One of my past presentations: organizing around the SAWP

Once upon a time Canada could do no wrong
Luckily my father responded well when he was hypnotized, by an order of the Canadian migra to determine if he was a real refugee…
If his family was worthy of Canada
Once upon a time Canada was a haven
All I had to do was to exaggerate my differences in order to conform
I made it, I belonged!
I learned to dance to merengue, salsa, and later bachata
How could I disappoint the “real Canadians” who vacation in our “latin” tropics?
Once upon a time I celebrated multiculturalism
I was just so multicultural with my Latino friends, sitting in the cafeteria with my Latino crew; don’t cross our border and we will not cross yours….
Once upon a time I turned away a migrant farm worker at the department store where I worked part-time. He claimed to have absconded from the “Program”. All I did was direct him to a Church in Brampton and far away to Toronto. I essentially sent him away …

At the time, I was a young undergrad, organizing for Cuba, Colombia and the Mapuche struggles in Southern Chile was easier for me than having to assume injustices in Canada. As an “immigrant” I was socialized to be grateful for all that the country had given my family and I. Basically, Canada could do no wrong and recognizing the reality of this man would entail assuming my own racialization and difference that I had long tried to tame.

Sometimes distance protects us from assuming a discomforting reality and complicity in inequalities and injustices. Sometimes it is just so convenient to distract ourselves from problems far away and to decontextualize the roots of global inequality that have “displaced” us in the first place.

I do not find any solace in acknowledging that I was not alone in my indifference to the realities faced by migrant farm workers in Canada. Today, most Canadians still do not know that Mexican and Caribbean migrant farm workers have been organizing their lives, arriving and departing, around harvest seasons in Canada for more than 30 years.

In general, migrant issues, particularly the notion of “wetbacks” or “migrant farm workers”, are associated more with the United States than with Canada, much like slavery is denied by many to be part of Canadian history.

The “migrant problem” and all encompassing images and connotations are viewed as a US reality and are not recognized as having particular expressions of their own across rural townships throughout Canada. Then again a dangerous disconnect exists among the rural and the urban and the images in the mainstream with the day to day realities lived by racially marginalized peoples. This disconnection is not solely based on geographical distance but due to complex practices that organize and maintain difference and marginality in Canada. More people live in cities which easily produces an urbancentric focus. Nation building and the colonial project itself have rested on taming the rural or so called hinterlands which was associated with backwardness and indigenous peoples. The construction of cities was an assertion of modernity and power among the “founding fathers.” Much later, discourses of Canada as a benevolent nation emerged primarily through the implementation of multiculturalism as an official government policy and through the country’s role in international “peacekeeping.” These discourses and the importance of the urban over the rural, the way these sites are protected and envisioned by the idea of a white settler society offer few spaces in the mainstream to acknowledge social injustices. Doing so is like attacking not only the nation but nationals themselves. For instance an online commentator to a story run by the Toronto Star about my presentation to the UN in October 2008 about the issues affecting Mexican migrant women charged back and wrote, “Miss Encalada arrived here 27 years ago and received refuge from political violence in Chile. What a way to thank Canada!” Who then can speak and how can counter-hegemonic notions of the nation can be spoken about? It is challenging enough to acknowledge social problems in the urban context let alone in the rural. In this way the rural and social problems in general remain distant and thus unchanged.

To make a long story short, one that FYI will be included in my dissertation…
After a weekend investigating the deportation of 21 Mexican migrant workers who organized a historic labour strike in a greenhouse in Leamington and having come back from being gassed by riot police in Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas, I finally awoke. I guess the gasses cleared my senses and after worker after worker confessed how they were treated like animals, machines, commododities, merchandise, it was impossible not to remain dormant…it was impossible this time to turn myself away … (and for those who know Chris Ramsaroop I also blame him).

In this paper I want to bring the rural into the urban, make visible the invisible and provide a few perspectives from my praxis as an activist academic engaged in the fight for migrant farm workers rights for almost a decade now, through a political collective called Justicia for Migrant Workers.

Most of the workers we engage with as community organizers in rural Ontario are Mexican and Caribbean who come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker’ Program. In the last two years we have started to work with people brought under the Low Skilled Workers Program bought to work in the countryside as well. This particular migration demonstrates our compressing and clashing borders between Canada and Latin America , the Caribbean and essentially Canada and the Third World. For one, the Rio Grande is not only pressing against our doorstep, it has leaked into our kitchen table.

