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Mark Dance: Among the migrant workers in Canada

Date

2014-03-10

Newspaper title

The National Post

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I was doing my best to cajole my Mexican migrant worker colleagues into joining me at the local Canada Day parade when my friend Guadalupe shot back with a demoralizing question: “Canada doesn’t care about us, why would we care about Canada?”

A remarkable summer spent living and working with 28 Mexican migrant workers brought with it daunting issues, but Guadalupe’s inquiry was amongst the most confounding and frustrating I would face.

Living on a farm just outside of Brantford, Ont., I spent six days each week rushing up and down rows of trees, doing everything in my power to keep up with the agricultural toil and breakneck Spanish of my new friends. As a labourer-teacher sent to the farm by the Canadian literacy organization Frontier College, my role was to perform the same onerous manual work as my migrant worker colleagues while teaching them basic English language skills by night.

But my job was also to spend time with these people and learn from them, coming to understand the precariousness of their work in a country that brings them here for little more than the extraction of their labour.

Guadalupe’s cynicism about Canada Day was absolutely justified; there is little evidence that Canada is a country that cares about migrant workers. Despite stays in Canada that often last eight months each year, most of Canada’s 25,000 seasonal agricultural workers lack mobility rights and are obligated to live on their employer’s property, essentially indenturing them to a single farmer. Frequently, migrant workers are barred from pursuing substantial education while in Canada, exacerbating the social isolation they feel from their adopted communities. What rights and services they do have are often unknown to them due to formidable literacy and language barriers.

Temporary foreign workers are an unappealing demographic for politicians to defend. They have no votes to offer and are perennially portrayed as economic opportunists snatching Canadian jobs. Hearing last month that the government of Ontario has stripped Frontier College of its funding for the labourer-teacher program on a geographical technicality served as a harsh reminder of how inconsequential the well-being of these labourers remains to our governments.

And yet, experiences with the labourer-teacher program have tended to teach young Canadians that migrant workers should matter to us far more. Scott Zoltok, a 2011 labourer-teacher and graduate student at the University of Toronto, explains how his four months on a vegetable farm were composed of “incredibly long, hot, and difficult 80-90 hour work weeks,” but that the summer showed him how “some people do that year after year for their entire working lives.”

Zoltok says that Canadians are unmoved by migrant worker issues because of a lack of information; relationships with these labourers reveal that “these people are making massive contributions to Canadian society but in the process not being afforded their rights and receive no acknowledgment from Canada.”

Zoltok notes that the language teaching at the core of his time as a labourer-teacher was an important consolation, allowing his foreign colleagues to “function better in Canadian society, have improved relationships with their supervisor and connect with English organizations that might be able to help them.”

From the start of its mission to educate and empower 115 years ago, Frontier College’s maxim has drawn on a provocative quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I would not have the labourer sacrificed to the result. Let there be worse cotton and better men.” The labourer-teacher program has long been an embodiment of the idea that Canadians might want more than bare economic growth.

In a Canada that cared about the well-being of migrant workers, the reaction to these cuts would be threefold: the officials responsible for the defunding would step up and rectify what was hopefully an administrative oversight, reallocating funds to the labourer-teacher program and to other similarly innovative initiatives. Meanwhile, Frontier College would continue its bold historical mandate of educating and empowering marginalized people, seeking new sources of revenue to service migrant workers. Finally — and most importantly — Canadians would inform themselves about the struggles of migrant labourers, mobilizing around these issues and supporting initiatives like the labourer-teacher program.

Until those steps are taken, Guadalupe’s question still vexes: “Canada doesn’t care about us, why would we care about Canada?” When he asked, my response was that Canada does actually care about him and my presence on the farm was one small demonstration of that fact.

I see now that there is a much harder row to hoe to get Canadians engaged in the support and empowerment of migrant workers. With these cuts and the cancellation of the labourer-teacher program, I feel like such a harvest is further away than ever.

National Post

Mark Dance was a Frontier College labourer-teacher in 2008 and is currently completing a Studio Y innovation fellowship at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

File Attachments

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Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers and General farm workers

Content types

Support initiatives

Target groups

Public awareness

Geographical focuses

Ontario and National relevance

Spheres of activity

Social work

Languages

English