Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Bunkhouse Diaries, part 2

Hey everyone! Sorry it's been a sparse time in blog-land. I've been a busy bee, finishing up the asparagus season, doing classes (still not as much as I should) and lots of informal learning stuff.

I've also been talking to a lot of people about the program--people I meet while doing deliveries, people who stop by the farm, friends I see or talk to in my rare forays into the world outside the farm bubble. Lots of people have lots of questions about just who these migrant workers are, and what the program does. Part of my fears when I started this experience was how ill-equipped I really was to answer these questions, since my knowledge of the people I would be working with was so vague. In this way, at least, I think this experience is a good preparation for the IDS placement.

Well, two months (61 days as of this writing; I've been counting!) have passed since I came to the farm, and I'm still asking lots of questions. I think that's something that will be a constant while I'm here--there's too much to learn about the workers, about Mexico, about farming and running a business than I could possibly absorb in four months. But I've also learned a lot, and I've been telling lots of people. Now, I'd like to tell the internet! So here goes.

The guys who are here on the farm are part of a group of over seventeen thousand workers who come up from Mexico each year to work on farms in Ontario through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. This program is coordinated between farmers, the Canadian government, and the governments of the various countries that send workers (several Caribbean countries also participate in the program).

In order to join the program, the workers must apply and be interviewed by the program people in Mexico. In general, workers must be from rural areas, have experience doing farm work, and be heads of families in Mexico (this definition includes a small number of women, largely single mothers. Nonetheless, the workers who come to Canada are overwhelmingly male, with females making up about 3% of the workforce). Needless to say, of course, a large amount of luck and x-factors go into deciding whether a given person is selected to come to Canada. As anyone who has ever applied for a government grant, visa, or otherwise come into contact with bureaucracy can undoubtedly understand, the selection process for a program like this can be tricky, to say the least.

Once they get here, they work on a wide variety of farms. Most farms in Ontario don't require a large number of workers, since most of the harvested land is taken up by crops like wheat, soya, corn, or canola that don't require a huge amount of working and are largely harvested by machine. However, crops like apples, asparagus, garlic, or onions are a whole lot more labour intensive and so they require people to pick them for an extended period of time. There are also a lot of guys working in greenhouses picking things like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, or on nurseries tending to the trees that are eventually used in urban landscaping jobs. Those tree-lined streets are a good example of this.

So, where does Frontier College come in to all of this? It all has to do with the living situation that the workers find themselves in when they're here. Very few have any knowledge of Canada before coming, or of the English language. This leads to a number of difficulties in areas such as understanding what the boss is saying (some farmers speak Spanish, but not all), understanding people in town when they go shopping or to the bank, or learning about their rights as a worker--things like workplace safety, or filing taxes.

At the farm I'm on, there's never been a worker from Frontier College before. For a lot of the guys, I'm the first Canadian they've met who wasn't their boss or a relative of their boss. So a lot of these issues, and others, have come up. The teaching, if you can really call it that, has taken the form of formal lessons where I give out exercises and write on a whiteboard, or conversations around the dinner table or during work (a favourite 'classroom' was the assembly line where we sorted and trimmed asparagus). These informal conversations cover all kinds of things, from how to speak with a cashier at Western Union to the university system in Canada.

At the end of the day, though, I'm definitely learning a whole lot more than I'm 'teaching' (still not so sure about that word). I've learned a whole ton of Spanish (and at that Mexican Spanish, which is something that is really impossible to teach in a classroom). I've learned, well, everything I just wrote about the program, the guys' perspectives on it (more on that some other time), and more.

That's all for now. All I really wanted to do was to write here some of the things I've been talking about with people for the last month or so. Maybe now that I've gotten these things out there, I'll start blogging about some of the other things that have been on my mind. We'll see!


  1. Glad to hear from you Adam!

    I was just reading this and thought of you:

  2. Adam: You'll have to teach us all some Mexican slang when you get back. Or better yet, blog us a lesson!
    Ange's link has had me laughing out loud for the past five minutes. My favourite is the "polla asada".