The Erasure of Migrant Workers From our Rural Landscape
By Chris Ramsaroop
Illustration by J4MW
For nearly two decades Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) has organized with migrant farmworkers across Ontario to confront the injustices labourers have faced working in our fields. This struggle has taken many forms: protests, mass organizing meetings, legal challenges, and media exposures. J4MW’s work has focused on addressing the pillars of an apartheid system that relegate migrant workers to an indentured system of labour while working in Canada. Temporary migrant workers are always seen as mobile, transient between Canada and their home country matter how long they have worked in Canada.
When employed under Canada’s temporary foreign worker program; migrant farmworkers are tied to an employer, denied equal access to entitlements such as healthcare and education and must return home upon completion of their contract. Two separate migration schemes operate in our fields: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Agricultural Stream under the Temporary Foreign Workers. Workers have a limited duration of employment and can not apply for permanent residency. This labour program has existed for over 51 years and is based on similar schemes that brought indentured labour in post-slavery periods.
A legal system of exclusion is probably the last thing that one would think of when visiting a local farmers market, family farm or buying produce that is marked ‘local’. Many people claim ignorance or call this Canada’s dirty secret. Others are shocked when they hear of the abuses that occur in our own fields. Yet this isn’t a story about ignorance, or simply not knowing about the apartheid system in Canadian fields; ideology is at play in how the mythic image of Canada’s agricultural landscape is constructed. Simultaneously, racialized bodies such as migrant workers are often erased, historicized and decontextualized. Spatially, migrant workers are hidden from plain sight often being housed in bunkhouses in the back of employer’s properties.
In Min Sook Lee’s seminal documentary El Contrato, audiences gasp in one scene where an employee refers to farm employers as ‘owners’ of the thousands of migrant workers employed in the region. After seeing this scene countless times, and engaging in discussions where audiences grapple with the idea of property, ownership and racialized bodies, it’s not about what the intentions of this employer’s words and whether or not they misspoke. The reality for migrant workers are they are seen as unfree labour hence connected to both land and private property in rural Canada.
Representation in rural landscapes is critical to understanding Canada’s agricultural history. Think of the imagery that is associated with rural land. Who is seen and who is erased? Who owns the land and who does not? How has land been commodified, and by whom? We are often told a narrative of white farmers owning vast plots of land, generation after generation. Rarely is the story about the ongoing violence that is inflicted on racialized bodies and theft of Indigenous land told. When we speak of the violence inflicted on the bodies of migrants, never do we think of the violent processes of colonialism that has uprooted migrants from their own communities to toil in our fields. Never do we think about the violence that occurs during immigration raids where migrants are forcibly removed from their workplaces for administrative infractions under Canada’s immigration system. Rarely do we think about the countless workers who are injured and killed in the production of food.
Our work in J4MW is to dismantle the state narrative of land and food production to ensure that migrant struggles are not erased. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program, Justicia for Migrant Workers organized a 30-day caravan across Ontario. Entitled, Harvesting Freedom, the caravan visited over 30 communities and engaged with thousands of migrant workers and community allies to demand permanent residence for migrant farmworkers. Our demand is an intervention to push the boundaries of how migrant workers are positioned in relation to land. Concepts such as “seasonal” and “temporary” perpetually remove migrant workers from the image of Canada’s rural landscape. Many of the women and men who we have met over the last two decades are the same faces that come to Canada year after year, often living and working in Canada for up to eight months a year. We have met three or four generations of family members who continue to work and live in Canada.
As part of the caravan, J4MW and activists from local communities across Ontario, organized a multi-prong strategy to engage and confront the erasure of migrant labour from the rural landscape. The caravan included events such as: local community forums, town halls, movie nights, workshops, classroom presentations, community dinners, protests, marches, direct action delegations and interventions at local farmers’ markets. One of the highlights also included a roving picket of Ontario’s Food Terminal, where hundreds of activists disrupted for hours one of North America’s largest food distribution centers.
When confronting ideas of private property and production of food, farmers markets became extremely contentious spaces during the caravan. In communities like Chatham-Kent many community members had heard about the caravan and sympathized with the struggle. In whispered tones, several passersby shared experiences where they heard about a sick or injured migrant workers wrongly sent home to their country. Others who disagreed with our messaging took time to hear us out. However, not every intervention was ‘civil’. In communities such as London, and in St.Jacob, participants in the caravan were escorted off the property by police and threatened with arrest and ticketing for trespassing on private property. When questions were posed to the organizer of these farmers markets around the injustices faced by migrant workers, they countered that farmers markets are not political spaces!
As we move forward in challenging farm labour practices, we need to not only challenge government legislation but also to engage in organizing and solidarity work. We need to question who owns the land, how has the land come to be developed and how do we challenge both ideas of a food system based on a private for-profit model to a system based on a collective cooperate model. While daunting and sometimes overwhelming, there is hope and there is always a sense of resistance. It is our responsibility to fight alongside migrant workers to change the narrative of land, food and to fight in the direction where there is justice for those engaged in the production of our food.
Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with justicia for migrant workers, a grassroots activist organization that works with migrant workers employed under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program.