Rural Women Making Changes Goes to Michoacán:
Mapping the Transrural from Mexico to Canada

By Evelyn Encalada Grez
Migration Project Researcher
Monday April 13, 2008

In March I travelled from the State of Puebla to Zamora, Michoacán to make a presentation on Rural Women Making Change’s research with Mexican women farm workers in rural Ontario at El Colegio de Michoacán. El Colegio de Michoacán is a small but prestigious research based university in Mexico attracting academics from all over the world.   I was graciously hosted by Dr. Ofelia Becerril who has conducted extensive research on Mexican migrant farm workers in Canada and by the Centre for Rural Studies where she is based.  The Centre works around five lines of research that include: subjectivity and shifting identities; prospects of rural development policies and social movements; migration, mobility and diasporas; society, environment and health and agrarian history, territory and cultural heritage.  These research streams certainly reflect the realities of rural Mexico today where migration and the right to live from working the land are ever more important in these challenging times.

In the academic and community forums I have attended on migration in Mexico, Canada is almost always left out of the picture. Canada, and Mexico, for that matter are even omitted from the configuration of North America entirely. Most Mexicans refer to Americans as “North Americans” and anything North American is equated with the United States. Very few Mexicans I have met, including Mexican migrant workers in rural Ontario consider Mexico as part of North America. This distorted map of North America is due to numerous factors stemming from Mexico’s historic and colonial role as a source of natural resources and cheap labour and demarcation as a “Third World” country. Where does this leave Canada? Canada is gradually making its way into the national Mexican conscience. While Mexican migrants to Canada are few in comparison to the millions in the United States, Canada is becoming much more of a reference point in many rural communities within Mexico as people look further North for work and a better life. In turn Mexico is pronouncing itself in rural communities across Canada through thousands of migrant farm workers who work in diverse aspects of agricultural production.  Mexican migrant workers have been migrating to Canada for more than 30 years through the federally mandated Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and in smaller numbers through the Low Skilled Workers Program. Today Mexican migrant farm workers are more visible than ever due a growing social movement for migrant workers rights led by community and labour groups.   

NAFTA with its failures and skewed development has certainly made its mark by intensifying regional economic integration through trade, im/migration and cultural flows. In my research and community work with Mexican migrant workers I constantly see how the US-Mexico border that separates the “First World” from the “Third World” is stretching into Canada.  Now Canada is exploiting Mexico as a source of cheap labour much like the United States has for decades. What I see the most is how the integration between Canada in Mexico is pronouncing itself quite forcefully through transrural spaces and networks among families and communities that depend on rural Ontario for remittances and who organize for the yearly migration of their loved ones to Canada.  Although each country within North America represents diverse realities it is impossible for me to not see the interconnectedness we share as a region. At El Colegio de Michoacán I felt right at home because it has strong ties to Canada. I met a professor from Quebec, Dominique Raby, who is based in the Colegio’s Centre for Anthropological Studies.  In addition to Dr. Becerril, Dr. Yanga Villagomez’ research has also taken him to Canada, to work with First Nations communities.

A handful of faculty, students and staff attended my three hour long presentation to hear about RWMC’s Migrant Worker Project.  I firstly talked about the objectives of RWMC and emphasized how this project has allowed me to continue my political advocacy work through applied research.  Throughout the presentation people could not believe the type restrictions and conditions migrant women faced in rural Ontario. These include control on women’s mobility and sexuality, inadequate medical attention and lack of basic labour and human rights by the mere virtue of their “temporary” work visa status.  I also explained how the preference for male migrant workers in the SAWP functioned as a form of labour control among migrant women, whereby women are constantly threatened with deportation from Canada and replacement by male workers.  I also presented the NFB film, El Contrato , to give a wider picture of the gendered realities that men and women confront as migrant farm workers. 

The presentation was well received. Many of the attendees have their own experiences working with migrants and wanted to impart the situation of migrant workers in Canada to respective migrant communities in Michoacán. They told me that there is word among many rural communities in Michoacán that Canada has far more opportunities and is more receptive to migrants than the USA. After the recent immigration raids by the Border Patrol targeting farm workers in rural Ontario and all that I have seen in my academic and community work throughout the years, I know that life for Mexican migrants in rural Ontario is much more complicated. At the same time through migration people seek to secure their future and rural way of life.  Migrant women persevere, resist and strategize to build their homes, to live with dignity and provide for their children and families.   Through initiatives such as Rural Women Making Change, rural women and migrant women’s voices are being heard throughout Canada and even at the United Nations. As allies we continue to work with migrant men and women in rural Ontario for their human rights and to envision sustainable rural livelihoods that eliminate the need for precarious forms of migration.   

In late February the United Food and Commercial Workers Union signed an agreement for an ongoing partnership with the Governor of Michoacán to protect the rights of migrant workers from that State who migrate to Canada. It looks like Michoacán and El Colegio de Michoacán are well positioned to make a mark in the lives of Mexican migrants in Canada.  Yet I am not certain if government to labour partnerships is the best route given the volatile and suspicious political context in Mexico. Many Mexican unions continue to be manipulated by governments in power and political parties that constantly alienate and override the interests of the rank and file. So how would this partnership be different and allow workers to lead their own struggles?  Also, working with Mexican officials on a State to State basis rather than with the Mexican federal government may intensify the differential treatment among migrant workers over others depending on not only the province in which they work but also the State and country where they are from. Due to a lack of national standards and political will within the Canadian federal government, migrant farm workers currently have differential protections and rights depending on the province in which they work. But how about seeking alternative routes, such as working with independent human and labour rights organizations in Mexico? How about linking rural social movements in Canada, the USA and Mexico as one transrural movement for sustainable rural communities across borders? How about envisioning migrant workers as community partners for sustainable agriculture in North America, starting from their fields to ours? I left Michoacán with many ideas and possibilities of new projects and partnerships. These academic and community linkages are central to re-think, challenge and construct a just economic and social integration between Canada, Mexico and the USA starting from the heart of it all, the land, the rural.  However, this political project also entails the inclusion of the many migrant farm workers and communities from beyond North America that make the continent what it is.