In April, flights arrived in Canada carrying thousands of temporary foreign workers destined to begin jobs on farms across the country. Their labour is so crucial to food production in Canada, that federal and provincial governments resolved to ensure they could arrive, despite borders being slammed shut due to COVID-19.
Ottawa put in place rules requiring employers to ensure the newly arrived workers could be quarantined at their workplaces for two weeks and have proper access to meals and health supplies. The federal government announced support for farms and food producers to the tune of $1,500 for each worker to help cover the extra costs of ensuring the workers could be isolated for two weeks.
Around the same time, two planes carrying hundreds of temporary foreign workers landed in Vancouver. But those workers were not whisked away to the farms where they were to be employed for the season. Instead, they were escorted to government-operated quarters where they were quarantined for two weeks in hotels emptied out for the purpose. Only B.C. and Prince Edward Island require workers to go into government-operated isolation.
Today, Justine Hunter reports that eight of those workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus while in quarantine. The eight workers were all heading to different farms, which might have meant COVID exposures for hundreds of farm workers.
“They could have infected other staff and really shut down those operations," Agriculture Minister Lana Popham noted. Seven of the eight workers have recovered and have been cleared to work.
The program was implemented after a nursery in the B.C. interior was shut down after a COVID outbreak infected 23 workers, believed to be traced to the arrival of temporary foreign workers who arrived in Kelowna in early March. The workers were living in shared housing provided by the nursery.
PEI is the only other province that provides accommodation for those workers before they travel to their workplaces. Other provinces have been helping agriculture businesses to manage the quarantine period on their farms. Ontario has had dozens of COVID cases among its temporary foreign workers who came to Canada to work in agriculture.
In B.C., if the new arrivals have no symptoms when they land, they are sent to hotels near Vancouver International Airport. The province is paying for the rooms, food-service and worker support costs during the 14-day self-isolation period. During that time, employers are responsible for paying their temporary foreign workers for a minimum 30 hours per week, at the hourly rate that they would make if they were working.
Ms. Popham said she hopes B.C. will be able to bring a total of 6,000 farmworkers to the province this year.
“It’s entrenched in the way we do business here,” she said. “If we hadn’t figured out a solution, we would have had a very different situation in this sector.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
Around the West
MURALS: With more than 55 murals all over Gastown, the BIA is cooking up a plan for the summer by taking those murals and creating outdoor galleries in the area’s alleys. And there has been interest from the Vancouver Art Gallery as well for doing something with them in the future. Organizers of the Vancouver Mural Festival, noting Gastown’s grassroots effort, mobilized to send artists to more than 40 other boarded-up locations downtown and beyond for what they’re calling #MakeArtWhileApart. VMF artists shared their thoughts on how the pandemic has affected their lives, what they’re doing to stay afloat and what role public art might play in a time of physical distancing.
CARGILL DEATH: Benito Quesada spent some of his final days at Cargill Ltd.’s slaughterhouse in High River checking in on the well-being of his colleagues. He was filling in for a fellow union rep as a walking steward, meaning he would have been in contact with swaths of Cargill employees throughout the facility. Now, the plant’s flags are flying at half-mast in honour of the second plant worker to die from the COVID-19 outgreak at the plant. Mr. Quesada, who came to Canada from Mexico in 2007, died last weekend after being infected with the novel coronavirus. He was 51, according to the union representing labourers at Cargill.
KEARL LAKE: An outbreak at a Northern Alberta oil sands site is now linked to more than 100 COVID-19 cases across four provinces, including a remote Dene village in Northern Saskatchewan, further raising fears that the disease could spread like wildfire through work camps that house thousands of oil and gas workers. On April 14, two COVID-19 cases appeared at Kearl Lake, a work camp run by U.S.-based Civeo Corp. that serves the Imperial Oil Ltd. Kearl oil sands project. On April 15, with another confirmed case at the site, Alberta Health Services declared an outbreak. Two days later, Kearl Lake had 12 cases. On May 8, the number surpassed 100, including 23 located beyond Alberta’s borders in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Workers had gone home, taking the virus with them.
MANITOBA HYDRO: Hundreds of Manitoba Hydro employees will be receiving layoff notices after the province directed the Crown utility to save costs during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said the temporary layoffs are to last four months and affect 600-700 employees. The utility expects the layoffs will translate into about $11-million in savings.
