Ottawa is reassuring Canadian farmers who depend on temporary foreign labourers that farm workers from abroad won’t be denied access to Canada as a result of recent border closures.
Last week, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau assured Canadian farmers that temporary foreign workers will still be allowed into Canada despite border closures and travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“We know how much (farmers) depend on these foreign workers for the agricultural sector,” Bibeau said March 18.
“Today, we have reassured the industry that we will find a way to let them come. We still have to develop the conditions under which they will come because our priority is still to make sure that we protect the health of Canadians.”
Bill Blair, Canada’s public safety minister offered similar reassurances, suggesting foreign workers would be allowed into Canada but would be required to self-isolate for 14 days.
As of March 23, COVID-19 had infected more than 375,000 people worldwide and had killed more than 16,300 people.
Border closures aimed at restricting the virus’s spread were implemented by Ottawa last week, but federal officials have indicated that Ottawa intends to minimize the impact of border restrictions on commercial activity and critical supply chains.
Statistics Canada estimated in 2015 that Canada’s agriculture sector employed nearly 60,000 temporary foreign workers annually, including 1,400 who are employed by Canadian grain and oilseed growers.
On March 18, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) issued a news release urging Ottawa to exempt foreign workers from travel restrictions.
“The new rules put in place to combat COVID-19 are necessarily far reaching,” the WCWGA said.
But too many restrictions could put Canada’s “food value chain at risk,” it added.
Kenton Possberg, a grain producer from Humboldt, Sask., said many grain farms depend heavily on temporary foreign workers.Ensuring their access would limit disruptions to Canada’s food value chain.
“All the same self-isolation measures should continue to be in place for any temporary foreign worker coming into the country, similar to any Canadian that is returning to Canada,” said Possberg, a Saskatchewan director with the WCWGA.
Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) offered similar comments.
In a March 16 interview with The Western Producer, Lewis said the suspension of high school classes might mean that some farms will have additional farm help this spring.
“The students won’t be going to school … so I think there will be lots of opportunities for the older kids to be able to help out during seeding, for example,” Lewis said.