Journey to Niagara

on-the-Lake August 2016

The history of Migrant workers in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region spans over fifty years. As it is right now, many people come from Jamaica and Mexico to work on various fruit farms in the area. As a major component of my Interior Migrations project, Yu, Scott and I have been to Niagara twice now to film the daily lives and interview people on various farms. When we were there last summer we mostly conducted interviews and with this most recent trip we returned to document the daily lives and routines on the farm.

On August 22nd we departed from Vancouver and LA on 6:00am flights and arrived in Toronto at 2:00pm. We rented a Ford SUV at the airport and started the next leg of our journey to Niagara. The trip from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake was said to take approximately 1.5 hours, but due to Toronto traffic it took us three hours to get there. We arrived just after 6:00pm at the Applewood Bed and Breakfast where we stayed of the duration of our trip. As we drove in I noticed there was farmland completely surrounding us. The owner of the establishment was Jane Andrews, she has been helping the community of migrant workers in the area for over 30s years. I met her 3 years ago through a curator from Rodman Hall Art Centre at Brock University. Through her and her organization we met 12 people to conduct individual interviews with. After our trip last year, we went to Jamaica to film interviews with three of the 12 workers in their homes.

The purpose of this trip was to document worker’s daily life, from daybreak to nightfall. We chose to go in August specifically because it was the end of the production season, a very busy time on the farm and for the migrant workers who are preparing to head back to their homes. In order to get approval for interviews, we had to first go through farm owners, Jane introduced us to three farm owners, hereafter referred to as A, B and C. A, originally from Switzerland, immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. He is an independent farmer and is not part of the corporation of Vineland Growers Co-operative farms. He thinks scientifically and effectively about his farming, and has built up a network of people to buy directly from his farm, relationships he has kept for 50 years. He works hard to avoid waste and has developed many ways to make sure his products are successful from right from growth. A was a very open-minded person; he had no problem at all with our filming migrant workers on his farm. Usually the approval process from the farm owner was a long painful process, but not with A.

B has owned the largest farm in the region since the 80’s, each year making it bigger and bigger. When I asked him exactly how big his farm was he simply said “big.” Last year when we visited his farm we spoke to his daughter-in-law, D, who allowed us to interview farm workers and shoot footage on his land. This year, E (B’s brother) let us film the fruit packaging process. We finally met B through E, and B asked us what we were doing here? I told B, we are working on an art project about migrant workers and their memories of family while apart from them for long amounts of time—he told me “as long as you are not social workers or journalist.” I had heard from people in the area that he wasn’t the easiest person to deal with, but I found his directness refreshing. The salary people made on his farm from 1 day was equal to what a lot of jobs would play for 2 weeks in Jamaica.

The third farm owner we met, C, is a Chinese Canadian who immigrated to Canada 18 years ago. C and his wife were university professors in Beijing China and three years ago they bought this farmland, from a man who wished to retire. After C signed the contract, he worked on the land with his pickers for three months; he wanted to know the whole process before he started to run the farm. I found this interesting, not all people would choose to do this hard work. His production tripled once he took over the farm, he was hungry for knowledge on the best way to grow pears, apples and peaches. After three years he was already a profit from the farm, which I hear is unusual in the industry. He’s farm is 30 acres. B’s workers live on C’s Farm because C has an extra house on his property. C was supportive of our documentation.