Through these programs employers are granted the power and the right to socially engineer their labour force and to determine who are the most captive workers, in other words who will produce more, get ill less and silence themselves the most, and therefore offer little interruption for farming operations.

It is crucial for us to understand this guest worker program and others like it, as government subsidies to industries undergoing deregulation. Migrant farm labour in particular is form of agricultural subsidy that relies on black/brown bodies, people of the Global South who are constantly dehumanized for the bottom line. It is undeniable that agriculture in Canada in the world for that matter is in crisis. Family farms of the past have largely disappeared and now we are seeing the proliferation of agribusiness that has become dependent on cheap and unfree labour. But some small farms participate in these programs as well in order to escape high labour costs. Last week I attended a roundtable with a rep from the Mexican Consulate, HRDSC, and the president of FARMS. It was so interesting to see how the president was blaming consumers for wanting cheaper food and for victimizing himself as a struggling family farmer, so it was all about them and how the Program was fault proof.

Most importantly we cannot forget that most of the workers of the SAWP are displaced farmers and farm workers from the Global South who have lost their livelihood by same forces of global and regional capitalism that have subjugated them to unfree migrant workers in the North. Unfreedom hinges upon their incapacity to change employers because their work visas are designated to a single employer. When they are fired or when their labour contract expires it results in their immediate repatriation. Also Tanya Basok suggests that they are also unfree to refuse the employers requests for their labour. If they are named by an employer they have to accept and if in Mexico or the Caribbean wages cannot provide for a living then they have to come to Canada to work. Time and time again workers tell me that the Program is like a trap, even though they do not want to work in Canada, they feel like they have not choice but to come again. Some workers ask how they can stay in the country and bring their families because they believe they are entitled to become residents after working in Canada for so long, some living most of their lives here then in their countries of origin. It breaks my heart to tell them that they are not eligible as migrant farm workers to become Canadian citizens.

Also we cannot forget that migration is always a collective effort. Migrant workers families, communities that they leave behind are also impacted and always forgotten. There are primarily the transnational families migrants an the non-migrants who organize themselves in the reproduce and produce much of the agricultural labour force that produce our food.

Still migrant workers and their families are supposed to be so grateful for working in Canada because they would starve back in their countries of origin. Oftentimes employers refuse to improve migrant housing arguing that whatever they have in Canada is much better in Mexico. An employer in BC refused to provide indoor plumbing and functioning indoor washrooms arguing that workers are used to going to the washroom outside in the bush anyway. The Canadian government and participating government bodies from the Caribbean and Mexico view this program as a win win solution for all. It is seen as a form of “foreign aid” and “charity” to impoverished families of the Global South.

Through our work as front line community organizers we have witnessed how this program does little favours for workers and their families. Most of these issues are highlighted on our website but some of the main issues are workers being discarded when they try to enforce their rights, segregation, racism in the rural communities, their exclusion and isolation, the fact that as temporary migrants they are left out of key community programs, the lack of labour power to assert themselves and so on …last year I had to remove a worker from a farm with the police after being assaulted by the police, women who become pregnant are sent back to Mexico right away, in our research with Rural Women Making Change from the University of Guelph we learned that Jamaica avoids this by making women take a pregnancy test right before they board the plane to Canada…all of this become permissible under the Program, through this Program employers and Canada are able to bypass fundamental human rights laws in Canada-all because of the special nature of agriculture.

Overall this particular migration demonstrates our compressing and clashing borders between Canada and Latin America, the Caribbean and the so rest of the so called Third World and our complicity in global inequities.

Lastly I wanted to end with the importance of spaces such as groups like NOII and Justicia, for me Justicia is a space where we can think, learn and act on this issues of inequalities that face our peoples, it is a space where we can develop organizing capacities, spaces that are closed to us elsewhere and that calls for us to create them ourselves…

My academic work cannot be about anything else but valuing the knowledge of our communities, the knowledge we have acquired as activists, the knowledge we have come to with our work with migrant workers…

Sometimes I feel I have to disembody myself, from emotions, anger and trauma of the countryside, of racial violence that I see am witness to in the countryside and then I walked through the halls of the university, such a disconnect, such a foreign space…

We are now in a moment where academe and community cannot be separated anymore, we are now in a time when we have the opportunity to present and create alternative ways of our organizing our world, of feeding ourselves and our spirit …

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