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Peru's Consul-General confirms identity of one Ontario crash victim

Enrique Arturo Arenaza León, 48, has been identified as one of the migrant workers killed in a crash in Ontario on Feb. 6, 2012.

One of the victims of a horrific van crash that killed 10 migrant workers from Peru has been identified as 48-year-old Enrique Arturo Arenaza León.

Peru's Consul-General in Toronto, Aurelio Pinto-Bazurco Rittler, confirmed the death on Peruvian radio on Tuesday evening.

Mr. León's wife, Patricia Aguilar, said he has been in Canada for two years and two months, legally.

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Ms. Aguilar told a local radio station she practically lived off the earnings that Mr. León sent back to her and asked the consul-general to help to send her husband's body back to Peru.

His Facebook page indicates that he was living in Kitchener, Ont.

Peru's consulate in Toronto said 13 Peruvian farm workers were in the van that collided with a flatbed truck in a deadly southwestern Ontario accident Monday.

Consulate officials said 10 Peruvians are dead and three are in hospital with injuries as a result. The three injured workers are dispersed among three separate hospitals.

Early reports had suggested crash victims also included migrant workers from Jamaica.

Jamaica's consulate in Toronto said, however, they were not aware of any Jamaicans killed or wounded in the accident.

The horrific crash in southwestern Ontario killed 11 people in total, some of them "hard-working South American guys" in the country only a week, said the man who hired the migrant labourers for the day.

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The crash happened shortly after the workers had wrapped up a day vaccinating chickens in a barn on a hill overlooking the intersection where the fatal collision occurred.

Shortly before sundown Monday, a flatbed truck slammed into the workers' 15-seater passenger van on the rural road, in one of the worst crashes in Ontario's history.

Two staff members from the Ontario Labour Ministry are at the scene of the accident investigating.

"I think we have more questions than answers right now," Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey told reporters at Queen's Park. "At the moment, all we know is it was a terrible accident."

On Tuesday, police named the driver of the truck as Christopher Fulton, 38, a London resident. Remains of the other victims had been brought to the coroner's office in Toronto, where identifications will be made.

The tragic incident will leave families overseas 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.

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Albert Burgers, who owns the farm the victims had departed, said they were employees of Brian's Poultry Services in Mildmay, about an hour's drive north. Brian's, a business which hires out crews to perform tasks on area chicken farms, has refused to comment.

Mr. Burgers said 16 migrant workers – one woman and 15 men – arrived at his farm around 8 a.m. Monday, accompanied by a couple of other Brian's employees. They worked until about 4:15 p.m., then departed in two vans.

The farmer had employed the services of the same crew about 8 weeks ago and planned to have them back next week to move chickens to a different barn. Five of the men had only been in the country a week or so, he said.

"I know them as hard-working South American guys. They're happy. They seem to like what they do," he said, standing outside his house. "I still can see all the faces."

Mr. Burgers said he left shortly before the workers did. When he returned shortly after, he saw the truck overturned at the intersection.

"I'm really sad for the families," he said.

By Tuesday morning, both vehicles and the debris from the crash had been cleaned up. All that remained to mark the scene were patches of torn up grass and several crushed trees against the side of the blue clap board farmhouse where the van had come to rest.

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.

The driver of the truck worked for Speedy Transport, a Brampton, Ont.-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."

'I've never seen anything like it'

The exact circumstances of the crash remain unknown. But the still-grieving mothers of some of the teenagers killed in a 15-seater van crash four years ago in northern New Brunswick said it was further evidence that these vehicles are unsafe.

"Yesterday's terrible tragedy in Ontario is further proof that 15 passenger vans are death traps that should not be used to transport human beings," read a statement from Isabelle Hains, Ana Acevedo and Marcella Kelly, the mothers of Daniel, Javier and Nikki.

"Passengers in 15 seat vans have no protection because these vans were not designed to carry human beings."

The crash is also generating new criticism of these large vans, some models of which have compromised stability and handling.

Emergency workers said 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.

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 were shocked by what they saw, 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."

Similar tragedies

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.

"There's a lack of legislative protection and a lack of enforcement," warned Chris Ramsaroop, with the advocacy group Justicia for Migrant Workers.

In a telephone interview he stressed that it was too early to know what had happened in this case but said that long hours and substandard transportation are common concerns among migrant workers, who are often afraid to speak up.

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.

With reports from Karen Howlett, Anna Mehler Paperny and Oliver Moore in Toronto

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