After completing an undergraduate degree at McGill in 2008, Ed Dunsworth took on a summer job that would inspire years of academic research. Working alongside Mexican migrant workers on Ontarian farms, as a Labourer-Teacher with the literacy organization Frontier College, Dunsworth spent two summers working alongside migrant farmers and teaching them English and computer lessons.
Now, thirteen years after his first exposure to the world of migrant farm labour in Canada, he’s published the results of his research in the form of, “Harvesting Labour: Tobacco and the Global Making of Canada’s Agricultural Workface” published in September 2022 with McGill-Queen’s University Press.
In “Harvesting Labour” Professor Ed Dunsworth from the Department of History and Classical Studies, offers an examination of Canada’s history of farm labour and temporary foreign worker programs in the twentieth century. Focusing on Canada’s tobacco industry, which is one of Canada’s underrecognized but most important crop sectors, Dunsworth shows readers that Ontario’s tobacco sector was a highly sought-after industry, attracting a diverse workforce for many years, who later established themselves as small farm owners in Ontario’s tobacco belt.
Combining the fields of labour, migration and business history, “Harvesting Labour” uses archival research and interviews with migration workers to take readers from Ontario to rural Jamaica, Barbados and North Caroline.
We spoke to Professor Dunsworth about the importance of migration history and the research and work that went into completing his latest book.
Q: You refer to yourself as a migration historian; what is migration history and why is it an important area of contemporary academic study?
Migration history is, broadly, the study of past human mobility in all its diverse forms. The advantage of framing these studies as “migration” rather than “immigration” history is that human mobility of course goes far beyond simple immigration, which is typically thought of as permanent relocation from one nation-state to another. People move in all sorts of ways, including as temporary migrant workers, a category of people I examine in my book.
Migration history is an important area of study for many reasons. For one, despite the frequent casting of migration as a disruptive, abnormal phenomenon, migration is in fact a central part of the human experience, shared between human societies from across time and space. Second, migration is emerging as one of the key political issues of our age. The effects of climate change are producing a growing number of climate migrants the world over. Meanwhile, right-wing political movements are surging seemingly everywhere, with xenophobic, anti-migrant policies as a key part of their platforms. Gaining a better understanding of human migration, then, is important not only intellectually, but also politically.
Q: You credit the origin of this book to the summers of 2009 and 2010 when you worked as a labourer-teacher on farms in southwestern Ontario. What can you tell us about how that time influenced your future research and academic interests? What bonds and friendships did you develop during this time?
I completed my undergraduate degree at McGill in December 2008. After a brief, strange experience as a marker and crayon salesman for a small manufacturer in Montreal East (I’m not kidding), I landed a summer job as a Labourer-Teacher with the literacy organization Frontier College. I was employed on a tree nursery in southwestern Ontario, living and working alongside about 25 migrant workers from Mexico. On evenings and weekends I taught the occasional English or computer lesson. This was a life-changing experience. At most I had only been vaguely aware of the presence of migrant farm workers in Canada before this summer. I quickly received a crash course on the topic, learning about the deplorable conditions and secondary status of the men and women who produce Canada’s food, a situation that one scholar has labelled “labour apartheid.” I did the job for two summers, spending the next season on a broccoli farm close to London, Ontario. I made some very good friends along the way, learning a lot about Mexico, agriculture, and the migrant worker experience, and improving my skills at the foosball table.
Everything I’ve done since has been coloured by this experience. After my second summer as a Labourer-Teacher, I worked full-time for Frontier College for two years. Then I returned to school to undertake graduate studies, choosing the history of migrant farm labour as my research topic. Now, thirteen years after my first exposure to the world of migrant farm labour in Canada, I’ve published the results of my research in the form of this book. A second book, the autobiography of a migrant farm worker-turned-activist (Gabriel Allahdua) that I assisted with, is coming out in March 2023. I have also remained active in migrant justice politics, supporting activist campaigns and writing the occasional opinion piece on the issue.
Q: You interviewed 29 current and former workers and farmers for this book. In documenting their respective oral histories, what kind of discoveries did you make throughout the interview process? Were there any commonalities or striking differences that stood out to you?