MONEY FOR THE OIL AND GAS SECTOR: The federal government’s long-promised support for airlines and oil and gas companies came Monday in the form of a loan program for large corporations hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic. The new program, called the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF), is aimed at providing short-term bridge financing to Canada’s largest employers in situations where they are unable to secure loans from private lenders. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said any federal money will come with “strict” conditions, including limits on dividends, share buybacks and executive pay, as well as requirements for companies to show how they contribute to Canada’s climate-change goals.
DAYCARES: Parents across Alberta, and in other provinces that are preparing to reopen daycares as part of their economic relaunch plans, are now weighing the risks as they decide whether to place their children back in daycare. Alberta outlined a number of new rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in childcare facilities, which are allowed to reopen as early as Thursday. The new guidelines set a maximum of 10 people, including children and staff, for each room. Centres with multiple rooms can have as many as 30 in their program, as long as they are separated into groups of 10 in different rooms and don’t congregate.
SASKATCHEWAN TRAVEL CHECKPOINT: Leaders in northwestern Saskatchewan are asking the province to clear up confusion about checkpoints that are restricting travel in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic. A letter from northern leaders to the province’s chief medical health officer outlines their concerns over a lack of consultation about the travel restrictions and confusion over how to interpret them. It says there are no Indigenous language speakers at the checkpoints and staff are not honouring notes from chiefs and councils that authorize certain people to travel.
RESTAURANTS: When B.C. restaurants reopen for dine-in business – possibly by June 1 – tables could be spaced two metres apart and booths will be separated by tall sheets of plexiglass. Buffets, waiting areas and seating at bars or counters that aren’t sufficiently wide would remain closed, under the Blueprint for Reopening In-Restaurant Dining submitted last week to the provincial government by the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association. These are just some of the changes outlined in the blueprint, which is waiting for approval from WorkSafe BC.
METHANE: Alberta is tightening its methane regulations, bringing it closer to controlling emissions from the greenhouse gas, contingent on a review from Ottawa to ensure they meet federally mandated targets. The province released updated regulations on Tuesday that Alberta expects will bring it into line with Ottawa’s minimum standards to grant a province oversight of the emissions from its oil and gas sector.
HAIR SALONS: Some of the small joys of going to the salon will be sacrificed due to risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. In Alberta, hair salons can open as early as May 14 as part of Phase 1 of the province’s relaunch plan. According to British Columbia’s Restart Plan, hair salons and barbers will be permitted to open during Phase 2 that will begin mid-May. Many salons across the country are considering increasing their already-vigorous cleanliness and sanitation practices, as well as installing plexiglass barriers and minimizing certain services, like shampooing. These additional cleaning and protection measures are an added cost. Salons will also need to restrict the number of customers in order to comply with physical distancing regulations, which will reduce their income compared with before the pandemic.
WATER POLO: Kyra Christmas, 23, a member of Canada’s national women’s water polo team, came up with an idea with her family to build a pool out of straw bales because she could not train in a pool with her team due to COVID-19. The pool is 16 feet long, eight feet wide and six feet deep and is on her parents’ farm just southeast of Airdrie in Rocky View, Alta.
Justine Hunter on B.C.'s plan to address the surgery backlog: “This week, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced his plan to catch up on those COVID-delayed surgeries, with operating rooms reopening next week. He called it ambitious, and it is. What Mr. Dix is proposing is to not only deal with the COVID backlog, but to try to fix these intractable problems, even as the COVID-19 crisis remains alive.”
Roxanne Robinson, Danielle Shaw, Marilyn Slett and Wally Webber on disclosing COVID-19 data to Indigenous governments: "Here in British Columbia, the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), which operates under Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), continues to not disclose to Indigenous governments where COVID-19 cases are occurring, citing the potential social harm to patients. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has stated that this non-disclosure is intended to ensure that people who are infected are protected from stigma that could keep them from reporting it. That’s in the spirit of the federal government’s even vaguer approach: Indigenous Services Canada reports only the cumulative number of positive cases, rather than deaths and recoveries. Respectfully, and in the spirit of reconciliation, it is our view that this rationale misunderstands the role of Indigenous governments, and that this policy of non-disclosure puts Indigenous lives at risk. "
Jeffrey Jones on the LEEFF announcement: “But, like the previous federal and provincial supports, a big problem remains that taxpayers are taking on the liabilities – stepping in where banks may fear to tread – and getting no equity and little recourse should corporate plans go horribly wrong. That’s a risk level no one else is prepared to shoulder.”