Canada’s “Guest Workers”

Vincenzo Pietropaolo, Harvest Pilgrims: Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers in Canada. Foreword by Naomi Rosenblum. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2009. ISBN 978-1-897071-54-0.
A man working in a cauliflower field pauses briefly to pose for the photographer while other men look on from afar or continue their harvest work. Other photographs show men perched on apple trees or straining their backs carrying heavy loads of pears, seemingly oblivious to the photographer nearby. The photographer has also caught them looking lost upon arrival in Toronto; very tired in dark and dank accommodations they call home for six or eight months out of the year; and crying and laughing at reunions back home, in Jamaica and Mexico. The men and women in Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s black-and-white photographs are Canada’s “guest workers,” and Harvest Pilgrims tells their story.
From 1984 to 2006, Pietropaolo photographed temporary migrants working on farms in Southern Ontario. In the tradition of social documentary photography, since Jacob Riis’s exposure of sweatshop labour in 1880s New York City and Lewis W. Hine’s images of early 20th century child labour throughout the United States, Pietropaolo documents the living, working, and travel conditions of men and women from places such as Montserrat (British West Indies) and Monte Prieto (Mexico) who harvest tobacco in Otterville, tomatoes, cabbages, and cucumbers in Waterford, and apples, pears, and peaches in Clarksburg, Beamsville, and other farming communities throughout Ontario. They come, because they hope to earn enough money in minimum wage jobs to ensure their families’ survival. They come also, because Canadian employers cannot find locals willing to work seven days a week for up to sixteen hours a day, in dirty, dangerous, and degrading conditions. And they come, because Canadian consumers demand low food prices. For many workers, their seasonal journeys shape a large part of their lives in their twenties, thirties, and forties, as they return again and again, for years and sometimes decades.
The power of Pietropaolo’s photographs lies, foremost, in making visible those who are most invisible in Canadian society. Canadians are more familiar with the Mexican workers who sweat in California’s strawberry fields than with migrant labourers cutting their hands and breaking their backs in fields and greenhouses across Canada, from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Canadian consumers reap the fruits of migrants’ labour when they buy shiny apples in supermarkets: one photograph shows the hands of migrants workers, marked by the wax they apply to make those apples shiny. While Canadians have become “foodies,” reading up on the 100-mile diet and embracing locally grown produce, they seldom consider that “we’ve flown whole villages of Mexicans here to pick [tomatoes] for us, for low pay and in bleak conditions,” as activist Michele Landsberg says. In 2008, over 20,000 farm workers came to Canada, making up over half of the horticultural workforce (p. 11). If the average return flight of a migrant worker is 4,000 miles, then 20,000 return flights result in 80 million flight miles each year.
In the two decades of his photographic study of migrant farm workers in Ontario, Pietropaolo developed a deep understanding of the workers’ conditions, readable not only in his photographs but also in his insightful and informative essay on “living between two worlds.” He built relationships with both, workers and farm owners, and he traveled to Mexico and Caribbean countries to meet the workers and their families and friends in their home towns. He also conducted numerous interviews, excerpts of which accompany some of the photographs.
Harvest Pilgrims scratches at the myth of Canada as an immigrant nation. Canadian immigration policy has long pursued the goal of matching the supply of foreign workers with domestic employers’ demands for workers. Immigrant workers, whether the Displaced Persons and other European immigrants of the postwar period or those arriving more recently via federal and provincial points systems, have always had access to permanent residence and citizenship. Canadian temporary migrant programs began in 1966 with the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Such programs have not only exposed migrants to exploitation but also denied them access to permanent residence and Canadian citizenship. As Pietropaolo says, Canada’s “guest worker” policy “does away with a sense of mutual belonging.” (10) The immigrant nation is feeding on the sweat of those it excludes from becoming immigrants.
Pietropaolo is an accomplished photographer whose work has been exhibited across Canada and abroad. In her foreword, photographic historian Naomi Rosenblum places Pietropaolo’s work in a larger, albeit mostly U.S. American, development of social documentary photography. Maia-Mari Sutnik, curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, discusses the genre of documentary photography. Although it has the format of a coffee table book, Harvest Pilgrims might best be placed on the dinner table as a constant reminder of the real cost of our food.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg


Review of Introduction to International Migration

Peter Stalker, The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration. 2nd ed. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2010. ISBN 978-1-904456-94-0
The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration is a concise introduction to current developments and patterns in international migration. In six chapters, Peter Stalker, a British freelance writer and former employee of the International Labor Organization, surveys the scope of current global migration flows and stocks; individual push and pull factors as well as structural frameworks that explain why people migrate; the role of established migration routes and migrant networks in channelling migrants to specific destinations; the economic benefits for sending and receiving societies and the migrants themselves; and the role and position of international migrants in an economically increasingly unstable world.
Some 190 million people currently live outside the country of their birth. Stalker groups these migrants into the five categories: settlers, temporary workers, professionals, unauthorized workers (so-called illegal or undocumented migrants), and refugees and asylum seekers. Throughout the text, he discusses all groups, with a larger concentration, however, on temporary workers and professionals. Various governments keep track of these migrants by either monitoring flows of migration – the annual movements of people; or by monitoring the stocks of immigrants – the number of foreign-born or foreigners (i.e. non-citizens).
Stalker’s description of both individual and structural migration theories is highly accessible. Numerous examples make abstract explanations concrete. Without dismissing push-pull, dual-labour market, or world system models out of hand, Stalker discusses both their usefulness and their limitations. Like much research on international migration, Stalker’s focus too is on the economic aspects of migration, especially the international supply and demand of jobs and workers. Numerous statistics are presented in tables and graphs, accompanied by several useful maps.
Traditionally established paths of migrations, especially from former colonies to former empires, explain migrants’ choices of destinations: “Indeed the industrialized countries deliberately started almost all the major international flows of migration of the past century” (42). Family reunification policies reinforce such migrant streams. The diverse roles and complexities of migrant networks are presented in great detail, including networks of family and friends; state-sponsored programs such as in the Philippines, Vietnam, and China; the private economy of labor brokers – so-called “body shops”; smugglers who help people to cross international borders without documentation; and traffickers who use coercion and deception to bring forced workers (especially children and women as forced sex workers) into other countries.
In much of his discussion, Stalker attempts to dismantle a number of popular myths about immigration and immigrants. He convincingly demonstrates that rather than taking jobs away from natives or being a burden on the welfare system, immigrants make receiving societies richer. In making his case, he carefully considers all sides of the argument and therefore allows readers ample evidence to draw their own conclusions. Through remittances – measured in hundreds of billions of dollars each year – migrants also contribute to the economies of their home countries. Stalker concludes by arguing that international migration will probably increase over the coming years, because “the disruption caused by globalization and industrialization in general are more likely to provoke additional emigration” (129).
The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration is a very readable book. On 143 pages, the author presents complex historical developments, current patterns, and diverse theories in a clear and engaging style that is accessible to an interested lay and undergraduate audience. Stalker’s narrative is global in reach, discussing migrations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America as well as in the more familiar territory of North America, Western Europe, and Australia. Yet, perhaps somewhat restrained by the heavy research focus on the latter “traditional” immigration and emigration countries in the English-language literature, Stalker too focuses on North America and Europe. While the author does not shy away from showing his pro-immigration position and his sympathies for migrants, this is nevertheless an even-handed account of the current state of research on international migration. His at times bold statements provide useful guidance, such as when he counsels that highly complex migration theories such as the world systems theory may not always be the best tool to cut a clear path through the thicket of migration data and phenomena (p. 24-25). Numerous references, a short bibliography, a list of contacts and online resources, and an extensive index make this book into a useful reference work and an excellent introduction to a complex field of research and an important current issue.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg

Review of Book on Russian Labour Migration to Canada Around 1900

Vadim Kukushkin, From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration From the Russian Empire to Canada. Montreal et al.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7735-3267-0
Our images of East European immigrants to Canada in the decades before the First World War are shaped by Clifford Sifton’s description of them as “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats” settling the newly opened prairies, by the stories of Mennonites, Jews, and Doukhobors fleeing religious persecution, and by revolutionaries escaping the tsar’s police. These images, however, tell only part of history. The vast majority of Russian immigrants during the 1890s and early 1900s were not homesteaders or refugees. Most of the Russians who came to Canada between 1896 and 1914, Vadim Kukushkin argues in From Peasants to Labourers, were economic migrants. They were labourers who planned to temporarily work in Canada’s mining, logging, agricultural, or industrial sectors, and then return home to their families and communities. They were joining a large industrial labour system in the North Atlantic that stretched from the western regions of Siberia westward across Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and North America to Canada’s Pacific coast. They were among three million immigrants that Canada received during this time period.
The industrial workers who migrated within this North Atlantic labour migration system came from Belarus and Ukraine west of the Dnieper river, but after decades of Russification, they often identified as Russian. This fluctuation of ethnic identity is one of the reasons that Canadian immigration historian have overlooked these migrants. Based on 2,800 personal files from the Russian imperial consulate in Canada, Kukushkin paints a picture of the migrants as young, married men trying to accumulate starting capital to build a life on the land in Russia. Overpopulation, landlessness, the beginning industrialization, a population boom were pushed the migrants away from their home. They were pulled by the images of “America” that had been created by immigration agents, advice literature, and pioneering migrants who sent letters home. The hurdles they had to overcome were significant. Anti-emigration legislation forced many to cross borders without documents. The immigrant labourers worked on Canada’s resource extraction frontier, in mining, lumbering, railway construction, and farming. During the winter months, they moved into industrial work in the urban centres, especially Montreal. Others worked in urban industry year-round.
Theirs was the familiar experience of sojourning, working in unskilled and dangerous jobs, living in cramped quarters in camps or ethnic neighbourhoods. Drinking, gambling, fighting, and sex dominated their spare time. Neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor various Protestant churches (especially Baptists) were successful at bringing the itinerant male workers into their fold. Socialist and social democratic organizations and parties were similarly unsuccessful. They maintained connections to family and homeland through letters and remittances. Sojourning also often meant that dreams of returning home remained unfulfilled. The First World War worsened the situation. While some returned to fight in the Russian army, others joined the Canadian forces or stayed to work in the arms industry. Many, Kukushkin points out, never saw their families again.
From Peasants to Labourers is a solidly researched and convincingly argued study that takes to heart Frank Thistlethwaite’s decades-old but still too often neglected call to look behind the salt-water curtain and study the homelands and origins of migrants as much as their experiences in North America. It is also informed by migration systems theory that goes beyond a listing of push and pull factors and takes into consideration migrant networks as well as local conditions. From Peasants to Labourers will work well in graduate seminars on migration history and will add to every immigration historian’s library.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg