Current Affairs

Eating Dinner With Canada's Migrant Workers

For the people who work our fields, food is both a livelihood and a way to stave off isolation

BY

Illustration by Jeannie Phan


Armando is not happy with the avocados. He’s cut open one of the overripe fruits, purchased from a supermarket in St. Catharines, Ontario. The interior is brown and mushy; the pit, done clinging to life, is ready to roll out in defeat. “At home, there are so many,” says Armando, who works ten to twelve hours a day cultivating Ontario wine grapes. “In Guerrero, avocados fall on the ground. Here, they are no good.”

Armando was born in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, in a village with no name and a population of about forty. His wife and three children live farther north in Sonora, in a two-room house owned by his sister. He spends the winters there with them. But for eight months of the year, he lives in Canada, planting, managing, and harvesting Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, Baco Noir, and other grapes for Ontario wines.

I can’t use Armando’s real name—or the names of any of the migrant labourers in this story. Seasonal agricultural workers return to their jobs each year at the request of their Canadian employers, who must establish that the position cannot be filled by a Canadian. With their family’s fortunes tied to this approval, it’s unwise for seasonal workers to speak out about their lives here. While it’s uncommon for workers to be fired, those who complain or refuse to perform unsafe work are not asked back the next season.

It’s November, near the end of Armando’s third season in Canada. His roommate, Juan, has been coming here for eleven years, much of it spent alongside his father, who worked here for twenty-eight years. This passing down through generations is typical of the migrant agricultural worker experience in Canada, family members living and working here for two-thirds of every year with no clear pathway to citizenship or opportunity to gain a foothold in Canadian society. Workers can change jobs only if both old and new employer agree: the labourers are, in effect, bound to their bosses.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, first introduced in 1966, is now a stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which was established in 1973 to address labour shortages in Canada. To qualify, applicants must be from Mexico or participating Caribbean countries and territories.

In 2017, about 43 percent of Canada’s 112,000 paid farmland workers were migrants. They pay taxes here but have limited access to health care (it’s hard to see a doctor when you live on a farm and have no access to a car), and they send most of their earnings back home to provide a better life for their families.

Canadians won’t do the back-breaking, low-paying work of picking our own produce. For the people we import to work our fields, food not only provides a livelihood but is also essential for maintaining their mental health, for surviving in isolation from their homes and families—which is why Armando and I are talking about avocados.

We’re in the kitchen of a little house in the Niagara wine region, where Armando and Juan live for the season. Because they have more space than other workers, they can open the house to guests on Sunday nights. Not knowing how many they might feed tonight, Juan keeps mashing potatoes and rolling them in tortillas, frying the cylinders to a crisp; the stack of flautas by the stove grows over the afternoon. Meanwhile, Armando smiles to himself as he quietly slices a hunk of beef into strips for carne asada and marinates frozen shrimp in chilies and Clamato for coctel de camarones.

I’ve come here with Aaraón Diaz Mendiburo, who examined migrant work for his post-doctoral research at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. “Food is part of our identity, as Mexicans,” says Mendiburo. “For most of the migrant workers, the foods, how they cook, and what they eat—it’s one of the things that lets them survive in these conditions. It’s like a glue. Without that, I think they wouldn’t resist the isolation in Canada.”

The kitchen reminds Armando of cooking for his children, even though the ratio of wages to food prices in Sonora makes it cost prohibitive. “In Mexico, it’s too expensive,” says Armando, shaking his head as he dices onions with a boning knife. “They pay you 1,300 pesos per week. If you’re going shopping, one kilo of meat is 150 pesos.” Here, he makes an average of $650 a week—about 9,400 pesos. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how hard the work is or how unfair the system can be from the perspective of Canadian labour rights, in Canada Armando can earn in an hour roughly what he makes in a day in Mexico.

Juan has worked in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, picking every type of produce: lettuce, cucumbers, asparagus, peppers, onions. Before Canada, Armando worked in restaurants in Texas. In Sonora, he picked grapes, as well as walnuts, watermelons, zucchini, squash, garbanzo beans, oranges, and lettuce.

Lettuce is the worst. Demonstrating the posture required to cut lettuce from the earth, Juan bends his waist so his body is folded at an uncomfortable ninety degrees. “All day,” he says. “Twelve hours a day.” Because of the way wine grapes are grown, on vines strung between wooden posts, working in a vineyard differs from harvesting other types of produce. The variety of tasks through the season—planting, setting “catch wires” to lift vines so they don’t shade one another, tying vines, pruning leaves, harvesting—is less taxing on workers’ spines, if only because they are not crouching or bending all day. “With grapes,” Juan says, “you’re standing up.” It’s still a ten-hour day, sometimes twelve. And there’s no overtime, even at six days a week, seven when they’re really busy.