On the 24th, before daybreak we started to shadow the workers morning preparation for their 12 to 14 hour workday. We began at their house on C’s farm. After breakfast they dressed in their work clothes and boots and climbed into several stripped down cars without doors or even roofs on some. It took them around 15 minutes to drive to B’s farm. After we shot their morning departure to work, Jane connected us with E so we could film in the packinghouse and see the packaging of fruit for sale. E, a young 50 with a sense of humour, allowed us to come in to film, and showed us around. He showed us the machine that formed the boxes—it punched a two-dimensional planar object into a container. He showed us the process of approving fruit, if there was one blemish on a peach it was unusable, if the size was too small, it was unusable—everything had to be uniform. They would give the peaches that didn’t pass the test to another factory to be made into jams and other preserves. In years past, they would just throw out the fruit that was imperfect, but that has recently changed. When I saw the walls and walls of piled fruit boxes I thought, this would be a great material to use for my work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada 150 years show next year. I imagined a replica of Niagara Falls made out of fruit boxes. E told me if I wanted to use the boxes for my artwork, I should contact him in the future. Then he brought us to meet B and the other workers in the packinghouse. This was my first time meeting B, he looked around 50, being fit and healthy, but he was over 60. He had three kids and only one was continuing the family farming work.

We then moved around the building documenting workers. Half of them are women from Mexico and the other half are local people from the region or students working a summer job. We were in the packinghouse for three hours. It was my first time witnessing the journey of commercial consumable fruit from farm to table. Because the fruit are so fragile they cannot be stored for a long time but have to be at the market as soon as possible. For this reason, they cannot ship fruit to BC, just in eastern Canada. After being picked, the fruit arrives at the house via truck; the first stage of packaging is washing. The fruit is put on a conveyer belt and sent through the washing water tunnel for 20 minutes. Then they are brought into the house on a large tray were they are agitated a certain way so the smaller pieces fall down and the larger ones remain. Then the fruit that passed the size test is moved along another conveyer belt where workers examine them and put the unblemished ones in boxes. Once a box is full it is sent on another belt and put directly into a truck for shipment. The speed the fruit gets to a market is very important. The shorter the time it takes to get the fruit to the market the more valuable it is and less waste occurs.

All of the migrant workers in the packinghouse are from Mexico, they all speak Spanish to each other and they all eat lunch together. Their lunch is all Mexican food. One woman shared a taco with me; it was very good and spicy. Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t communicate very well with them. Scott and Yu can speak conversational Spanish so were able to chat with them. One woman asked Scott if I could email they photos I took of her, and I said definitely. That night I downloaded the images from the day and sent her the ones she had asked for. At this time, I really thought about how language is a real barrier for migrant workers on the farms and in local communities. Most women were around 35 – 50, most of them already have families and are working to support them, how can they learn English in their spare time? Their situation reminded me of the first time I came to Canada, when I didn’t speak the language and I lived in culture shock for years. As I learned more English I became more and more comfortable when I could express my thinking and feelings. People paid more attention to me and my art work though my ability to converse with them. Year by year I fit more and more into mainstream culture. This is a lifetime practice, there is no short cut or easy route, it is extremely hard but is learnt slow when done everyday.

I think more about when I first came to Canada, that feeling you possess when you don’t speak the language because you cannot speak out, you cannot understand and you cannot get rid of the feeling as if you are on the bottom of society. You are totally dependant on your intuition to try to do the right thing. Sometimes you know what you want to say, but you cannot speak with the right words or form the right sentence.   I remember when people tried to teach me to pronounce the T, H and L sound, it took so long to feel right in my mouth. I think about working in an environment that is foreign, you know what your work is and what needs to be done, but that is not all you are, you are a human and not part of a machine. The adjustment is hard; it is a big struggle and takes a long time. Some workers on B’s farm have worked for 30 years in the region and have become a huge part of the local community.

Through our documentation I hope people will pay more attention to migrant workers and accept them in a positive way. We have to acknowledge them, their invisibility is not an option and they must be seen. Beyond the imaginary barriers they are real human beings, they have their hopes and passions and they have families to take care of, like everyone.

