Good morning! Wendy Cox in Vancouver.
This week, two flights carrying hundreds of farm workers will arrive in British Columbia from Mexico. They have been accepted into the province under Canada’s temporary foreign worker program and are crucial help for the province’s agriculture sector.
The workers, who will have already been cleared for travel before leaving Mexico, will be shuttled to government-managed accommodations, where they will have to be in isolation for 14 days before they can start work at farms throughout the province. Their stays and their meals will be covered by the provincial government in hotels near the airport. Anyone who develops symptoms has been instructed to call 8-1-1 for help.
They are extraordinary measures deemed necessary by the provincial government in order to ensure the agricultural sector can operate this year.
“We depend heavily on seasonal workers to come in from other countries,” B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told reporter Justine Hunter. “At this point we probably should have about 5,000 workers and we are far from that where we have hundreds of workers instead. And so these workers are very crucial as part of our food supply system.”
Indeed, as Globe reporters Tavia Grant and Kathryn Blaze Baum report today, it turns out Canada’s food supply hums largely with the help of these foreign workers. The COVID-19 crisis, with the accompanying border closures and travel bans, has threatened to upend an entire season of production.
More than 40,000 people come to Canada for seasonal agricultural work every year, the overwhelming majority of them from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala. In the produce sector, they comprise half the work force, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, Tavia and Kathryn note.
On Monday, Ottawa announced it would provide farmers with $1,500 for each temporary foreign worker they employ. The $50-million in funding will help offset the cost of paying workers during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
“Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta are going to keep being the breadbasket,” says Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. So while flour shortages at the grocery store have made headlines in recent weeks, she says, the real wild card is produce.
If farmers – particularly ones in fruit- and vegetable-rich provinces such as Nova Scotia, Ontario and B.C. – don’t get an adequate supply of labour by the time they need it most, they may cut back on production. Some already have. That could mean less variety and higher prices at the grocery store.
In Delta, B.C., Ruben Houweling grows tomatoes, cucumbers and basil in 50 acres of greenhouses, along with millions of young tomato, cucumber and pepper seedlings that he sells to other farmers. In a typical year, he brings in about 160 workers from Mexico and Guatemala, in gradual steps, to augment his domestic workforce of about 70. Seven of those foreign workers should have arrived by now.
The farmers Tavia and Kathryn spoke to bristle at suggestions that some of the hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed Canadians could be tapped instead for those jobs. Working crops, they write, takes skill and some of the TFWs that are due to arrive in Canada have been coming back to the same farms for years, bringing a knowledge of the farm’s practices and equipment.
Locals would have to commute to and from the farm, exposing the farm to the novel coronavirus. And when the state of emergency lifts, workers who had jobs to return to could potentially leave farmers in the lurch.
“If those broccolis and cauliflowers and whatever other crops are not being sown in greenhouses for planting [in the fields] in a couple of months, where is our food going to be coming from?” Houweling asks.
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
SASKATCHEWAN CHURCH SERVICE: Saskatchewan’s premier wants an explanation for why an Easter drive-in church service was prohibited over the weekend. Jordan Gadsby, lead pastor of the Nipawin Apostolic Church, said people were invited to an arena parking lot where they could tune into an Easter Sunday church service from inside their vehicles. He told the public health official that worshippers wouldn’t have physical contact, but there was still concern people would leave their vehicles and visit with one another.
ALBERTA DONATING PPE: Health care workers in Alberta are rationing and reusing masks in order to stretch supplies. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, however, late last week said his province has enough ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) to make it through the crisis. As a result, Alberta will ship critical equipment, ranging from ventilators to N95 respirator masks, to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Premiers on the receiving end of Alberta’s generosity expressed gratitude, while some Alberta doctors were left frustrated.
A VIRTUAL EASTER DINNER: Photographer Todd Korol documented the pandemic-appropriate Easter dinner he shared with his family over the weekend, from preparing the turkey to packing up food boxes for the kids to sharing everything together online.
TRANSLINK IN TROUBLE: TransLink, one of the few transit systems in the country that operates separately from a city, has seen its ridership drop by 83 per cent from its previous record 500,000 per day to about 75,000 now, losing nearly half of its usual $150-million a month in revenue. The agency, as well as mayors in the area, are calling on the federal government for help, but an internal e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail indicates the mayors were getting a discouraging response to the argument that transit is essential to large cities during this crisis.
