Register Saturday | September 26 | 2020
The Hand That Feeds You

The Hand That Feeds You

How did we end up with a farming system that endangers both its workers and the people it feeds? Experts say this is Canada’s Gordian knot, but Francesca Bianco tries to unravel it anyway.

Experts' worst predictions have become reality. After rising infections among migrant farmworkers in Canada, two Mexican workers have died, thousands of kilometres away from loved ones. Their tragedy shows just how woefully unprepared Canada is to look after its most vulnerable. As a response, Mexico has temporarily halted sending in more workers. Their deaths were both inevitable and preventable, experts say, and represent a half-century of failure to provide adequate protections. At the same time, farmers across the country face big losses due to labour shortages. So, how did we reach the point where the people fuelling Canada's food system are both the most precarious and the lowest paid? The pandemic urges us to consider our system's hidden costs—and perhaps reimagine Canadian farming and the temporary foreign farm workers' scheme entirely.

Having to park outside on 184th Street, after hours, reminded me that the owners of this property did not want me here. It was pitch black except for a shimmer of rain bouncing off my headlights, a late spring evening in 2018, in nowhere Surrey, British Columbia. The car door slammed and I fumbled across a puddled ditch, then over to a silhouette that had emerged from a garage awning. As I got closer, a yard light revealed a young man with a square face and a sparsely whiskered mustache. He looked barely old enough to be out of high school. I shook his hand and he introduced himself as Marcos. 

Marcos led me up a set of flimsy stairs padded with bath towels and into a second-storey makeshift loft. It was empty except for mismatched sofas pushed together into a corral-like structure. A ceiling bulb flickered, and four other men appeared from dark, dormitory-style rooms. “Hola,” they said. “Hola,” I echoed. “Perdón, pero no hablo español.” I was ushered into a short hallway between the living room and kitchen, given a plastic picnic chair and welcomed to sit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man in the kitchen chopping vegetables. The whole apartment smelled of soy sauce and stir-fry.

The men were all migrant agricultural workers from Mexico. This particular farm cultivated all kinds of produce, from sweet peppers to kabocha squash. But to meet the ever-growing local demand, what they produced most was bok choy, tung choy and Shanghai choy. “All the choys!” said one of the workers, lightheartedly. 

We sat in a circle around a small man, Raul Gatica, who I had been shadowing around the Lower Mainland as he met with migrant agricultural workers through his advocacy organization, Dignidad Migrante, which translates to “Migrant Dignity.” He was well acquainted with life as a migrant farm worker in Canada—he once was one. The men in the room greeted Raul, affectionately, as “El Tigre!” Raul is feisty; he isn’t always easy to get along with. When I first called him for this story, he berated me. “What is your commitment to these workers?” he said. “You need to learn how to become a human first and journalist second!” And then he hung up on me. 

Raul handed out small flyers about Dignidad Migrante and rose one finger up to speak, all eyes shifting intently to him. I sensed that he was on the verge of a lecture. He called out Marcos like an elementary school teacher might. “Tell me  what you do if you get injured!” Marcos fumbled for an answer. “Not exactly,” Raul answered. “You call us, and we help you fill out workers’ compensation!” The whole floor shook as the laundry machine whirled in the next room. It felt as if the shoddily constructed space threatened to collapse down to the garage below.

All of a sudden, a man in the circle clapped and the conversation stopped. They had almost forgotten that a programmed alarm goes off at 8:30 PM if the apartment’s main door is opened, and this was their last chance to leave without triggering it. Two of the five workers lived across the road. 

It was also our last chance to leave undetected; the employers didn’t exactly want us there, Raul reminded me. When he goes onto local farms during daylight hours, he often does it on the sly, posing as a priest, a cousin, a farm worker. 

When the World Health Organization labelled the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic this March, Raul felt rising anxiety. He knew that even in normal circumstances, migrant farm workers in Canada are cut off from the rest of the world, and during a public health crisis this takes on new meaning. Raul’s seen it happen before: during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, he says the migrant agricultural workers living in BC at the time felt more isolated than ever in their employer-provided housing. If they got sick, he says, “Nobody, nobody wanted to get close to them. So, I picked them up and I brought them to the hospital.”

This spring, Raul started to organize once again, advocating this time from his tiny Vancouver apartment where he was in lockdown, armed just with his cellphone. WhatsApp messages from workers began to ping ceaselessly. In late April, by the time most of them should have been on the ground in Canada, planting crops, BC greenhouse growers reported that just under 70 percent of the usual migrant workforce was at work. Many workers had waited in their home countries as health protocols were introduced and approved. As the weeks went by, they wondered how they might secure odd jobs at home—where they may have not worked for decades. 

In Canada, the food supply seemed increasingly threatened. “We’re really pushing the envelope here,” said Linda Delli Santi, the executive director of the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association, in April. To relieve some of the pressure, some of her members looked to hire high-school students, with a small measure of success. In normal times, it’s virtually impossible to hire students as they are needed in April and May, when school is still in session. They’ve been useful, she says, but don’t solve the labour shortage. 

Chartered flights (paid for by Canadian farmers) began to fly through closed airspace, bringing in more migrant farm workers. But Delli Santi said the situation was close to critical and huge quantities of food could be lost. “One of my growers said that when they arrive at the point where they really require physical labour to do the crop work, they will take a step back and look at the number of people on the ground,” says Delli Santi. “Then they will look at the amount of greenhouse they can manage without killing themselves, and just abandon the rest.”

Most Canadians aren’t used to this kind of insecurity—farmers behind schedule, crops left in the ground, empty shelves. Before the pandemic, we plucked our waxed apples, wrapped portobellos, and seasoned steak from the shelves without having to pay much attention to where it all came from. And perhaps that’s in part because the details made us a little uncomfortable. 

In most industries, labour shortages can be solved two ways: by raising wages to market-clearing rates or by moving production to where the workers are. Both solutions are virtually impossible in Canadian agriculture. Wages can’t be raised to meet Canadian standards; farmers operate in global markets, so the price we pay as consumers for a Canadian product is bound to the price of imported goods. Negotiating power rests with a handful of supermarket chains that can draw hard bargains with suppliers. And we cannot outsource Canadian farms. So, we import labour. This gives Canadian farmers a foreign workforce with the necessary skills—and also a willingness to accept work conditions most Canadians find untenable. 

As consumers, we’ve accepted all this, shrugging off the more unappetizing morsels of our food system. Migrant workers have remained largely invisible to mainstream Canadian society. They do dirty and difficult work for minimum wage, adapting to twelve-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, on a seasonal basis. Now the pandemic forces us to consider the hidden costs of our system. How did we reach the point where the people keeping it running are also the lowest paid, with the most precarious immigration status? How did we end up with a food system that puts both its workers and the people it feeds at risk? 

“We asked for workers, but human beings came,” wrote the Swiss novelist Max Frisch in the 1960s. At the time, northern Europe was experiencing a wave of “guest worker” migration from southern Europe. The same thing was happening then in Canada. Before World War II, farming was a family business: growers worked alongside their partners and children and hired local workers when needed. But following the war, uncompetitive wages coupled with tough conditions and a declining rural workforce meant that farms struggled to hire and keep Canadian workers. 

“Family farms were under a lot of pressure,” says Tanya Basok, a professor of sociology at the University of Windsor who studies temporary migration. “They struggled to make ends meet, and at the same time, Canada wanted to support industrial growth.” Various initiatives to move around domestic labour failed. Farmers’ children looked for better work opportunities elsewhere. Small farms began to consolidate and commercialize into ever-bigger parcels. 

In the late 1950s, growers argued that the industry might not survive the new conditions and appealed to the Canadian government for a seasonal pilot project. The government responded with the launch of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in 1966. The program gave Caribbean migrants temporary visas to work in Canada during peak farming months. A few years later, Mexican workers were introduced into the program to support the steady stream of labour for Canadian farmers. 

“It was about reliability,” Basok says. “You can’t afford someone to leave in the middle of a season when everything needs to be harvested. But workers who came without their families, and all they did was work, well, they were the most reliable.”

Canada wasn’t, and isn’t, unique in its dependence on foreign labour; in Europe, chartered flights from countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary—where wages are much lower—transport hordes of workers to pick fruit and vegetables in the UK. In a recent media interview, Germany’s parliamentary leader admitted that his Eastern European neighbours are “people who did the work we didn’t want to do, with wages that we never would have accepted. Now they have to show us how to pick asparagus.” South of Canada’s border, Californian citrus groves are harvested largely by migrant workers, many of them undocumented, who make up roughly half of the American agricultural workforce. 

