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