Migrant farmer workers and community supporters gathered at Governor Simcoe Square on July 17 for the Anti-Racism Against Migrant Workers rally.
The 80 people on hand were advocating for the workers to receive permanent resident status in Canada, among other issues.
The rally was the ending of a week-long campaign by a group called Norfolk Community Alliance Against Racism. The campaign also included putting up hundreds of signs around the community in both English and Spanish expressing thanks to the approximately 5,000 farm workers that come to the community each year.
Norfolk County Mayor Kristal Chopp, farmer Brett Schuyler, alliance member Imogene Stortini were among those who spoke about their personal experiences with farm workers, and their goals for moving forward.
“Today here in Norfolk may just be a day that will go down in history,” group spokesperson Leanne Arnal, of Waterford, said to start the event. “Today may just be the first time city officials, farmers, business owners, residents, and a farm worker share the same stage.”
The group recognized that they will not be able to change all that is wrong in the community for the farm workers with one event, but addressed that the migrant worker program has existed for 54 years and there are changes they would like to see.
In addition to ending racism against migrant workers, they are advocating for safe working conditions, permanent resident status in Canada, adequate housing, and adequate pay.
“Please call anyone out that you see (being racist),” said Arnal. “These men and women are not a risk, they are at risk.”
Chopp addressed the crowd in both English and Spanish as she spoke to show appreciation for the farm workers.
“As residents of Norfolk County, Ontario’s Garden, we all know the value of the agricultural industry and recognize the hard work that goes into farming this land,” said Chopp. “We also recognize that a significant amount of that hard work is done by workers who have travelled thousands of miles and left their family behind.”
After repeating her message in Spanish, she continued.
“Not only do our migrant workers work to put fresh local fruits and vegetables on our tables, they also bring tremendous heart and culture to our community,” said Chopp. “And for that not only do they deserve our collective thanks, they deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion always.”
A migrant farm worker spoke at the event but asked for his name and photo to not be published.
“I have heard of the disrespect and verbal abuse that other migrant workers have experienced in Canada,” he said. “I, and many of the migrant workers, spend over half of the year in Canada and are not able to enjoy the benefit of Canadian residency.”
The worker said they are required to apply for a work visa and pay taxes on their income. He said at the end of the season they are often unable to have employment at home, and as taxpayers in Canada he would like to see them receive employment insurance in the months they are unable to work.
“I am proud to have the privilege, as a farmer, to work side by side with migrant farm workers,” said Schuyler. “I am committed to working with our farm workers to ensure they are respected and comfortable, and I truly believe the majority of the community is committed to the same.”
Schuyler is asking the community to work towards making sure all of the migrant workers feel at home in Norfolk County.
Stortini, a university student who was raised in Norfolk, spoke to the crowd of the fear of migrant workers that is instilled in the children of Norfolk as they grow up.
“Farm workers were at the best a punchline to a joke, and at the worst a threat to my well being,” she said. “Not once can I name a single incident that I’ve ever had with a single worker. Not biking down country roads, not at the grocery store, not walking downtown late on a Friday night.”
Stortini added the alliance reached out to the OPP to see if there were any instances that could be recalled regarding a farm worker and they couldn’t name any.
“The workers are not a threat to any of us, they’re our neighbours,” said Stortini. “As a young person in Norfolk I had two options, to accept the hate or to resent it. How could I live in a place that I resent?”