Policies across the globe continued to move toward farm consolidation, investing heavily into capital-intensive forms of agriculture. Picture structures like greenhouses and massive equipment like combines machines. These types of operations tended to prefer flexible, cheap workers who would adjust to production that required work on demand. 

I’m tempted to ask Basok the counterfactual: not just how Canada could have built a workforce that, structurally, had no distractions, but what would have happened if Canada had been forced to contend with only its own labour supply, warts and all? Basok says that higher wages would certainly have incentivized local workers. But it also would have led to higher food prices—which, at the same time, people in that scenario may have been happy to pay. “I bring some of my students every year to our campus community garden and they realize, ‘Oh yeah, farming is not that easy!’ Actually, it’s back-breaking,” Basok says. “Maybe if we realized all the work that goes into it, we would be willing to pay a little bit more.”

Still, hikes for consumers might have been preventable, too. If Basok could travel back in time and change just one thing, she says it would have been to properly subsidize family farms instead of developing an industrial food system. Small farms have been seen as too small to survive, but the government has the power to subsidize, Basok says. And if they were supported, prices might not need to be raised.  “Let’s face it. The way family farms, particularly organic, operate—the food is healthier for us. So why wouldn’t we want food that’s produced better for us and the planet?”

Instead, over the next fifty years, migrant labour became the lifeblood of Canada’s agricultural industry. When the program was brought to BC in 2004, just fifty Mexican workers arrived. Four years later, that number had ballooned to nearly three thousand. Today, in BC alone, over six thousand workers leave their homes to come to work in the lush farms of the Fraser Valley, Okanagan, and Vancouver Island. Across the country, the number is well over fifty thousand. Migrant agricultural workers make up one-sixth of all jobs in the Canadian agricultural labour force. They are at the heart of our food supply—nearly every Osoyoos cherry, Delta hothouse tomato and Cloverdale nursery tulip is planted and picked by migrant agricultural workers in BC.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which includes the SAWP and three other agricultural streams, can get complicated: through bilateral agreements between Canada and migrant-sending countries, the SAWP allows employers to hire workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Caribbean countries for up to eight months each year. The SAWP gives Canadian farmers and consumers a pretty sweet deal: we can meet our labour force requirements without investing in permanent migration. 

This isn’t an unfortunate byproduct; the program functions exactly because it creates workers who are constructed as non-citizens, says Anelyse Weiler, an academic specializing in food systems who will be teaching at the University of Victoria as of this summer. “Even if they have worked in Canada for decades, the program serves as a way to subject them to a different set of law and policies than those who apply for permanent residency,” Weiler says. “These laws and policies pressure workers into doing whatever they can to please their employers, whether that is accepting their employers’ requests for overtime, hyper productivity, keeping quiet about dangerous work environments, substandard housing, and under-reporting injury.” 

In the much bigger picture, Weiler says, remember this: there has never really been a time when Canada built its agricultural production without immigration and colonialism. “Canada’s current farm labour-migration programs are built on a deep foundation of hiring structurally oppressed people with severely limited freedom to move geographically or on the labour market,” she says. At the turn of the century, she says, impoverished British orphans would apprentice on Canadian farms, but could only get citizenship after they became adults. During World War II, interned Japanese Canadians were pushed into “voluntary” work on farms. “During the 1950s and 80s, the government would sever social assistance benefits for Indigenous reserve and Métis communities to coerce them into working on sugar beet farms in Alberta,” Weiler says.

In current-day SAWP, migrant agricultural workers in BC are excluded from statutory rights such as overtime pay, working hours, and rest periods. Part of migrant farm workers’ wages are automatically deducted to pay into social benefits such as the Canada Pension Plan, but they often face legal and practical constraints to access them. Workers also arrive on closed work permits, which means they are tied to their employers, even if they turn out to be abusive. They depend on employers for housing, meaning they can be isolated on rural farms with little to no transportation. 

Weiler notes that the program has little oversight, which leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation. Some highly regarded bosses will reward long-time employees, while others put workers in houses with holes in the floor through which rats and water enter. The Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association’s 2016 report Beyond Our Plates—based on 1,300 interactions with farm workers—shared a story of a farm worker in Surrey who nearly had his finger cut off in a machine that peels and grinds carrots. His employer’s main concern was for the machine, said the farm worker, who was told to put on a glove and get back to work. Another worker in the Lower Mainland described living in a small house with forty other people. 

