New Virtual Exhibit Explores the Reality of Canada’s Farming Industry

A new exhibit curated and researched by students at McGill University showcases the reality of death, injury and illness among migrant farm workers in Canada.

The reality of food production in Canada is something many Canadians may not be familiar with. A new digital exhibit, “The Human Cost of Food” on aims to pull the curtain back on the various economic, environmental, and social realities that affect how our food is grown, produced and packaged by bringing the names and faces of the migrant workers who are so integral to the functioning of our food systems to light.

Canada’s food system has long relied on migrant workers. From the itinerant farm workers of the 19th and early 20th century to today’s temporary foreign workforce from the Global South, our food system relies heavily on seasonal workers who leave behind their families to come and work in Canada.

A Passionate and Dedicated Team of Students

Professor Ed Dunsworth, from the Department of History and Classical Studies curated the exhibit and enlisted the help of undergraduate and graduate students to put the exhibit together.

Dunsworth, who is a historian of migration and labour, has dedicated his academic career to the study of farm labour in Canada and the history of immigration politics in Canada. An active public historian, he is also a member of the editorial collective at, on which “The Human Cost of Food” is visible.

Project manager and PhD candidate in the Department of History and Classical Studies Louise Swaffer played an important role in overseeing the exhibit’s progress.

“Our team assembled students from a range of disciplines which brought different points of view and a creative, collaborative, and compassionate energy to a project tackling a complex and, crucially, public issue,” she says.

The team consisted of undergraduate students from various disciplines within the Faculty of Arts, such as Urban Studies, English Literature, and Political Science, as well as graduate students in History and Political Science.

Caroline Marion, who has a BA in History and Political Science from McGill, was the project’s lead exhibit creator, and was responsible for the creation of the exhibit’s visual identity, which included choosing the many photographs and short videos included in the exhibit.

Perhaps Caroline’s favourite part of the working on the project was the amazing team.

“Everyone had different skills and interests, so every participant would contribute to the exhibit based on their knowledge and point of view,” she says. “We all enjoyed attending our meetings!”

Caitlyn Mulligan, BA’24 (Political Science, History and East Asian Studies) was recruited by Professor Dunsworth to catalogue the deaths, illnesses and injuries of migrant farmworkers reported in local newspapers for the exhibit.

“I had taken one of his classes in which he discussed temporary foreign workers programs in Canada and was thrilled to continue learning about this topic,” says Caitlyn.

“For the first few months of my time on the project, I compiled basic information on deceased or injured workers, including their names, nationalities, and a brief description of each incident,” she elaborates. “This research became the basis for many of the workers’ stories you can learn about in the exhibit. Later in the exhibit’s production, I wrote early drafts of its text and helped select photographs.”

Stories that leave their mark

The exhibit documents the various dangers of migrant farm labour, such as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, gender and sexualized violence, workplace accidents involving machinery, exposure to harmful chemicals and abuses in the work place.

Each story featured in the exhibit is a testament to the collective struggles migrant workers face. From the­­ stories of two anonymous female migrant farm workers, who experienced sexual assault from their employers to the deaths of workers Samuel Maurilio Gil-Montesinos, César Ariel Garcia-Garcia and Efren Reyes on the farms they worked on, the exhibit bears witness to the tragedies and lives lost.

For Caroline, the story of Alejandra, a migrant worker from Mexico who appeared in the 2016 film Migrant Dreams, is one that has stayed with her.

“The topic of migrant farm workers is often approached through talking about experiences of men only, so including the story of a woman was very important to bring a balanced narrative,” she says. “I was particularly touched by her testimony, especially on how difficult it was to leave her children behind.”

Separation from their families back home can take its toll on the mental health of migrant farm workers. Gabriel Allahdua, former migrant worker, activist and award-winning author of the memoir “Harvesting Freedom” is quoted in the exhibit about his experience being separated from his family: “Especially difficult — even inhumane — is being separated from your children for eight months at a time. Being isolated on the farm, sometimes with limited communication, it was difficult to deal with all that. My children and their well-being was a constant source of worry while I was in Canada.”

For Caitlyn, one of the stories that has stayed with her is that of Artemio Rodriguez, a migrant worker from Mexico who ended his life by suicide.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget Artemio Rodriguez’s story,” says Caitlyn. “The original article I read about Rodriguez was haunting and tragic but also incredibly respectful, which I sought to emulate in my own writing throughout the exhibit. I think his story is emblematic of the lack of cohesion and care state institutions have for migrant farmworkers - at every stage of his story, Rodriguez could have been saved if these institutions had protocol for addressing workplace abuse.”

Lessons for the public and the future

Going through the exhibit, one can’t help but be moved by the stories shared. Each story is a reminder that more needs to be done to protect the lives of all those willing to undertake personal sacrifices to provide Canadians with the produce that sustains us.

From learning about the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program to hearing first-hand accounts of those sacrifices, “The Human Cost of Food” forces us to ponder the hidden realities of our food system.

For Caitlyn, an important takeaway for her was learning through her research that the current structure of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program does not have to exist the way that it does.

“Activists need us to remember the names and stories of these individuals and to speak up about the injustices they’ve faced to our federal and provincial governments,” she says.

“Individual action comes in many forms and always makes a difference when it comes to fighting structural injustice,” adds project manager Louise. “The story we tell is based on highly individual experiences that also affect workers’ families and their communities. The research component of our project has uncovered some of these stories, but we are also only scratching at the surface, and something that has stayed with me are the thousands of incidents of death, illness, and injury that remain buried.”

Indeed, the exhibit is a firm step towards having more Canadians aware of the daily life and struggles of migrant farm works.

“If people who read the exhibit now think about the human dimension that is hidden behind our locally produced food every time they go grocery shopping, then it means that the message we were trying to convey through The Human Cost of Food was understood by the readers,” says Caroline. “We encourage everyone to share this project and look at the resources used to build this exhibit, especially for those who wish to learn more about it.”

To read more about Professor Dunsworth’s work on migrant farm labour in Canada, you can read our interview with Dunsworth and Gabriel Allahdua on “Harvesting Freedom”, as well as an interview with Dunsworth on his book “Harvesting Labour”.

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