Eleven people were killed when a flatbed truck slammed into a large passenger van carrying a group of migrant workers on a rural road, in one of the worst crashes in Ontario’s history.
The horrific incident will leave at least 10 families in another country without a breadwinner and shine a spotlight on the tens of thousands of people who arrive in the country every year to work tough farm jobs for little pay.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, the van carrying 13 workers was travelling west on a narrow local road, controlled by a stop sign, near the hamlet of Hampstead, about 15 kilometres northeast of Stratford.
As it headed through the intersection, it was T-boned by the southbound flatbed. The force of the crash pushed the van across a field and crushed it against the side of a building. The truck flipped and came to rest on its side.
Ten people in the van were killed, along with the driver of the truck. Three others were critically injured; two were taken to hospital in Stratford, the other was airlifted to Hamilton.
EMS workers said the survivors in the van appeared to be Spanish speakers, but police did not know where they were from or where they were headed. The dead ranged in age from 19 to 55 years old.
“I’ve been on the job for 28 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Inspector Steve Porter of the local OPP detachment as he stood near the scene after dark.
He confirmed the van was carrying migrant agricultural workers, but little was known about them.
A local CTV affiliate reported that they had been working for Brian's Poultry Services, a company that hires out teams of workers to perform various tasks on chicken farms. A woman who answered the phone at Brian's Monday night hung up on a reporter.
The site of the crash lies only a few kilometres west of a poultry farm.
The van was designed to fit 15 people. At least some of the victims were wearing seatbelts, Insp. Porter said, adding emergency workers cut the belts to free them.
Television images from the scene showed the white van mangled, with one entire side missing. debris was strewn across the grass, amid several blue tarps.
Local firefighters and EMS workers had never seen anything like it, and police brought counsellors to the scene.
“You can imagine it was pretty catastrophic,” said Linda Rockwood, director of the local EMS department. “This is hopefully something you only see once in a lifetime.”
Premier Dalton McGuinty said he was saddened by the news.
"On behalf of 13 million Ontarians, I want to offer our deepest condolences to those who lost a loved one and to offer our most sincere prayers for those taken to hospital," he said in a statement. "We also thank the first responders who provided compassionate emergency care under very difficult circumstances. I know Ontarians will pull together to support the victims' family and friends during this difficult time."
The driver of the truck worked for Speedy Transport, a Brampton-based trucking company. In a statement, CEO Jared Martin said police had told the company the van had failed to stop, his driver had tried to avoid it but could not.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with our driver’s family and the families of the other victims involved in this horrible tragedy," he said. "This is the first fatality we’ve experienced on the road since inception."
Farm worker advocate Stan Raper said migrant labourers often pull long shifts as chicken catchers or on hog farms, travelling from barn to barn in passenger vans like the one involved in the crash.
A crash in California led to changes more than a decade ago in standards for moving workers from place to place, he said.
“They’re principally family people, trying to support families, then they have long hours and poor working conditions. I suspect there will be a lot of investigations in how farm workers are treated and transported,” said Mr. Raper, national co-ordinator of the Agriculture Workers’ Alliance. “They are usually quite invisible and we don’t often hear about them until something like this happens.”
In March, 2007, three migrant women died in a van accident near Abbotsford, B.C. They were among 16 women in the van heading to a Chilliwack greenhouse. That same year, a van of 13 migrant workers and a driver smashed head-on into a truck loaded with farm equipment on storm-slicked highway north of Montreal.
After the incident in B.C., in which the workers were not wearing seatbelts, a coroner's inquest made recommendations for preventing a similar collision.
Researchers said Monday's crash appears to be the deadliest involving migrant workers in Canada.
Migrant workers come every year to Canadian farms – primarily in Ontario and British Columbia – for manual labour Canadians are unavailable or unwilling to do. Most are in Canada under Ottawa’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Program, designed to bring in people from Mexico and the Caribbean for planting and harvesting work.
There are rules governing their treatment, wages and health care. But in the more than 40 years Canada has brought them in, numerous complaints have been brought forward about harsh or illegal working conditions that are never addressed by employees fearful of their precarious status.
Two research papers published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year found a lack of training and unsanitary, crowded living conditions was sickening some migrant workers, many of whom had no idea they were entitled to Canadian health care.