But these egregious cases aren’t the only problem. “It’s definitely important to address those extreme cases of abuse. But what many workers talk to me about are the everyday aspects of indignity and familial separation that are built into the program,” says Weiler. “The mundane things may not capture the headlines, but they are fundamental to how the program operates.” 

In the light of day, Surrey is just one part of Metro Vancouver that lies between the fertile Fraser River and the US border. If you take Highway 1 east out of the city and then turn sharply south, agricultural farmland will slowly appear, spreading out like two shoulders as you descend down south of the river. Your stomach will drop with the change in elevation. On either side you will see a long queue of greenhouses, some as large as ten football fields. 

The air is different here, heavy with manure and silage, the word for green crops fermented into long, sausage-shaped bales. In downtown Langley, an infinite suburban sprawl of box stores replaces Vancouver’s density. It’s a somnambulant paradise, full of men in hunting camouflage and baseball caps and an endless chain of cul-de-sacs. Each shopping plaza has its own themed facades resembling versions of Palm Springs, Banff, Sedona. It feels like being on a film set. I wonder how the workers feel in this Canadian suburban landscape, a far cry from the baroque seventeenth-century plaza one might stroll through in a central Mexican city.

On a Sunday afternoon in 2018, I found myself at Los Guerreros Latin food store on Langley’s main drag. Entering Los Guerreros was like seeing a Jeff Koons installation for the first time: utterly psychedelic. The ceiling brimmed with themed piñatas in every colour, their curling ribbons grazed the tops of customers’ heads. There was a wall of freezers reserved only for tortillas, and the air smelled overwhelmingly like fried beef. At the back of the store, at a modest lunch deli, a lone man sat in the corner enjoying a pupusa, the traditional Salvadorian tortilla dish. 

In Langley’s box-store utopia, this little grocery store felt like an apparition, like a kind of Grand Central Station for agricultural workers. “Oh, yeah!” said Roland Zavaleta, its jovial young owner. “That’s totally the kind of vibe we are going for . . . we want to make it feel like home for those who are away from their own.” 

Outside the shop, a man in a neon orange rain jacket loaded groceries into his knapsack. “Eh!” he said to Raul. Raul grinned. “Diga amigo!” 

The man, a farm worker from the province of Querétaro in north-central Mexico, asked that his name not be published for fear that he could lose his job—I’ll call him Jorge. Skinny, with round, puppy-dog eyes, he had been coming to Canada for eleven seasons and was working at a flower farm in Cloverdale. In clear, deliberate English, he told me how right then they were planting geraniums. In the summer, chrysanthemums, or as Jorge said, mums

He was no longer required to do menial work; he had worked his way up to a supervisor role alongside Canadians, though he was still receiving minimum wage. “It’s hard because if I go to them and say I need more money because I’m doing a different job, they tell me  ‘no,’” he said. “And they could also say, ‘Next year you aren’t coming back.’ In the end, I just don’t complain.” 

For workers, the SAWP is a fairly reliable way to alleviate poverty, and that’s why they put up with so much. Many who come to Canada earn, in one season, what it would take five to six years to earn in Mexico. SAWP workers send home an estimated $9,900 on average per year. Remittances are vital income for families in places like Mexico, where just over 40 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to goverment figures. The lack of opportunities in migrant workers’ home countries has been a boon for Canada. 

Jorge noted with pride how he has been able to send his kids to a better school at home. How his small house is now a big one. He’d been able to put away some money in case of an emergency. But the cost—being separated from his family—is unbearable at times, he says. “I can’t explain how I feel that I was only around when my first kid was young. For the other two, I couldn’t be there,” he said. He took out his phone to show me a video of his youngest daughter, Maria José, nine months old at the time. It showed a tiny baby inside a Frozen-themed stroller, a little ponytail sticking straight out of her head like an antenna. I smiled. But when I turned to Jorge he looked as though he’d just been walloped, his eyes squeezed shut. Two weeks earlier, Jorge said, “My wife told me, ‘Jorge, your daughter just said, “Dad!”’ But I was not there to hear it.” 

