In the acknowledgements section of my new novel, El Niño, I state that a portion of the sales will be donated, in perpetuity, to Frontier College’s Labourer-Teacher (LT) program, which strives to assist migrant labourers in this country through literacy initiatives.
“In perpetuity” might have to be adjusted: I just learned that this long-standing program has had its funding revoked by the Ontario government due to what seems like a bureaucratic sticking-point (funds from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities are designated for programs in Central Ontario; someone just noticed that the program is located mostly in Southwestern Ontario.)
Ed Dunsworth, a former LT who I interviewed while researching El Niño, emailed me with the news. Ed’s message came on the day I received the first copies of my new book, and I was still revelling in the sensation of being able to touch, in distilled, material form, the countless hours of labour contained therein. That the Labourer-Teacher program was under threat reminded me that part of the job of artists and writers is to bring some degree of visibility and, perhaps, understanding to people who are marginal and forgotten within our contemporary democratic society. In the case of El Niño, some of those people are migrant agricultural labourers, those invisible, labouring bodies who enable North Americans to have their 5-7 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables each day.
“The Labourer-Teacher program,” as Ed explains, “has brought literacy and learning to Canada’s marginalized working populations since 1899, sending young Canadian instructors out to mines, railroad construction sites, lumber camps, and farms. In recent years, Labourer-Teachers (LTs) have worked throughout Southern Ontario with migrant farm workers primarily from Mexico and the Caribbean. LTs work the same jobs and live in the same bunkhouses as their co-workers, offering classes in English, computers, and other literacy skills during off-hours. The vital importance of the LT program has only risen in recent years with the rapid increase in the number of migrant workers in Canada, who are grossly under-served by government and non-profit services.”
Now that the program has lost its funding, a group of 100 former LTs has united to save it. A fundraising event, including readings by several Toronto authors, is scheduled to take place in Toronto May 29th (I will keep you informed as to dates, etc).
Stompin’ Tom Connors, “The Ketchup Song” – a time before we imported folks to work our farms.
For some time I had been planning to write some type of non-fiction piece about my visit to Leamington, Ontario (the home of a recently nearly-closed Heinz Ketchup factory), where so many migrant agricultural workers are based, as well as my time in Yuma, Arizona, itself a vast agricultural zone (thanks to irrigation) whose farms and packing plants (such as Dole) employ mostly workers from Mexico (just over the border) as well as many, many Mexican-Americans. My Yuma experience is what really informed the writing of El Niño, whose character Chávez labours on farms and at a poultry plant as he travels across the lands north of a contested border in search of the woman he helped cross the desert. It was massively revelatory to see firsthand the source of North America’s cheap, abundant produce. This area, the “salad bowl” of our continent, exists thanks, first, to the damming and irrigation that turned a desert into a green house and, second, due to the close proximity of a massive amount of working poor in Mexico and Central America (many of whom make untold sacrifices to work the fields of the US).
Something that rarely comes up in discussion of migrant agricultural labour is the idea that, as consumers of food, we are necessarily and physically connected to those “other” bodies that plant, pick, and pack that which we feed ourselves each day. Everything we eat comes from somewhere; there is a deeply human and very intimate dimension built into to the cycle of food production and consumption, even if industrialized.
Maybe I read too much Marx in graduate school. But I cannot look at a material object of any kind without also seeing the labour-power, and thus the humanity, embedded within.
Each anonymous worker who assembled your cell phone or packed your dozen eggs into Styrofoam has a life and a story. I love to hear about disruptions to this sanitized anonymity: like the story of the Chinese labour camp workers who smuggled SOS messages into Halloween decorations only to be uncover by consumers in the United States. Once, in a canister of dragon tea my brother sent me from Shanghai I kept finding these long black human hairs (at least four of them) coiled up with the bunches of dried leaves. Yes, it was very gross. But I appreciated imagining the woman with the long, loose ponytail who said “Screw you,” and did not put her hair net on. The connection she forged with me was as intimate as it was infinitely remote.
The Clash, “Straight to Hell” – an enduring condemnation of injustice. One of my favorite songs by one of the best bands of all time. Brings tears to my eyes.
The 2012 garment factory collapses in Bangladesh made us confront our own complicity in perpetuating the vast gulfs of inequality that define the neo-global world. What kind of tragedy needs to happen in Canada for us to realize we live just down the 401 from groups of migrant labourers who have little or no freedom of movement here in Canada, whose safety and well-being depends on the whims of the farmer who can send them home if they complain? Take a trip to Leamington on a Friday afternoon when the workers come to town with their pay cheques. Grocery store produce will never look the same again.
When we talk about migrant labour we are only talking about bodies, physical vessels capable of performing work. The Frontier College LT program recognizes that the migrant worker is not just a body; he or she is a mind, an intellect. Getting into that mind and intellect was part of what motivated me to write El Niño. While I hope to be able to give a portion of my book sales to this program in perpetuity (and not shift that pledge to another worthy group as I may have to) I also hope that readers of my book will make the connection between food consumption and the systems of exploitation that keep prices low and groceries stores bursting with a gluttony of choices.
I hope also that, as when I hold my finished book in my hands, I will always have the same respect and appreciation for every other material object I encounter, for there are always, necessarily, human lives hidden, invisibly, inside.
- Mark Dance, one of Ed’s former colleagues, wrote this essay in the March 10 National Post: Mark Dance: Among the migrant workers in Canada
- You can donate to the Frontier College Labourer-Teacher Program here: https://payment.csfm.com/donations/frontier/?lang=en Just make sure you specify the program when prompted to do so.
- To learn more about Frontier College, link here to its website. I once volunteered with the Newcomer ESL program, which is how I learned about the Labourer-Teacher initiative. http://www.frontiercollege.ca/