MANITOBA PUBLIC SERVICE: Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister wants many of the province’s public-sector employees to accept a reduced work week – perhaps as short as two days – to help provincial coffers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Progressive Conservative government will approach about a dozen public-sector unions with the pitch that accepting reduced hours for non-front-line workers in the civil service, at Crown corporations and elsewhere is better than job cuts, Pallister said Tuesday. He said details remain to be worked out, but gave as an example an employee working two days a week and drawing on employment insurance or other federal benefits for the other three days – netting about 75 per cent of his or her normal wages.
LNG: The Squamish Nation plans to collaborate with B.C. and federal environmental regulators in an innovative process to jointly review a proposed work camp for Woodfibre LNG’s $1.6-billion energy project in British Columbia. Plans for a harmonized regulatory review of the proposed work camp will be voted on by the elected Squamish Nation council as early as Thursday during an online meeting, said Khelsilem, an Indigenous councillor who goes by his traditional name. Woodfibre LNG wants to begin exporting liquefied natural gas in 2025 from an industrial site on the Squamish Nation’s traditional territory.
RENT RELIEF IN CANMORE: Landlords across Alberta are facing pressure to either defer rental payments or offer tenants who are facing sudden unemployment a break. The provincial government has prohibited rent increases and evictions for missed rental payments during the pandemic. In Canmore, the town owns and operates Canmore Community Housing Corp., which was launched 20 years ago to increase the supply of affordable permanent and rental housing to the local work force and long-term residents. The corporation cut rent by 25 per cent to offset the economic impact from the pandemic.
SASKATCHEWAN REOPENING PLANS: Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says the government may soon release a plan on reopening the economy if COVID-19 case numbers remain low. Moe said residents can’t become complacent, but the current infection rate seems to be flat and the government can start thinking about what reopening parts of the province will look like. The Ministry of Health announced two new cases on Monday, bringing the total in the province to 300.
HAVE YOUR CORONAVIRUS QUESTIONS ANSWERED LIVE: As the information and advice around the novel coronavirus changes, The Globe and Mail’s André Picard will be answering your questions about COVID-19 on Instagram Live on Thursday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. André, The Globe’s health columnist, will be joined by moderator Madeleine White to break down the latest scientific evidence, government policies and public-health advice concerning the pandemic.
Justine Hunter on not letting complacency set in after the pandemic is over: “Today, hospitals across Canada are begging for critical equipment – ventilators, respirator masks and more – to treat patients and to protect front-line health-care workers as the spread of COVID-19 threatens to outstrip their capacity. But B.C. has been on alert and making plans long before now to prepare for this, and that is in large measure because of [B.C. Medical Health Officer Bonnie] Henry’s personal experiences with the consequences of complacency.”
Alexandra Gill on the stupidity of Canada Takeout Day: “Restaurant takeout and delivery have been declared an essential service, but most restaurants that are offering takeout are doing it out of desperation because they have no other choice. Takeout is not sustainable for most restaurants. And without additional emergency relief measures for small businesses, it will not be nearly enough to save the restaurant industry. No matter how well-intentioned, a large-scale celebration that puts undue pressure on these fragile food operations is a potential recipe for disaster.”
John Ibbitson on Alberta’s donation of PPE: “All of us should keep this generosity in mind. We should remember as well that the wealth of the Alberta oil economy helped pull Canada out of the 2008-09 recession. Because in the months ahead, it’s Alberta that will need Canada’s help.”
Adrienne Tanner on the importance of exercising safely during the pandemic: “The COVID-19 restrictions have made me feel a bit like a kid earning privileges from Mom, aka B.C.’s Medical Health Officer, Bonnie Henry. I’m trying my best to be good and hoping against hope others will, too. Our reward will be permission to stay outdoors.”
Grant Bishop on the oil crisis: “But a price floor is bad economics, and it’s the wrong policy to support Canada’s oil producers. Imposing long-term supply management on our petroleum sector would be economically inefficient and covertly costly to consumers. And while an imminent push for a price floor appears to have cooled, there remains a risk that this proposal gets resurrected if prices remain depressed.”