We Are What We Eat: A Review of “The Human Cost of Food” Digital Exhibition

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This post originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca.

Portuguese immigrant Rui Ribeiro and co-workers in a tobacco farm in Delhi, Ontario
Portuguese immigrant Rui Ribeiro and co-workers in a tobacco farm in Delhi, Ontario, September 1957. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Domingos Marques fonds, F0573, ASC29598.

To launch the exhibit The Human Cost of Food, part of the new Active History on Display initiative, we invited award-winning public historian Gilberto Fernandes, whose public history project City Builders was a major inspiration to the exhibit, to provide commentary.

Time is of the essence out in the fields. When to seed, water, feed, harvest or cure are decisions that dictate the fortune of crops and cause farmers to lose sleep. Laying in their own beds, own homes, own land, own country, where they raise their families and where many were raised themselves, most farmers would say that their stressful love of farming is permanent. Food is temporary. If left alone, its natural fate is to rot. It truly only becomes food when eaten. Such a simple and usually inattentive act, yet so fundamentally constitutive to all societies. Not just in an obvious biological sense, but also culturally, economically, emotionally, and in whatever other ways people make sense of their individual and collective identities through food; including those who preoccupy themselves with that annoyingly persistent question, what it means to be Canadian.

If we are what we eat, what then are those who feed us?

If we are what we eat, what then are those who feed us? For nearly six decades, immigration officials have asked that same question and decided that the over 70,000 temporary migrant workers from the Global South, whose seasonal labour has been critical to every stage of the annual farming cycle, are not to be Canadian. They don’t get to stay.

Before the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) was introduced by the federal government in 1966, farmers were, relatively speaking, at the mercy of seasonal workers who performed most of the labour on the farm. This mobile workforce was diverse, including Indigenous peoples, urban youth, interprovincial sojourners, and European immigrants. It was not uncommon for farmers to go to bed with a full workforce and wake up the next day to find that many workers had left, either because they found the manual work too demanding, the pay too low, or the living conditions too harsh.

Take the example of the immigrants I study. After experiencing isolation, discrimination, poor living conditions, and other difficulties, several Portuguese migrant workers sent to Ontario and Quebec farms in the 1950s broke their one-year contracts well before their conclusion and absconded to the cities. Some were even “rescued” by fellow immigrants who had previously worked on the same farms. Despite skirting the government-sanctioned contracts that had brought them to Canada, they were allowed to find jobs elsewhere, become permanent residents, bring their families, and start chains of migration that would give rise to Canada’s many Portuguese communities – among whom are farmers who now employ temporary migrant workers.1 This was true for many undocumented migrants as well.

My own extended family’s story of Canada begins with the pioneering father in a row of tobacco plants, hands burning from breaking hundreds of thick and sappy leaves, crying from the physical pain and the memory of his wife and children left in Portugal, questioning his decision to move to a strange land the very next morning after arriving with a tourist visa. His wife and daughter joined him soon after, followed by their two sons some years later, and another daughter born in Canada. The parents continue to live in Norfolk County, nearly fifty years after arriving. Their children went on to become health care professionals, an engineer, and a construction worker in different parts of Ontario. They are the type of desirable hard-working immigrants and citizens that Canadian politicians rave about it.

Similar “we made it” stories of sacrifice and hardship leading to successful Canadian lives abound among countless European immigrant families. They are an important part of the histories and founding mythologies celebrated by ethnic communities through various memorialization efforts. Sometimes, these celebratory narratives absolve the exploitation and discrimination experienced by early immigrant cohorts during their first years in the new country as a necessary part of their group’s triumph-over-adversity story of making it in Canada.2 The prize being the fact that they got to stay, permanently.

The stories of temporary migrant farm workers from Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the Global South are in some ways similar to those of European sojourner-turned-immigrants in the postwar period. Ideally, common experiences will elicit inter-ethnic solidarity and prompt older immigrant groups to at the very least relate with the present-day struggles of temporary migrant workers. But celebratory “we made it!” stories can also evoke “why can’t they?” attitudes among European immigrants, who might make too easy a comparison between distinct policy landscapes. Still, the question at the heart of Canadian immigration policy remains essentially the same as it ever was: who gets to come, to stay, and to make it in Canada? It persists nearly sixty years after the removal of discrimination based on ethnicity, race, or nationality from immigration legislation; the same that effectively made unskilled workers ineligible to apply as permanent economic migrants.

The question at the heart of Canadian immigration policy remains essentially the same as it ever was: who gets to come, to stay, and to make it in Canada?

Yet, chronic labour shortages persisted in those sectors of the economy most sensitive to seasonal swings, like construction and farming. For decades, undocumented migrants from Europe (mostly) have been a major source of labour in Ontario’s construction industry, where a large number of big and small mobile (sub)contractors – many of them fellow European ethnics – have been eager to hire them. Tens of thousands of undocumented construction workers and their families have been granted landed status since the 1970s, thanks to federal amnesties and special programs introduced after pressure from building trade unions, large contractors, and ethnic community organizations – many have also been deported.3 The agricultural industry, in turn, was given the SAWP, which shifted the balance of power by placing non-European migrant workers at the mercy of farmers – among them many postwar European immigrants or direct descendants – in fixed and often isolated worksites.