You may sympathize. There must be a way to give the whole family permanent residency, to let them all be together in Canada, you might say. And in fact, in May, the Liberal government launched a pilot project that would give select temporary agricultural workers a shot at permanent residency, not only for them but for their families. It comes with a slew of rules: to be eligible, workers must have high-school diplomas, solid English or French language skills and settlement funds. They can be greenhouse workers, animal handlers, meatpackers or mushroom pickers—but only non-seasonal, year-round workers are eligible; SAWP workers like Jorge need not apply. 

Think about it, though: if Jorge did have a way into residency, would he still want to work in agriculture? Would his daughter Maria José choose to pick Okanagan peaches for happy families driving by, or would she set off fearlessly into the unknown? Jorge’s work is essential to Canada, but take him out of no man’s land and it all collapses.

Even in pandemic mode, the BC government has given the green light for about six thousand migrant agricultural workers for the 2020 season. While Raul tells me the workers want to return, he’s not sure he wants them to. Actually, it’s a sign of Canada’s vulnerable position that it would even consider bringing in farm workers this year, considering what they could be exposed to. 

Two years ago, after my farm visit, I met up with Marcos, the man who had first let me into their apartment on the farm. We met at a bank in Cloverdale, on the border between Langley and Surrey. It took only two minutes to deposit Marcos’s pay, but without English, he depended on Raul to guide him through simple tasks. 

We ducked into the neighbouring Tim Hortons, where, with Raul translating, Marcos told me about life before Canada. Despite his boyish frame, Marcos was twenty-five and a father of two. He had left his wife and young children at home in Jalisco, the western Mexican province on the Pacific. Before he came to Canada, he worked as an electrician—his family trade—fixing wires high on electrical towers. But he only had a weekly salary of about 2,400 pesos, or about 140 Canadian dollars, to raise his family. Marcos didn’t want to go to the US illegally, so he applied to the Canadian seasonal program.

A day in Marcos’s Canadian life, during normal times, goes something like this: he wakes up around 6 AM, or in the summer, earlier. “I am kneeling, always kneeling,” he said. In the off-season, he plants bok choy seeds one by one, crawling forward with one fist planted in the soil for support, wearing knee pads he bought himself. Despite his specialized training, he drives a tractor or weeds fields, whatever he’s asked to do. By 9 PM he clocks out, prepares food for the next day and then passes out.

This year, when Covid-19 hit, Marcos was among the many workers left in Mexico. When Raul worries about workers arriving in Canada in the midst of the pandemic, he thinks of Marcos; if he does fly in this summer, he could pay a very high price. The BC government has waived the usual three-month waiting period for medical coverage for temporary foreign workers, allowing them to access health care if they get Covid-19. In April, the provincial agricultural ministry announced a suite of new steps, including a fourteen-day quarantine for workers after arrival and stricter criteria for accommodations, such as keeping beds two metres apart. Workers who have a valid SIN and lose income because of the delays are eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Ottawa also announced that farm employers are eligible for $1,500 per temporary foreign worker to help cover the costs of their mandatory quarantine. 

But steps like these don’t resolve everything, says Raul. Take the extended medical coverage, for example. It’s good on paper. But “the previous vulnerabilities, they are still there,” Raul says. “The language barrier is one example.” I think of Marcos, unable to do his banking without a translator. “If they don’t speak English and they get sick, how do they request support?” he says. “We don’t know what is going on inside many of the farms right now and we can’t go visit.” 

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has pointed out that many workers aren’t aware of their rights at all because federal safety guidelines have only been published in English. “Many of the housing situations I’ve seen for migrant agricultural workers, well, there’s no way that physical distancing would be feasible,” Anelyse Weiler adds. 

Weiler doesn’t want to sound alarmist. She wishes she didn’t see a crisis wherever she looked: potential food price hikes, food shortages, large-scale outbreaks on farms. But by two months in, the coronavirus had already been a disaster for migrant workers in Canada. Of about 950 workers who tested positive at the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alberta, many were temporary migrant workers. In West Kelowna, at least twenty-three employees tested positive in an outbreak at a plant nursery primarily staffed by migrant workers.

From the crossroads of the quarantined present, every path looks particularly risky. On the one hand, there are mountains of produce to reap; on the other, we have workers operating in a health minefield. 

After some decades when we may have forgotten this, the pandemic shows just how intimately our individual well-being is linked to the well-being of others, says Weiler.  “In this moment, there is this reckoning with the broader costs of a cheap food system,” she says. “What might a system look like where everyone’s livelihoods are well remunerated and well respected, including farmers, including farm workers, grocery store workers? What would it take as a society to make that a reality?”

Weiler has some answers, even if she doesn’t know exactly what their ripple effects would be. Migrant farm workers could be granted permanent residency on arrival, and given open work permits, which would give them the ability to change employers. This is what migrant advocacy groups have long been calling for. But those solutions are the barest of starting points—not even the country’s top experts could predict what would happen next.

“It’s like the proverbial Gordian knot,” says Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. “When you start to unravel it, you end up quickly going from: ‘Okay, maybe we should pay our lettuce pickers in Niagara a little better’ to ‘Oh my God, we need total change to the capitalist system.” I can practically see him throwing up his hands in defeat on the other end of the line. 

“This is where I struggle,” he continues. “It’s either an itty-bitty program to reform a small aspect of the problem, or it’s a reform to the entire global economy. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the middle.” Anything that pushes food prices up, he says, will increase food insecurity for Canadians. And we have already seen this with Covid-19: people lose their wages and food bank use skyrockets.

Could we maybe hire young Canadians to work in the fields? I ask him. “Yes and no,” Fraser says. “Yes: the labour is there. But no, it’s not in the right place and it doesn’t necessarily have the right skills. It’s a good medium-term suggestion but isn’t going to help us this year.” 

Fraser’s grandfather was a fruit and vegetable farmer in Niagara. In the summers, as a high-school student, he worked in his family’s fields as “a really bad” strawberry picker. “I bruised the strawberries and didn’t pick them thoroughly enough,” he remembers. Young Canadians have skills as lifeguards (like his son), he says, or working in restaurants and call centres. “The experience is not in agricultural labour. There’s no reason to say we couldn’t redevelop that, but we don’t currently have it, not in the numbers we need or the logistics to connect high schools and universities with farmers.” 

He does have a prediction for the long term, even if it’s not one he’s necessarily looking forward to. “I think one of the responses the sector is going to make to Covid . . . is probably to invest in technology to reduce labour,” he says. There are strong historical examples of this, including the consolidation of California’s tomato industry, Fraser says. When the US federal government limited the number of migrant workers that tomato farms could hire, it drove farmers to replace workers with machines rather than hiring Americans.

It isn’t simply having technology available that tends to bring farms to automation, Fraser notes; labour shortages push farmers to it. It’s all part of a process of industrialization of agriculture, he says—the process that has, over the decades, slowly consolidated small farms into big ones, made food cheaper, and brought new environmental problems. Now, if automation is the next step, it “may result in fewer temporary foreign workers and a better paid workforce in Canada,” he says.

Of course, widespread automation would create a new problem: it would devastate temporary foreign workers’ remittances, which total roughly $550 billion a year globally. “Remittances are hugely important for food security globally, for income, and for poverty reduction in the Global South,” says Fraser. “If we, in Canada, reduced foreign workers and invested in automation and had a high-skilled, white-collar, digitally savvy food system . . . that could have very significant unintended consequences in workers’ home countries.” 

Two years ago, on the bok choy farm, I asked the workers: “Why did you come to Canada?” Out of necessity, they all said. Many didn’t have a house before coming to Canada. Their family could now buy a cow, a sheep, a goat. 

One interjected. “We are also paying taxes here! We would like to get something in return—like a scholarship for our kids to come and study.” Others wondered aloud: what if their employers would pay for even just half of a trip home to visit mid-season? What if their families could even just come to visit them? Broken families are common, they all said. 

One man said he was worried about getting sick. The farm used pesticides and other agrochemicals and he said he didn’t have proper protective gear. If he fell ill, doctors back home in Mexico wouldn’t give him the go-ahead to return the following year. Raul turned to me and said that these workers come to Canada young and healthy, and return sick and old.

Two springs later, I think back to that. Feeding our country has always depended on sacrifices; this year we’ve just been forced to start thinking about who is expected to make them. While we may have fallen into this system over time, now we’ve looked back and have seen how we got here, which means—for better or worse—the future we make will be intentional.