Luis sits at a table in the parish hall of St. Alban’s Anglican Church after a Sunday afternoon service, eating a hard shell chicken taco. Between bites he answers questions about his two-and-a-half decades of experience as a temporary foreign worker in Canada.
Like the 30 or so other men and women sitting around him, Luis came in by bus from a farm not far from Beamsville to attend the Spanish-language eucharist St. Alban’s holds every week. It’s a nice alternative to restaurants, or the bar, which eat up money that could be put to better use back home, he says.
“This church has grown,” he says of the Spanish service he has been attending since the rector, the Rev. Javier Arias, launched it in 2013. “It’s a really nice thing, because we don’t have any other thing [to do].”
Luis, trained as a draughtsman back in Mexico City, is a man accustomed to sacrifice. At 50, he has spent fully half of his life-25 years-dividing his time between Canada and his home in Mexico, and while his work in the ginseng fields, cucumber farms, wineries and flower nurseries of the Niagara Peninsula have allowed him to provide his three daughters with an education, it also cost him his marriage.
“I’ve come many years to Canada,” he says, calmly. “Sometimes the love is good, sometimes it is not so good, you understand?”
Established in 1973, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) was originally designed to bring skilled workers in to work specialized jobs when there was a shortage in the domestic labour market. However, in the 40 years that the program has been operating it has largely brought in a steady stream of low-skilled labourers to work jobs that Canadians typically pass up, like harvesting fruit.
Luis makes $11 an hour, which, while not generous pay by Canadian standards, constitutes a day’s wages in Mexico, and this is why he keeps coming back, year after year, in the hopes that his daughters will have a better life.
Partway into Luis’ conversation with this reporter, the Rev. Javier Arias joins everyone at the table and starts joking with one of the other workers in Spanish. Arias, who was born in Colombia, has been a priest in the diocese of Niagara since 2009 following his conversion from Roman Catholicism. He has a good understanding of the workers’ needs.
“Our first goal is to give spiritual support,” says Arias in an interview. But there are other needs: healthcare, communication and transportation. “We try to fix that situation for them, trying to support them in those ways.”
Since taking up his post at St. Albans, Arias and his wife Ruth Hurtado have, with the help of a grant from the diocese of Niagara, been trying to turn the church into a kind of community hub for temporary foreign workers.
They try to spread the word through the local Spanish newspaper in Hamilton and visit Latin stories in St. Catharines, Ont. They also go to farms and invite the workers directly.
While he admits that it has sometimes been hard finding out which farms employ temporary foreign workers, Arias has made noticeable headway in reaching out to the community-they hosted a dance the previous night attended by around 85 workers.
“[It was] very friendly, they talked to each other, they were not afraid to approach other people because they feel like [they are] in Mexico,” he said, smiling.
But Arias has goals beyond simply ministering to the workers; he also wants to bring visibility to a population that is all-too-frequently invisible to the wider community.
The local community is often aware of the farm workers’ presence, but most do not care to approach them. “What we want to do is break those kinds of barriers and start to include the people in our community…because the work they are doing for us is amazing work. We have food because they are working for us,” said Arias.
Sometimes these efforts take surprising shapes, like when the church opened a bicycle repair shop in its basement and asked the community to donate used bicycles to be fixed up and rented out, for a small fee, to workers.
Mike Hahn, the volunteer mechanic, recalls that although it started small, it quickly “blew up.”
“We called a press conference about six weeks ago,” he said, “and articles showed up in the various papers from Niagara Falls to The Hamilton Spectator, and people started calling and dropping off bikes.”
While many Canadians view bicycles as purely recreational, says Hahn, they are vital for migrant workers. “They’re isolated by distance,” he notes. “How do they get into town? They have to buy their own groceries, they have to care for themselves to a degree, so a bicycle makes a big difference.”
Language is another problem. While some, like Luis, are able to teach themselves English in their spare time, the 10-14 workdays and isolation from English-speaking Canadians makes it incredibly difficult to learn, which in turn leads to a whole host of other problems. If they fall ill, for example, they are often unable to explain to the doctor what their symptoms are. Although entitled to Canadian Pension Plan money, they don’t always know how to navigate the paper work necessary to get it.
And even for those who, like Luis, are eventually able to learn the language and adjust to the culture, the reality is that they will almost certainly never become Canadians.
While some classes of temporary foreign workers-those in managerial, professional, or technical jobs or skilled trades-are eligible to transition toward permanent residency so long as they meet certain residency and language requirements, labourers like Luis have little hope of staying in Canada despite their years spent working in the Canadian economy.
“I want to stay in Canada,” Luis says as he finishes lunch, a tired expression on his face. “Sometimes I say, why not? All my life I have worked for my family, but…my life, now, my brain, is in Canada, you understand? I want to move to Canada.”
Standing in the parking lot behind St. Alban’s, Arias echoes these concerns, and reflects on the difficulties of his transient congregation.
“They are happy being here in Canada, they are happy working here, but it still is a big sacrifice for them to come, leaving their families for eight months. They miss to see their children grow up, and some families are broken because of that situation,” he says.
By the door to the church basement, Hahn and a couple of young Mexican men, speaking to each other in a patchwork of English and Spanish, are tinkering with a bicycle. Arias smiles.
“I think they now feel that they have a home where they can come and meet with other workers,” he says. “It’s a good place to come together and to bring community.”