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Status for all: The urgent case for racial justice in Canada’s immigration system

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, migrant workers are falling ill from COVID-19 at an alarming rate. Behind elderly people in long-term care homes, migrant workers have been the community that has been hardest hit by COVID-19. Already, three migrant workers from Mexico have died from COVID-19 in Ontario, while 915 others have tested positive in that province alone.

Their deaths are not accidental: fatalities, illness and abuses are the direct result of the design of government programs, which keep migrant workers vulnerable through temporary immigration status. The Trudeau government is expected to announce new policies for migrant farmworkers in the coming days, but will they go far enough?

In Nova Scotia, approximately 2000 migrant workers arrive each year through Temporary Foreign Worker Programs (TFWPs), including the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), to plant and harvest crops, and to process our agriculture, as well as seafood products.

Abuse of migrant workers is rampant in Nova Scotia and across Canada. The recently released report Unheeded Warnings includes accounts from migrant workers in Nova Scotia about being coerced into speaking positively of their employers during a government inspection under threat of deportation. Other workers report having racist slurs used against them when they spoke out about poor conditions. We’ve also received reports of migrant workers being unlawfully prevented from leaving Nova Scotia farms. 

The problem is not just some bad apple employers: since 2009, more than 89 complaints have been made by Mexican migrant workers on Nova Scotian farms, including for wage theft, and inadequate, as well as cramped housing conditions. 

See also: “We come here to work, we don’t come here to die” – COVID-19 and migrant workers in Nova Scotia

Many migrant workers have referred to the program as a form of modern-day enslavement. In Unheeded Warnings, a migrant worker of 23 years named Delroy, says of farm owners: ‘‘These people are cruel and I’m tired of them. They have no heart for Black people, they use us like slaves. I tried getting away from this farm for a very long time and I cannot.” Delroy is a father of five and takes care of his elderly mother back home. He asked the liaison office for a transfer to another farm and was refused.

Prime Minister Trudeau stated recently that systemic racism “require(s) us to look at the very building blocks of our institutions and of our country.” Indeed, Canada is founded on systemic racism, including genocide against Indigenous Peoples, as well as slavery.  

The SAWP and other TFWPs are rooted in Canada’s history of slavery that resulted in the dehumanization of Black people, which set the stage for segregation, anti-Black labour practices and immigration policies that today bar racialized migrant workers from permanent resident status and Canadian citizenship.  

In Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Robin Maynard notes that from the 1800s to 1960s, Canada severely limited Black immigration, despite claiming to be open to people of all racial backgrounds. Canada went as far as to threaten steamship owners with severe penalties for bringing in Black immigrants.

Against this backdrop of anti-Black immigration policies, farmers in Ontario requested that the government provide cheap, imported labour. In response, the Canadian government devised the SAWP in 1966, recreating the conditions which historically exploited Black labour and Black bodies. 

The federal government continues to perpetuate systemic racism by keeping migrant workers, who are predominantly from the Carribean and Latin America, temporary. One major injustice in the program, and source of vulnerability, is that migrant workers are tied to one employer through closed work permits. 

In June 2019, the federal government introduced an open work permit for vulnerable migrant workers facing financial, physical, psychological or sexual abuse on the job. Unfortunately, these permits are extremely difficult to obtain due to the stringent evidence required and there is no support for workers while they are waiting for their application to be processed. Legal assistance is also not readily available to help workers who face powerful employers. 

Despite ongoing calls for the federal government to provide permanent residency on arrival for all migrant workers, responses thus far have been inadequate, including the recent “Agri-Food Pilot Project.” While the government touts this as a means for migrant workers to gain access to permanent residence, in reality almost none can access it. The program requires “year-round” work in specific food industries, including meat processing, mushroom and greenhouse production and livestock raising. Almost all migrant farm workers are part of the SAWP, and are ineligible because they are seasonal, as well as being in non-eligible industries. This is yet another means to leave the majority of workers behind.

Migrant workers are essential workers and essential members of our communities. They contribute greatly to our society, as well as our economy – paying taxes, bolstering exports and putting food on our tables. Permanent residence would ensure that they have the same protections, rights and essential services as all other workers, including access to healthcare, education and the possibility of being united with their families.

Across the country, migrant workers, undocumented people, asylum-seekers and international students are calling for immigration status for all and it’s time for the Canadian government to listen. By enacting legislation to grant permanent residency to all, Canada would be taking a reparatory approach to address historical wrongs of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which gave rise to our racist immigration policies keeping migrant workers temporary. Status for all now. 

Readers are encouraged to call Prime Minister Trudeau and their Member of Parliament to demand full immigration status for all migrants by visiting https://migrantrights.ca/callforstatus/

Stacey Gomez is a migrant justice organizer with No One is Illegal – Halifax/K’jipuktuk. Asaf Rashid is an immigration and criminal defence lawyer on a temporary leave from practice while working as a union organizer in Halifax. Jessica Tellez is a lawyer who worked with Justice for Migrant Workers in Ontario and now resides in Nova Scotia. Wanda Thomas, a proponent for reparations, is Vice-chair of the Global Afrikan Congress- NS Chapter and advocates for justice for migrant workers. 

With a special thanks to our generous donors who make publication of the Nova Scotia Advocate possible.

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  1. I came up 7 of April.on the 23 of June I lost my pinky finger.because of the supervisor negigent.now I have two sons in school plus my wife and mom that I help along with other.what going to happen to my future.job not easy to find in Jamaica..what I would is for some help so I can stay here to make different for my family..15 years on this program away from my family,now am making a big difference for my boss and his family also paying all my taxes here.just like a born Canadans..help us please

      1. Hey Stacey,and to anyone reading. My name is Jabu Mathew Abraham and I’m a
        family physician living in Wolfville, NS. I work in Kentville.

        I live near farms, where migrant workers are being abused- like they are elsewhere.

        I am fed up with the stance of the federal and provincial government. It is simply racism/discrimination and exploitation of the poor.

        I am forming a group called Doctors For Migrant Workers.

        I am planning on organizing a protest at some point this spring and summer, at one of the local farmer markets, owned by the big farming families( mafia really!!)

        Join me!!

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