The following days we followed the workers from day break until they went to sleep. We wanted to really understand their daily routine and we followed them for over 12 hours straight one day. We started in the kitchen where they were eating breakfast and saw them get dressed for the farm, putting their socks and boots on then they all climbed into the cars and drove to the peach field. The morning was a hustle getting ready for their long day and they are never late for work. At the peach field they strapped on a special wearable bucket—a metal frame with a cotton insert inside. In the morning because of the dew they wore transparent rain gear in the orchard. Though their sweat would eventually soak through their clothes anyway and no rain gear could help that. They picked the peaches very quickly, with two people on each tree moving down the orchard in a line. Their cart fills up as they go. Keng was the fastest picker; he was always ahead of people around him. While they worked they are talking and joking with each other. Rooster, another picker, would talk the most, but I couldn’t understand his accent, I imagine he was telling stories.

At 10am they had a ten-minute break, many people just have a rest, drink water and call their families. Everyone has a cell phone, this is their mode of communication to their families and communities back home. The break is so quick, then back to work again. Lunchtime is at noon and they return to their house for food and to dry clothes. They take their shorts, boots and socks of to let them dry a bit until they have to go out again. Depending on the day and season their lunch might be half an hour to one hour long, today they had an hour break. It is the hottest time of day when they return from lunch. In the orchard, the heat makes you extremely uncomfortable and it is hard to breath. The navigation around closely planted trees couple with the labour of picking is hard exhausting work. At 4pm they take an afternoon break for another ten minutes. People looked very tired, many of them sit on their ladders and for a short nap. After the break they work until 7pm and then return home. It’s an extremely long day.

There are several workers over 60 and the others take care of these older workers, they have the job of driving the cart to the packinghouse. I met Derek, he was 62 years old and had worked for 15 years in the region and wants to work 3 more years so he can be eligible for Canadian pension plan. He has three kids to look after. I noticed his eyes were all red, he said the peach fuzz has been going into his eyes for years and causing damage. I asked him what kind of eye drops he used, because I wished to buy some for him. He was a very passionate person, during the break he gave us all a peach to eat and washed it with his bottle of water. The washing of the peach was a small gesture but indicated his passion of caring for others. After the job was finished for the day, they changed clothes, showered then started to cook dinner. The 18 people in the house all ate together. They use their 4-element stove to cook food for everyone. They made beans, roots, jerk chicken, making sure to cook extra for breakfast and lunch the next day. It was the end of the season, so after dinner they would build 4 x 4 x 4 feet crates to fill with supplies to send home. They buy the materials together, things like rice, cooking oil, flour, coffee mate, and toilet paper. I couldn’t believe how much cheaper they said it was to buy here and ship it home then to buy there.

When I looked at them compiling things to pack in crates, I had a complete vision: their hard work on the farm equals these materials, this is the connection between work transforming to the supplies for their family. Each week more and more work, so more and more supplies, then finally they both go home. It was awakening for me, this is why they come to work so hard—to support their families and to have a better life in their country. Confronting this notion reminded me on my time as a worker on the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. We had to buy, chicken, pork, eggs, cooking oil, and bring them back to the city because people there were shorted food. Families couldn’t buy enough of what then needed to survive. Each family was allotted, ½ lb. of pork, ½ litre of oil and 20 lbs. of rice per month. Our time—though in different spaces and different regions—both are instances of life, the struggle and discomfort but what exists is now, the present.

Every second Thursday night the farm owner sends a school bus to the workers house to take them to St. Catherines to go to the super market Fresh Co. to buy two weeks of supplies. The school bus first took them to a bank to get cash from a bank machine because they don’t have credit cards. In the superstores they have Jamaican foods for sale, like Dasheen, Yucca root and Cocoa yams. We followed them to see what types of food they chose. Mostly they always selected the cheapest option and the Jamaican foods. After shopping was done, everyone helped pile the food on to the bus, loaded through the windows.

On Saturday, at noon Andrew Hunter, the Canadian art curator for AGO, came to visit us to see how our research was coming along. I was very pleased that he came because he is creating a show called Canada 150 years at the AGO next summer and is very interested in the project. He brought his daughter Maggie with him. Andrew and I have known each other for over twenty years, I have seen his daughter grow up; he told me I was his parenting role-model because I always took Yu around to museums and lectures with me. I was so glad to have this time reconnecting with them on the farm along with my daughter and son-in-law.

