The crew behind a new documentary series sharing the stories of migrant farm workers in Norfolk County in southwestern Ontario hopes to foster more understanding and empathy across the country.
Tanya van Rooy, producer and director of Feeding Canada, says migrant farm workers are often given a “blanketed existence” in Canada. She wants her four-episode series to educate viewers about some of the 30,000 people behind that label.
“It was due time that these guys kind of showed who they are,” she said. “They’re really our heroes.”
Van Rooy said the series, produced by Howl at the Moon Films, brings the voices of agricultural workers to the forefront.
The stars in the documentary are from Mexico and a handful of Caribbean Islands — mainly Jamaica, but also Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Vincent.
The workers tell their own stories about their lives back home and on the farms. They also talk about their futures.
Van Rooy said the series shines a light on their selflessness. She spoke about workers shipping materials back to their respective countries in giant plywood containers. Many come to Canada for better wages to support their families, some leaving for the majority of the year, and can purchase items here at a lower cost.
One pastor brings back instruments for others at his church. Another worker disassembled an entire car and shipped it in parts.
“Their hearts are so gigantic,” she said.
The pandemic added to the challenges and deep concerns about leaving home to enter Canada for work. Donald, a worker from Jamaica, says in the series that his family didn’t want him to go.
“I am the breadwinner and I have to take care of my family, so if I stay home, something could go wrong, and if I came here, something can go wrong,” he said. “So I have to do what I have to do and take care of myself, so I came.”
Jorge, a worker from Mexico, said his family was always at the forefront of his mind.
“We said, ‘I’m going to go and risk it, even if I get sick, risking that I might not be able to see my family again.’ I was constantly thinking about this,” he said. “When you leave home, you never know you’re going to return.”
They’re also the same people behind the wide variety of locally grown food on tables across the country, she said.
“These guys have been a solid pillar of the agricultural industry in Canada,” she said. “These guys are really the backbone.”
While the media often focus on negative stories, van Rooy said, they only cover a part of the migrant worker programs.
Most recently, a deputy chief coroner’s review has called for better working conditions after three migrant workers died after contracting COVID-19.
Haldimand and Norfolk farmers also protested in March against COVID-19 rules designed to help workers, saying it might impact the growing season.
She said her series was an effort to dispel myths and encourage people to be more thankful for the hours of labour the workers put in.
“Someone once asked me if we are forced to come here,” said Marlon, a worker from Trinidad and Tobago featured in the series.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to tell them because it just sounds so weird to ask something like that. I mean how ignorant can you be to ask a question like that, if we are forced to come here?”
Learning through stories
Van Rooy knows stories can make a difference.
She said one worker talked about seeing a transformation in the community over the winter.
As articles were shared about people from Trinidad and Tobago being stuck in Canada during the holidays, he said, the community became more welcoming. Van Rooy thinks that’s because people found human connection.
In her early teens, the filmmaker’s world was all about ballet. She remembers bonding through movement with Trinidadian migrant workers who picked apples across the road.
Founded a street festival
They would stop by, lug out a boom box and teach her how to break dance — moves and memories she carried with her for years.
Van Rooy moved away for two decades and returned to what seemed like “two different” towns in Simcoe, with migrant workers filling out one half and the wider community the other.
She was inspired to bring people together and started a Carnival street festival to celebrate the “rich, vibrant” cultures of migrant workers so far away from home.
Her previous film work includes Homages, a narrative art film that won the Hamilton Film Festival in 2014.
Filming a documentary, during a pandemic no less, meant rolling with the punches. She described the way a director has to spot gold and follow it for more, and noted she was grateful for the farmers who allowed them to do so during such a vulnerable time.
Facebook page aims to open dialogue
“You have to stay open and the story will unveil itself,” she said of filming.
The production company set up a Feeding Canada Facebook page, hoping it will open dialogue between migrant farm workers and other people in Canada.
“People always fear what they don’t know,” van Rooy said.
“If you have an opportunity to have a safe place to learn something that you don’t know much about, then it becomes familiar and you can really get the benefit of enjoying the extra energy that these guys bring to the area.”
The series is expected to air on Bell Fibe TV1 sometime in the summer, with more details to be released on the Feeding Canada Facebook page.