specialized task that would allow the fruit to size up properly.

The crops were mainly peaches and tart cherries. The production facility that sold pitted and sugared cherries by the bucket was a thriving hub of activity from June to late July.

When the farm shifted into grape production around 2016, the large workforce was downsized dramatically. Ernie and a few others were able to remain living in the bunkhouses on the Hunter property after they transferred to the MacSween farm.

I first met Ernie at a welcome  concert for farm workers in 2007, where he and his co-worker Clive Brown received certificates of appreciation for their 25-plus years of service in NOTL. I found an old photo of him receiving the certificate at the event, and included it in an album I created as a keepsake of his time in Niagara. He eagerly began reminiscing over the photos with a co-worker when I surprised him with it.

Many of the photos were taken by Dr. Janet MacLaughlin, who had visited Ernie and his young family in February, 2007, in Sandy River.

Ernie pointed out a photo of his young self ,proudly posing with a very large and perfect head of lettuce. Laughing, he pulled out his smartphone, scrolling through the photos until he found a recent one of his now adult daughter, Vanesha, holding a beautiful head of lettuce in an almost identical pose as him in the 2007 photo.

She is passionate about farming, and has been a big help tending to the crops while he was away.

Next year he plans to plant and enjoy harvesting his own crops back home.

Thirty-nine years of missing birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals – all family milestones. He has a lot of catching up to do, and is eagerly looking forward to celebrating his grandchildren’s birthdays with real hugs, instead of watching on a tiny screen almost 3,000 kilometres away.

In 2019, I remember hearing the distant sounds of the Niagara Jazz Festival drifting over the vineyards in our neighbourhood, a beautiful blend of cultures from the heart of Clarendon to the heart of Niagara. It may be a tiny parish, but the Clarendon connection has provided not only decades of dependable employees like Ernie, but enduring friendships that are priceless.

Thank you Ernie. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement!