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Canada’s growing wine industry turns to seasonal foreign workers

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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE – It’s nearly spring in Ontario, Canada. Outside you can feel it. It’s still chilly, but there’s a sense that the worst of winter is over. There’s a thin layer of melting snow, pooling in shallow ground and mixing with the dirt to create a thick layer of mud – making it hard to walk through the grass.

For an outsider, you can tell spring is coming from the noise. Sounds from dozens of different birds, back from their southern vacations, fill the air. But for Jane Andres, a lifelong resident of southern Ontario, the real sign of spring comes from the town’s other returning residents – seasonal farm workers, all the way from the Caribbean.

Andres describes the history of Niagara-on-the-Lake, nicknamed “the loveliest town in Canada,” over the crackle of a fireplace that is warming up the open living room inside her two suite bed and breakfast.

She says the town didn’t used to be a mecca for wine-lovers, that for many years the region was dotted with tender-fruit farms and canning plants. But when the last plant closed in the mid-2000s, farmers were forced to find a new crop, one that would be in-demand for years to come.

Andres says that transition has forced the hand of farmers; the vineyards now demand more workers. Since most Canadians are not interested in farm work, she says, the farmers turn to the country’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program for the help they need.


She’s an unlikely leader. In fact, she had to be convinced to go to a seasonal worker oriented church service in 2005.

“I was asked to help out with the music in one of their church services,” she remembers. “I said no, I was too busy.”

She was busy, it was peak season for her bed and breakfast, but it was more than just scheduling that was holding her back.

“I was not looking to make a connection,” she admits. “There was a certain amount of apprehension and fear from just not knowing.”

But one of the church leaders convinced her to at least come after the service to meet some of the men who worked on farms nearby.

“I was so surprised at how friendly they were,” Andres recalls. “So I started getting involved with the church service and then getting a music team together.”

She says the idea of hosting a welcome concert came from the yearly gathering the farmers held. Ever since then her life has been turned upside-down.

Andres jokes that she sometimes feels like she didn’t start living until she was in her 50s.

“I was surprised at just about everything when I first started, because I knew nothing. I had a lot of stereotypes in mind when I first met them.”

But since, she’s grown close to some of the workers, visiting several of them and their families in Jamaica. Andres says she is “impressed with the integrity with which they live their lives.”


It was 21 years ago that attitudes towards the seasonal agricultural workers first started to change in Niagara-on-the-Lake. That began after a Caribbean farm worker was killed while biking on Highway 55.

Reverend Herman Neufeld remembers the woman who found the man was shocked by the town’s reaction to the news.

“No one knew him, no one knew what farm he was working on,” recalls Neufeld. “She said this is a tragedy, this shouldn’t be. There’s thousands of them coming here but we don’t know them, they’re invisible.”

The incident inspired the creation of the Caribbean Workers Outreach Program by Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Since then with the help of Andres, Neufeld says, the program’s outreach has expanded leaps and bounds. He estimates at least a dozen churches of different denominations in southern Ontario are now involved in the program.

Andres is at the center of it all. She’s planning the annual workers welcome concert for about 600 workers and community members. In previous years, the concert has proved so popular it was broadcast in Jamaica several times a year.

Neufeld says Andres’ passion has been instrumental in the growth of the program. But Andres says she’s been inspired by the workers and wants them to take a role in creating church services.

“These guys have got great ideas, they just need someone to facilitate the sound that they want,” she said. “Mostly, when you’re homesick you want to hear some songs from home and so that became my goal.”

It’s not just the welcome concert; there are several big events in the summer for workers and the community to come together including a cricket match and a Caribbean barbeque. Plus two pastors from Jamaica are flown in for summer months to help with weekly services targeted at the workers and daily visits to farms to check in with them.

“Through it all we’ve gotten to know them personally and know their needs,” Neufeld said. “It’s become more than just a summer project, which I’m happy about. And it’s brought the churches closer, which was my other prayer.”

Andres says she just wants to show the workers that they are not invisible.

“We see you here and we appreciate you,” Andres said.