Poster for City Builders exhibit on History of Immigrant Construction Workers in Postwar Toronto

Edward Dunsworth’s award-winning books Harvesting Labour: Tobacco and the Global Making of Canada’s Agricultural Workforce (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022) and Harvesting Freedom: The Life of a Migrant Worker in Canada (the memoir of Gabriel Allahdua, co-written with Dunsworth; Between the Lines, 2023) discuss the history of the SAWP and its impact on migrant farm workers in Canada in detail. They are major contributions for the ongoing conversation about Canada’s labour migration policies and practices. But while Dunsworth’s books are highly readable, their readers are mainly higher educated Canadians.

Public history is a privileged, fruitful, but challenging ground for active historians to bring their scholarly research before a broader and more diverse audience, including those most closely connected with their subject matter. The Human Cost of Food digital exhibition, curated by Dunsworth in collaboration with a group of nine graduate and undergraduate students at McGill University, more than meets that challenge. This is an excellent addition to the conversation about SAWP and its tragic outcomes, but also to migration and labour studies in general. There has been plenty of press coverage about the racist violence, deadly and disabling accidents and illnesses, dreadful living quarters, medical deportations, family separation, workers’ isolation, employer abuse and intimidation, movement restriction, blacklisting, along with resistance and activism stemming from this cruel and prejudiced federal program since it was founded nearly sixty years ago. But until now, there was no source of information and memorialization as accessible, comprehensive, and easy to share as The Human Cost of Food.

Using the elegant ArcGIS StoryMaps platform, Dunsworth and his team have created an exhibition that is easy to read and navigate, with short but substantial sections of text that are equally informative and affecting. These are supported by quotes from news stories, oral histories, and activist communications; short clips from Min Sook Lee’s documentaries El Contrato (2003) and Migrant Dreams (2016); digital maps; timelines; and photos from public archives, recent news publications, and private collections – including from the families of deceased workers. The exhibition follows a cogent structure, starting from the moment of “Leaving Home” and ending at “Home Again,” and in between walking us through life “On the Farm,” “In the Bunkhouse,” “Moving Around,” “Fighting Back,” and “In the Community.”  It takes about 45-60 minutes to see the entire exhibition at an unhurried pace. This is enough time to introduce visitors to the history of the SAWP and its consequences; consider its transnational, state, and individual dimensions; learn about some of the lives lost or deeply affected by it; and what political actions and forms of resistance have been undertaken.

Those wishing to explore this topic in greater depth can access an extensive list (8 pages!) of sources for further reading; an interactive data map of incidents of migrant workers’ deaths, injuries, and illnesses; its supporting data spreadsheet with 149 detailed and sourced entries; and a 23-paged toolkit with lesson plans, worksheets, and student activities for educators wishing to use this exhibition in their classrooms. These additional Resources, along with brief bios of each of the Team members, can be found on the separate Active History on Display landing page. The creators’ decision not to add too much content to the exhibition to improve its navigability is understandable, but I would still prefer to have access to these additional resources or links to them within the ArcGIS platform itself, which is likely to be the most shared url. A “How to Get Involved” section with links to organizations working with temporary migrant workers would be another useful addition to what is already a great example of digital active history.

The human costs borne by temporary migrant workers on Canadian farms are permanent, but siphoned off to their home countries. Painful memories, disabilities, and death are forever.

“When you are sick, you are of no more use to them.” That is how the migrant worker Michael Coley assessed his employer’s efforts to repatriate him after he suffered a heart attack at an Ontario farm in 2012. Two decades earlier, Artemio Rodríguez, who was trying to make his way back home to Mexico, died by suicide at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after U.S. immigration officials decided to deport him back to Canada, where he had experienced abuse at a farm in Quebec. These and other poignantly tragic stories are discussed by Dunsworth and his team, whose care to remember and pay homage to these migrant workers is clear and commendable. In doing so, their active history project reveals and resists the special cruelty of the SAWP, which goes beyond determining “who gets to live” to “who gets to die” in Canada. The human costs borne by temporary migrant workers on Canadian farms are permanent, but siphoned off to their home countries. Painful memories, disabilities, and death are forever. They are not the natural fate of labour migrants left alone to perish or to make it in Canada, but the result of deliberate government decisions and chilling capitalist calculations that should cause more Canadians to lose sleep over the human costs of the food. We are what we eat. But the delectable myths that we are often fed about Canada as a proud nation of immigrants are sometimes too hard to swallow and we must spit them out.

Feature Image: Farming Ontario, Farm Service workers workers on wagon. David and John Bate pictured, women unnamed. Photographer: Ronny Jacques. 1942. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Ronny Jaques.


1  Gilberto Fernandes, “Moving the ‘Less Desirable’: Portuguese Mass Migration to Canada, 1953-74.” Canadian Historical Review 96: 3 (September 2015): 339-74; “The Oliveira Family – Tobacco Farming,” Movimento Perpétuo: The Portuguese Diaspora in Canada, June 2023.

2 Gilberto Fernandes, This Pilgrim Nation: The Making of the Portuguese Diaspora in Postwar North America (University of Toronto Press, 2020): 308–309.

3 Fernandes, This Pilgrim Nation, 50–51; John Stefanini, More Than We Bargained For (Sutherland House, 2019), 139, 192–196; Government of Canada, “Canada doubles immigration program for out-of-status construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area,” 20 January 2023.

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Gilberto Fernandes is a visiting scholar in the Department of History at York University and an award-winning public historian and community archivist. His work focuses mainly on the history of the Portuguese diaspora in North America and the construction industry in Ontario.

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