“Migrant Dreams” and Transnational Storytelling

Since 2008 the entrance of temporary foreign workers have outnumbered immigrants permitted to settle permanently in Canada.  The media have fed into the panacea that Temporary Foreign Programs (TFWPs) are stealing “Canadian jobs”, which resounded loudly with the controversy surrounding the Royal Bank last year and more recently with McDonalds locations in British Columbia and Alberta. Here and there the media focus on particular stories with a more “humanitarian” slant such as the case of the Hampstead, Ontario collision that killed 11 people, including 9 Peruvian migrant workers who were working as “chicken catchers”– work that many Canadians do not easily gravitate to. Yet these stories are fleeting and stay within the purview of the national consciousness for a brief moment. And most of the “dialogue” ends with xenophobia and protectionist sentiments rather than policy changes that protect the rights of migrant workers and their families in tangible ways. Little is still known about who migrant workers are and the textures of racialization, non-citizenship, temporality and disposability that shape their lives  in Canada.

For over a decade I devoted much of my life witnessing, researching and organizing with migrant farmworkers participating in the most precarious of Canada’s TFWPs, namely the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Agricultural Stream of the NOC C and D Pilot Project.  My work with the migrant farmworker population is transnational and multifaceted, fluctuating between transnational social work, labour advocacy, research and education. I have compiled numerous stories that paint the picture of how migrant farmworkers live, work and love as temporary foreign workers and as Third World gendered and raced subjects. I am weaving these lived experiences as a practice of “transnational storytelling” that tells the story of not only migrants and their families but of Canada’s continuation of exclusionary and “white settler” immigration and national re-building policies.

However, the main aim of my work is to create spaces for migrant workers to amplify their voices and tell of their own stories. Over ten years ago I collaborated with Min Sook Lee, a Canadian filmmaker to support the production of “El Contrato” (NFB 2003) in front and behind the cameras. This documentary focuses on Mexican migrant farmworker men and is still widely used across Canadian universities as a powerful education tool. It has certainly changed the consciousness of many students and strengthened of the movement for migrant workers’ rights in Canada.

Min Sook Lee and I are working together again on a new exciting production called “Migrant Dreams” that privileges the voices and experiences of migrant women forging a “transnational family economy” and negotiating fine lines between exploitation and power as “transnational breadwinners” and disposable workers in Canadian agriculture.

We can read migrant workers stories’ and formulate important academic research studies to understand how these programs are changing the fabric of Canada and impacting the lives of workers and their families that are left behind in their home countries. Yet narrative film has power unlike any other. It can reach wider audiences and emotively capture those witnessing the lived hardships and resiliency among people who are both at the centre and margins of the global economy, Canada, and rural economies of the Third World.

In the initial stages of production we focused our time with Mexican migrant farmworker women and produced a moving trailer. Alejandra candidly opens up about the sexuality and the temporary nature of most relationships that are formed with other migrant men.  Betty explains how her Canadian employer sent her back to Mexico when she found out that she was pregnant. Angelica laments how she had to lie to her family about the length of time she was going to be away in order to complete her contract in Canada. For a moment the migrant women from a house of 22 are shown laughing, dancing and enjoying the snow. As quickly as this moment of bliss erupted it ended with a melancholic song that brought them back to “home” and their families that they could not share these moments with because Canadian immigration policy prohibits. Canada only treats the people in these programs as commodities and subsidies for production and profit gain. Yet the women in “Migrant Dreams” thus far reveal much more. They defy their commodification and express complex subjectivities through their transnational work, life, dreaming and being.

It is my dream that these stories of workers, of women, of a global economy and Canada in flux are widely seen and heard in Canadian universities and beyond. There is still much more work to do to finish the film and the final product will look vastly different that the trailer. Women from other countries will be featured to tell the story of the structural problems of these programs structure their life and also their resistance.  There are many challenges ahead. For one, we are constantly having to manage and evaluate the risk migrant women undertake to speak. After all the growth of TFPWs (rather than immigration and permanent residency) has largely depended on the silence, acquiescence and invisibility of migrant workers themselves.

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Evelyn Encalada Grez is contract faculty in Labour Studies and researcher and interpreter for “Migrant Dreams” (Tiger Spirit Productions).  She is co-founder of an award winning community-labour advocacy group called “Justice for Migrant Workers.” Her collaborative academic work has been published in SignsJournal of Women in Culture and Society and Citizenship Studies. The trailer of the film can be accessed through www.migrantdreams.ca


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