Most migrant agricultural workers live in barrack-style dorms, where sometimes dozens of people sleep in an open room lined with bunk beds, sharing one or two bathrooms. Workers frequently have to accept dilapidated buildings as their homes for eight months a year. Sometimes, there are bedbugs; workboots coated in pesticide from the field may be stored inside as well. Some labourers, after they’ve been here a few seasons, share rented houses away from their workplaces. This allows workers more freedom and the ability to cook—though that is costly. And the commute, sometimes by bicycle, eats up what little free time they have.

Before we settled into Armando and Juan’s kitchen, Mendiburo and I visited a house in a nearby town, shared by a half-dozen women who work in agriculture. Their lunches for the week—chicken mole, rice, and corn—sat cooling in Tupperware on the kitchen table. A one-kilo bag of árbol chilies, brought from home, was down to scraps. We went to the supermarket, where the women bought poblanos, pork cutlets, chicken, and cilantro, and then to El Bodegon, a Latino grocery in St. Catharines that doubles as a money-transfer service. Though they could find other brands at the supermarket, the women buy the ones they are familiar with from Mexico: Maruchan instant ramen, Ariel laundry detergent. Many migrants prep meals on Sunday because they work late the other six days of the week, which doesn’t leave enough time for each person to have a shift cooking in their shared kitchen, if it even has a stove.

Armando and juan live in relative luxury, in a house that belonged to their employer’s father. The bungalow they have all to themselves seems untouched since his death a couple of years ago, the carpeted bathroom and wood-panelled den a museum of 1970s suburban taste. Due to their good fortune, the house is a bit of a community hub today—both invited and unexpected guests are welcome for dinner. “Where is the Valentina?” Armando asks Juan, rummaging around the kitchen in search of the hot sauce they like, which comes from Guadalajara. The shrimp dish isn’t spicy enough for him. We offer to go to the store while we’re picking up dinner guests, workers from a nearby flower farm, whom Mendiburo has invited.

Throughout the growing season, when the region’s population swells with migrant workers, the local grocery stores set up aisle-end displays featuring Mexican ingredients, Mendiburo says. But in late fall, as the workers finish for the season and head home (where they continue working, for less money), supermarkets shrink their stock of Mexican goods. So the Valu-mart in Niagara-on-the-Lake is out of the Valentina.

The sun is setting when we reach the guests’ farm. Three women exit a long, squat building. I want to look around, but Mendiburo warns me not to get out of the car; that there are cameras watching, and an outsider’s face might make an employer suspicious. Maria, Inés, and Rosa pile into my rental car, chatting in Spanish as we head back to the house. It’s Rosa’s birthday and her first season working here; her friends are hoping the meal will cheer her up. The difficult work and separation from her family are taking a toll on her mental health, her friends tell me.

It’s even harder here on the women than the men, Maria says. Back in Mexico, she explains, men who go to Canada for work are seen to be making sacrifices to support their families. Women doing the same thing are openly scorned for abandoning their families. But what matters most is sending money back home, which the workers do every two weeks. On most farms, every other Thursday, a bus shuttles workers into town to bank, to shop for groceries, or to buy Mexican SIM cards for their phones. For these trips, some workers are allowed three hours; the women from the flower farm get two. Maria says the queue to transfer money is usually thirty minutes. “We are running all the time,” says Maria. “No time to eat.” Their farm is processing items for the Christmas season. Tomorrow morning, they will return to pruning, wrapping, and shipping trees and wreaths for cold storage for the hectic December retail season.

Sometimes, workers, stir-crazy from their farms, will go into town on Sundays just to walk around. In Leamington, business owners proposed an anti-loitering bylaw that many observers said was intended to prevent migrants from gathering in public. According to migrant-labour activist Chris Ramsaroop, the attitude in Leamington was the most overt, but the sentiment is common. He mentions towns across Ontario where communities have objected to a school or storage facility being converted to a bunkhouse—or, as was the case in one town, where a popular doughnut-and-coffee franchise put up a sign limiting guests to a thirty-minute stay.

Armando interrupts the chatter around the table with an excited squeal. He’s discovered a bottle of Valentina behind a bag of potato chips. Disaster averted, we can eat. The small kitchen table now fills to overflowing with tortillas fried into tostadas, onions and cilantro, beef, shrimp, arroz rojo, and two salsas: Juan’s Michoacán guacamole of avocado, tomato, onion, and cilantro (more sauce than spread) and Armando’s salsa verde with tomatillo, onion, garlic, jalapeno, and cilantro. “That’s how my mom makes it,” says Armando, making sure I dab some on my taco.

