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Our People, Crisis & Change

“Our Problem is Political, and Our Solution is Political”: The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, Activism and Social Change

Curated by Belinda Leach

Storyteller: Gabriel Allahdua

February 14, 2023

Gabriel Allahdua started coming to Canada from St. Lucia in 2012 under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). He is now a Canadian Permanent Resident and volunteers with Justicia for Migrant Workers. In 2022-23 he is the first Activist in Residence at the University of Guelph where he brings his knowledge of farm worker issues and his organizing skills to connect students and researchers with activists. This is his story of becoming an advocate for the rights of seasonal agricultural workers.

Gabriel is in a group of people all holding signs protesting for migrant workers rights.
Gabriel marching at the 2016 Migrant Workers Caravan in Ottawa. Photo Credits: Christopher Katsarov

Gabriel starts by telling me “I have three legs. That’s a strong statement, right? What does that mean? One, I carry a leg of slavery because my mother is of African descent and after emancipation the freed slaves had the option to continue working on the land or to go on their own. Because slavery was so barbaric most of them left the plantation. This created a big problem for the plantation operators, so they then went to Asia to bring in indentured workers. My father is of Asian descent. This means I carry the indentured leg too. My mother’s African descent, my father’s indentured Indian descent. And now I’m in Canada, I am taking part in another form of exploited labour.

In my home country I studied agricultural science, which was my passion, but to satisfy my curiosity I also studied history. I couldn’t see how important that was. But coming to Canada, these two subjects, which I thought were unrelated and far from each other, kind of came together. Those dark pages of my history, exploitation, slavery, I found that these difficult conditions were alive and well in Canada; agriculture and history came together and that was an eye opener for me. That was a rude awakening for me.

Gabriel standing in front of crowd of demonstrators speaking into a megaphone
Gabriel marching at the 2016 Migrant Workers Caravan in Ottawa. Photo Credits: Christopher Katsarov

The first year I was in Canada I met a guy who invited me to a vigil organized by Justice for Migrant Workers. I didn’t know much about the program, but at the vigil I heard about the vulnerabilities of migrant workers and the circumstances around the ten migrant workers who had died earlier in my first year, in a traffic accident near Kitchener. It was in that session where I first got to know about this organization. I kept in touch but because I was on the farm I wasn’t very active. I realized that was the right forum for speaking out and learning more about other dehumanizing programs in Canada.

I became aware of the issues but to become empowered enough to speak about it and take action, that took the help that I received from Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW). They have a great platform and they listen. They have a strong network of very supportive people which was instrumental in empowering me. They’re the ones who molded me. They asked me some questions and that got me more angry than afraid. So now I’m agitated. Right now I am fearless because I am agitated. In terms of mentoring and coaching, I got a lot of support from that network. One of the great things that happened was in 2016 was the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. That was a whole month we spent marching with a caravan across the province all the way to Ottawa. That created a lot of opportunities to speak to the media, to speak to the Canadian public.

Gabriel at lectern with two women standing on each side of him.
Gabriel addressing the Ottawa Press Gallery at the 2016 Migrant Workers Caravan in Ottawa. Photo Credits: Christopher Katsarov

So why did I become an activist? I became an activist for three main reasons: The first reason is very personal for me. I told you I have 3 legs, my mother, my father and now me. I want to break out of that cycle of exploitation.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is just one of many programs in Canada that dehumanizes and exploits people. It’s driven by racism. That’s why I became an activist. There are a lot of unjust laws and policies that make me feel like I’m a slave. We’re denied the right to participate in family life. To be denied basic human rights and labour standards in a land that prides itself as a champion for diversity and inclusiveness is not easy for me.

Gabriel seated at desk writing.
Gabriel at the 2016 Migrant Workers Caravan in Ottawa. Photo Credits: Christopher Katsarov

Another reason is that I want a Canadian food system that is healthy and sustainable. In Canada it’s legal to exploit the soil, to exploit the environment, to exploit migrant workers. We are exploited because we do not have status. Not having status means that we are forced to be submissive and compliant, in a country with a culture of silence.

The third reason is that many Canadians believe that our food is being produced by families on family farms. Canadians aren’t aware that most of their foods are being produced and controlled by large corporations. Food is a commodity, a profit-making thing. People haven’t realized that food isn’t a basic human right in Canada. But what is very exciting is that increasingly more Canadians are showing concern about whether their food is being produced by those who respect the soil, the environment and migrant workers. That makes it exciting.

During the pandemic with unemployment so high, I thought Canadians would go to the farm to produce their own food. But they didn’t because the conditions are not right, they are not just. What are those conditions? These are dirty, difficult and dangerous non-unionized jobs. Migrant workers are tied to their employers because we don’t have status. Many of the rules that offer protections to other workers don’t apply to agriculture. There are special rules or exemptions for farm workers.

The pandemic clearly highlighted how essential migrant workers are to food security in Canada. The borders were quickly opened to migrant workers because Canadians realized that the food system is not sound without migrant workers. We are essential but there is no action to back it up. We are still tied to one employer with our closed work permits and no status. We are still in a very precarious, very vulnerable position. We are forced to be submissive and compliant.

Gabriel in front of the Parliament buildings at the Migrant Workers Caravan. Photo Credits: Christopher Katsarov

The big and important thing is that the Seasonal Workers Program is a legal program; it has the full blessing of the government. That is why I try to use my voice. To represent the workers who are so vulnerable, so precarious that they cannot speak up or they’ll be sent home. I work mainly at the grassroots, connecting to workers on the ground. Delivering presentations at churches, unions, university lecture halls and at other events is the other thing I do to educate the public about the unjust Canadian food system and try to push them to take action to lobby their politicians. So I try to be that voice and make sure I speak for those workers who can’t speak for themselves. To break that silence is part of the work. That is why I decided to publish my experience as a migrant farm worker in Canada. It’s now on the Between the Lines website: How can we change it if we don’t talk about it?

Our problem is political and our solution is political. Migrant workers’ exploitation and poverty in Canada is because of the unjust policies of the politicians. The politicians are the ones deciding who deserve and who don’t deserve status.

Helping Canadians realize that they have power in their hands as consumers and voters is a major tool for social change waiting for activists like me to tap into. So that is why I try to push people to discover the power that they have and to use it by taking action to push their politicians to change racist, unjust and oppressive laws and policies and help create a just Canadian food system.

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