I wanted to introduce Andrew and Maggie to A. We walked through his farm and found him grafting new leaves onto older trees. Andrew asked A what it was like to be a farmer today on Canadian farmland? A told him all about the corporation of Vineland Growers Co-operative farms, and how his focus—unlike theirs—was on the fruit trees and how he could make his product better and better. A talked about how most Canadian farmers are over 60 years old now and in 10 years there will be tremendous change as most farmer’s children have not pursued a career in farming. Now, all the farm workers were migrant workers, and he told Andrew, without them the farm couldn’t run. Andrew had a great conversation with A and said he will probably invite A to talk next year at the AGO. Before he left, Andrew invited us to participate in the Canada 150 years’ exhibition and asked us to come visit the gallery to see the exhibition area and where my work will be presented.

The migrant workers worked all day Saturday and finished at 6pm. That evening the local church charity association organized a trip to take them to Niagara Falls. At 6:30 we went to their house to pick them up to go. We picked up Barrie and Uton because we had two extra seats in our car. Supposedly the drive should have taken us 30 minutes but there was major traffic. After we parked the car it was very close to 7:30 the time the boat to the falls was going to leave. We had to run to the marina to make sure we didn’t miss it—we were the last people on. Everyone wore red plastic raincoats on the boat. There were about 200 migrant workers along with the people who organized the trip. On the top deck of the boat people were lined up taking photos of the falls all crowding the railing to get the best picture. The red jackets and the crashing whitecaps of the falls looked like a Canadian flag. It was a weird visual juxtaposition at this iconic Canada destination, a glory of Canada coupled with a population most Canadians ignore. Today when the workers stood on the boat they were brought into view, the invisible to the front stage, no one could ignore them. The waterfall cascaded and it hit the river aggressively making the air around us wet with mist. When the sky was rid of sunlight, strong light projections turned on and danced coloured light across the water. It was a romantic, dreamy and unreal sight. When the workers stood in front of the illuminated falls, it looked as if they were in a virtual space, but their eyes held the passion and truth of their reality.

The next morning was Sunday—their day off—and they got to sleep in, so we went to their house around 11am. It was their day to relax but they spent their time working on their crates to send home. After we visited them we drove to the church where we were meeting Jane who arranged an interview with the pastor there. She hoped we could help pass the message to the church to help the community migrant workers more. We attended the morning service and heard the church has a sister church in Columbia. We witnessed the introduction of the Columbian pastor to the cogitation. After the service we met the pastor and asked him if he wouldn’t mind being interviewed. He agreed to sit down with us. We learned he went to Regent College at UBC, and grew up in Vancouver. When we asked about what help his church provided to the migrant workers, he told us his first priority was to serve his congregation, but hopes there is a possibility to work more with the migrant workers. He said there is some misunderstandings in the local community and recognizes something needs to change.

Sunday evening, the Grace United Church had planned a music concert. This church is a separate organization from the Bethany Mennonite Church close to the farmlands, but they organized with them to hold the concert there. The Bethany Mennonite Church was walking distance from where the workers lived so we walked all together to the concert. They hired a three-person band from Toronto to preform. The church was full with people, music and sound, it made my blood pump. The musicians walked on the stage to sing. At one point there was a man who came up onto the stage, took the microphone and said “I just got a message that my mother passed away, and I would like to sing a song for her to let her know that I am coming home to bury her.” He was very passionate, he moved everyone in the room. I had tears in my eye when I heard him sing. I thought about the wealth of passion in the room when the man was singing.

On the 29th, we finished our shooting at Niagara-on-the-Lake farmland and said goodbye to the workers and the farm owners. Jane made a banner outside her house it read “Thank You” and had 5 flags from different countries hanging from it. We want to thank the migrant workers, farm owner and the local migrant workers organization for letting us visit and film here; we will see you next year.