The group laughs and relaxes as they use microwave-softened tortillas like gloves to grab fistfuls of the fried beef. Each time I finish a tostada topped with shrimp, our hosts load up another for me. People snack on flautas, sip cola, and, for a brief moment, indulge in a bit of nostalgia, workers from Puebla and Oaxaca arguing over which region’s mole is better. When the cookies-and-cream cake we had picked up earlier comes out, everyone sings “Las Mañanitas,” the Mexican birthday song, for Rosa, who cries when I drop her off back at the farm.

Within a couple of weeks, Armando has returned to Sonora, where he works picking grapes, guavas, and walnuts. His oldest child is into soccer, and the middle one likes Iron Man. But Armando spends Christmas Eve with his youngest daughter, in Mexico City, where she is in the hospital again, being treated for persistent kidney problems. She is three years old, but Armando says she looks more like a child of one and cannot walk or speak. Armando is able to stay with a cousin in the city and get by on street tacos and tortas, which he likes but feels gross eating every day. The cost of buses and taxis, and of the added time off work, chews up the money he’s spent all year saving.

It pains him to be back in Mexico yet still be unable to spend time with his whole family. “It’s hard for me and my wife. I want to see my other children. My son calls me and says, ‘Where is my dad? I need you.’” Between work and the hospital, he’s barely had time to cook for his kids. Instead, he has cried, gone to church, and prayed. In early April, Armando’s family gathers at his sister’s house to see him off. The night before his flight, they feast on tamales, tacos, and pozole. The next day, he hugs his wife and children goodbye, takes a bus to Mexico City, then a plane to Toronto and a bus to wine country. And he is gone for another eight months.

A couple of weeks after they returned to Canada this spring, I have dinner with Armando and Juan again. When I arrive at the house, the kitchen is humming with a couple of other workers from the farm. As we gather at the table, Juan brings us tortillas, which he’s stuffed with potatoes and sausage and fried to a crisp. We load them up with three salsas on the table: pico de gallo, salsa verde, and a thin sauce of árbol chilies. These spicy, crispy bombs are among the best tacos I’ve ever had, and I want to eat as many as I can, but Armando cautions me to hold off until the meat arrives. More than anything, Armando is thrilled to share that his youngest daughter’s health has improved. In the hospital, she began walking a bit, using a cart to steady herself. He grins widely as he shows me photos and videos on his phone. The doctors say she will eventually need a new kidney, which Armando expects to come from him or his wife.

Soon there is a big pile of carne asada on the table, beef that Juan has fried in some spice he won’t reveal to me, and a bowl of ceviche, made with frozen filets of sole. I ask Armando about his plans for the future and how long he thinks he can do this. Armando owns a small plot of land in Sonora and hopes to build a house on it someday. I ask about loans and mortgages and building costs. He says it’s not like that for people like him. It would cost about $100,000 to build a nice house, he estimates. Instead, he expects to hire friends in the building trades to construct a home piece by piece, maybe laying foundation one year and plumbing the next, adding on as money becomes available. He has no idea how long it will take to build or when he could even afford to begin. For now, it’s only a dream. All he can do is keep plugging away, working and saving as much as possible, hoping and praying to avoid the bad luck of illness or natural disaster that could wipe out his savings in an instant.

In his 2010 book Arrival City, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders describes an ideal symbiotic relationship that can form when migrants from poor rural areas relocate to live and work on the outskirts of urban economic centres: urban society benefits from inexpensive labour and cultural enrichment, and rural society gains new sources of income and economic mobility. But a key element of this relationship is freedom of movement: giving migrants entrepreneurial opportunities and the ability to move their families here would be transformative for them—and beneficial for Canadians.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program benefits both parties, but we get the better end of the deal. Canada still has a point system for skilled foreign worker immigration, in which applications are scored up to 100 points for language, education, experience, age, arranged employment in Canada, and adaptability. Do we owe points to agricultural labourers who live, work, and pay taxes here for years on end? Or are we only interested in trading the bare minimum in exchange for the human cost of keeping produce cheap?

Armando would like to immigrate here, maybe open a restaurant. But his wife doesn’t want to leave Mexico. This conflict is by design: the selection process for the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program prefers applicants who have dependents back home, so they will be less likely to move here. (According to a 2009 University of Toronto thesis by Janet McLaughlin, 94 percent of Mexican workers are married.) So Armando says he’ll probably only do this for five more years—unless his kids want to pursue higher education. “My daughter wants to be a doctor. If she wants to go to school for that, I have to come back.” If she doesn’t want to keep studying, he tells her, “you will be like me.”

Corey Mintz has written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the New York Times.

Jeannie Phan (jeanniephan.com) draws for Quill & Quire and the New York Times.

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »


Elsewhere on TheWalrus.ca