(The following letter is addressed to MLA Linda Larson, Oliver Mayor Martin Johansen and Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff.)
I read the Oliver Chronicle’s article, “Possible influx of Quebec migrants causes COVID-19 worry”, in which you are quoted detailing the concerns and potential regulations in regards to the arrival of farm workers from Quebec this summer. As someone who has worked as a farm worker in the South Okanagan for almost a decade, I want to thank you for providing some information in regards to this issue prior to the commencement of the cherry season. Over the past month, the French-Canadian picking community has been concerned regarding the future of the Okanagan harvest season with no news or updates. Unfortunately, what information has been shared has not quelled the anxiety regarding their concern for their safety and health. All that was portrayed was that the safety of the local community is more a priority than theirs.
I get it. The numbers of new cases in Quebec are scary while here in British Columbia, we seem to be (cross fingers) flattening the curve. And so, the idea of a large migration of individuals from Quebec can be seen as terrifying, especially in towns where there is a higher population of older people that are more at risk. But it doesn’t have to be. As long as both the safety concerns of the community members AND local and international farm workers are addressed by adequate preventive measures, the South Okanagan can be protected from outbreak.
The safety measures discussed in regards to increased enforcement by bylaw and the RCMP to ensure physical distancing are only one small (and superficial) facet of the issue. The underlying issue here that needs to be addressed in order to protect the South Okanagan communities is one that the Quebec farm workers have been struggling with for decades: a lack of safe living spaces. It is extremely difficult during summer months to find rental opportunities, even at motels and RV parks. Many farmers allow farm workers to live on their orchards but do not provide adequate housing or amenities, such as showers and toilets. The one living space that is provided by the town of Oliver, Loose Bay Campground, is normally overwhelmed with farm workers and only consists of (as of last year) two working showers, four toilets, three sinks, and one cooking space with one stove. The messaging within this article is that, as per usual, the responsibility for safe living spaces falls on farmers and farm workers without any financial assistance. This is both unfair and unrealistic.
In regards to farm workers occupying public spaces during the summer, especially on beaches, the primary reason for this is due to the summer heat and sun. During the cherry season, fruit harvesters start work in the early hours of the morning and finish early afternoon in order to ensure that the cherry is not too warm and separates from its stem. Due to the lack of housing and infrastructure on farms, many fruit harvesters resort to spending their free time on beaches or shady parks as heat protection. If physical distancing measures will be enforced in public spaces as well as potential closures of beaches and parks, fruit harvesters will need an alternative to remain cool. If not, rest assured that this population will start needing medical assistance with heat stroke and other heat and sun-related illnesses.
Also, over the decades that the Quebec migrant population has been assisting farms during the summer months in the Okanagan, they have been subjected to both discrimination and stigma within their host communities. The stereotype that Quebec farm workers are dirty and troublesome is a constant obstacle that these workers have to overcome. By making statements, such as MLA Larson’s message in the article “to avoid contact at all possible with these individuals” only continues to promote such negative sentiment. Community members need to be remindedthat farm workers, both from abroad and from other provinces, are not only essential to the local economy but also to our food security.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have seen politicians rising to the occasion and establishing creative and thoughtful measures to protect their citizens. It is your job to do so now in order to protect all lives of individuals residing in your constituency as well as mitigate overwhelming the health care system. The first step to create such measures is to establish a collaborative problem-solving process that consists of all members of the community, including domestic and international farm workers and related organizations.
To end, I have included some ideas that both the towns of Oliver and Osoyoos can implement prior to the cherry season that will assist in protecting farm workers’ health:
- Tourism will be impacted in both towns this year. The municipal governments can assist farm workers in obtaining affordable short-term housing during their season by contracting motels and hotels. This option will also allow domestic farm workers to self-quarantine if symptomatic.
- As already established in many communities to provide special accommodations for essential workers at grocery stores, the municipal governments can discuss with grocery stores alternative ways that farm workers can still get their groceries without having to come into close contact with community members. This could include a special hour for farm workers to buy groceries or a pick-up option.
- Educate the community by promoting “caremongering” toward all essential workers including domestic and international farm workers in order to mitigate discrimination and stigma.
What we are learning through this pandemic is that we are stronger together. It is important that we remember this and work together. Quebecois farm workers want to ensure the safety of its host community as well as their own. As the current viral saying in Quebec goes, “Ca va bien aller!”
Alix Longland, Vernon