A big finding that came out of the oral history interviews was a much richer tapestry of worker protest than has previously been documented. Speaking with workers – including former workers back in their home countries of Jamaica and Barbados – allowed me to hear the types of stories that often don’t make it into archives or newspapers. Interviewees told me stories about wildcat strikes, about negotiating conditions with employers, and also about protesting their home governments’ role in organizing the migrant labour program.
Q: When we hear about migrant labour in Canada, a contemporaneous context seems to dominate discussions. Why is it important to examine the history of foreign temporary workers in Canada? What links or context can we make from the past with the present?
One great lesson that historical research delivers time and time again is this: things did not have to be this way; our current world was anything but inevitable. My book also delivers this message, in the context of Canada’s farm labour force. Nowadays, this workforce is dominated by temporary foreign workers from the Global South who are, by and large, excluded from full participation in Canadian society and who do not enjoy the same rights and protections as Canadian and permanent immigrant workers. Through an in-depth examination of one crop sector (Ontario tobacco), my book demonstrates that it was not always so, and offers a new explanation for how this state affairs came to pass.
The popular story for why farmers switched from Canadian to foreign workers is that they were forced to do so because of labour shortages; Canadians simply weren’t interested in farm work. To the contrary, I show how tobacco farms were for many decades very popular places to work, paying high wages and offering opportunities for social mobility. Tens of thousands of workers from across Canada, the United States, and Europe travelled to work in the sector each summer, down to the early 1980s. The switch to foreign workers occurred gradually, and not because of a newfound aversion to farm work among Canadians. Instead, economic forces transformed tobacco farming (and agriculture writ large), pushing out small farmers and leaving mega-operations in their wake. In this context, two things happened: struggling small farmers found it increasingly hard to offer good wages and conditions, while large operations could afford the much higher costs of bringing in foreign guestworkers. The attraction of foreign workers was not due to labour shortages, but instead in their much higher degree of exploitability, given the strict nature of their contracts and the economic compulsion under which they pursued overseas migrant labour.
This history, then, challenges head-on the narratives about temporary foreign workers – in agriculture and elsewhere – that are constantly advanced by employers and sometimes by state actors: that they are needed to address chronic labour shortages. My book suggests that we should view such claims with a lot a skepticism.
Q: Why is the Canadian tobacco crop sector underrecognized?
Ontario’s tobacco belt (located in between Hamilton and London, on the north shore of Lake Erie), was from the 1920s to 1980s one the most profitable sectors in Canadian agriculture and the epicentre of migrant labour in the country, attracting workers from across the country and many parts of the world during each harvest season. In most years, upwards of 25,000 workers were needed to bring in the crop. These factors make tobacco an advantageous case study for examining the history of farm labour in Canada.
Q: You conducted research trips to Jamaica and Barbados, as well as archival work in these countries and in Ontario’s Delhi Tobacco Museum and Heritage Centre. What discoveries did you make during your fieldwork?
I already mentioned some findings from oral history interviews in Jamaica and Barbados. Research in the Jamaica Archives and Records Department was also important to some of my book’s findings. Jamaican Ministry of Labour records there helped me to understand the previously underrecognized role that migrant-sending countries have played in the shaping of guestworker programs. Piecing together research from Jamaican and Canadian archives, I was able to see how many key aspects of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program came about due to lobbying by migrant-sending countries. Guestworker programs are often seen as the simple domination of countries in the Global South by those in the North. Actually, things are more complicated: workers and their government representatives often have very different interests; and sending-country officials can sometimes hold great sway in setting the terms of the arrangements.
Another fascinating and disturbing finding came very early in my research when I learned about the racist exclusion of African American workers from a migrant labour arrangement between tobacco-producing Southern states and Ontario – and their extremely problematic inclusion in the labour force in 1966.
Edward Dunsworth is a historian of migration and labour and assistant professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies. His first book, Harvesting Labour: Tobacco and the Global Making of Canada’s Agricultural Workforce was published in September 2022 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. A second book, a collaboration with migrant worker turned activist Gabriel Allahdua to produce Allahdua’s autobiography, is scheduled for release in March 2023 with Between the Lines. That book is titled, Harvesting Freedom: The Life of a Migrant Worker in Canada. Dunsworth is also working with a team of student researchers to produce a digital exhibit on historic death, injury, and illness among migrant farm workers. His next major project is a history of immigration politics in Canada.