Questions abound on access to foreign worker programs

It is a difficult task trying to write something timely about a situation that unfolds by the moment, as a glimpse into how matters have evolved in Ottawa over the past few days surely shows.

The true impact of COVID-19 won’t be known for some time, especially because there is no clear indication as to how long the pandemic, and the mitigating measures put in place to prevent its spread, will last.

Just before social distancing and working-from-home isolations became the norm, the Canadian Horticulture Council held its annual general meeting in Ottawa on March 10-12. It seems like forever ago.

The potential impact COVID-19 would have on imported labour within the horticulture industry was a hot topic of the meetings, with its president Brian Gilroy telling me there was significant discussion about, “whether we should be trying to move up our travel dates, so that if things do get worse the workers are here, so there’s a fairly high level of anxiety about that.”

Even so, we still weren’t accustomed to tuning into daily updates on the emerging situation or cautioning people to stay away from one another.

Heck, I went to play what would become my last game of hockey the same day I spoke to Gilroy, who had listed concerns over trade and business risk management programs before making mention of anything related to COVID-19.

It’s clear the anxiety the industry felt was justified, as less than a week later Canada had become a very different place. International travel and border restrictions were soon put in place.

Perhaps at the time this decision was made, the decision makers around the federal cabinet table did not consider the impact this would have on farmers.

Almost immediately concerns of labour shortages and crop inputs were raised by producers. Fertilizer Canada and other groups assured confidence in access to inputs, but questions over accessing labour lingered.

By March 18, the federal government assured the flow of goods would continue and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair assured Canadians “…temporary foreign workers — their work is important to maintaining our country and what they contribute — so they will be allowed to enter Canada as well, after observing a 14-day period of self-isolation.”

For producers, this was significant because it indicated foreign workers would be permitted to come and help Canadian farmers through one of the available streams.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program allows workers to stay in Canada for up to two years and often employs people in the livestock sector, while the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program (SAWP) assists the horticulture industry by allowing employees from Caribbean countries and Mexico to help farm for up to eight months of the year.

About 60,000 people travel from these countries to Canada each year, and about 75 percent of seasonal labour coming into the country is to aid in fruit and vegetable production — with many arriving in late March.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office soon confirmed the SAWP was included in Blair’s blanket statement about temporary foreign workers.

But confusion continued, as some producers were told Blair’s comments only pertained to workers from the United States and excluded those from other countries, including the source countries for the SAWP.

Other questions remained as well, such as if only those with pre-existing contracts would be able to enter Canada, where the 14-day quarantine would take place and how potential travel of foreign workers to farms here would be managed.

Personally, I bounced between federal ministers’ offices attempting to get clarification or more information. I was either sent to another office or told to continue waiting for more details.

It became increasingly clear that decisions involving billions of dollars, several different countries and government ministers were being made moment-to-moment.

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