Today I met 150 men!

Harvesting

As soon as I saw the large group standing outside the “Services Canada” – I could tell they were Mexican. I also assumed they were recently arrived participants in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s Program (SAWP) – and I was right. SAWP was established in Canada in 1966, but it has only been open in British Columbia since 2004. For many of Mexico’s unemployed farmers, it is a preferable alternative to crossing the Rio Grande.

To say they were surprised to hear me speaking Spanish is an understatement – even after I explained that I had lived full time in Yucatan for more than 40 years, and now I live in Kamloops part time.

“I am from Merida,” one guy called out, “where is your house?” I told him, and a big smile spread across his face. My new amigos wanted me to tell them about “Desert Hills Ranch” – the farm where they would be working. I had never heard of the place, but I assured them it must be big if so many had been hired.

They said they would be given time for shopping after their papers had been processed. I pointed out “Value Village”, a good quality second-hand shop in the next block, and the super market, down one more block. “Come visit us,” they said as we waved goodbye.

Once home, I looked up the SAWP program and I learned that through the SAWP, employers must provide housing for their workers, although sponsors are allowed to charge rent of $5.36 CAD per working day. The workers’ flights to and from Mexico also have to be paid by their employer. On some farms, 3 meals are provided for $12.00 a day. If meals are not prepared for the workers, the employer must provide a cooking facility, equipment, utensils and fuel. Depending on the type of work the workers do, they are paid by the amount they harvest or $10.85 CAD per hour. If they work more than 8 hours, they are paid overtime. Life insurance and health care costs are also covered by the employer.

One worker I spoke with had been in B.C. the four previous years and he said, “There is a lot of clarity about the work that is expected and protection for the guys who come up here.” He emphasized that the contracts are strict, but he has never had any significant problems with the program.

In the ten years since SAWP started in B.C., farm owners have come to rely on the program, to the point that many could not operate without migrant workers from Mexico. The online article quoted a manager, “The workers coming from Mexico are experienced and they’re reliable. It is difficult work and it’s not easy to find a source of workers locally.”

When I googled “Forest Hills Ranch”, I found that the place is a local tourist attraction. It offers fresh produce for sale and special events are staged throughout the year. One reviewer wrote that the restaurant offers the “best tacos outside Mexico”. Obviously the Mexican employees work in the kitchen as well as in the fields.

To me, the SAWP sounds like a well-thought-out program. The most common employee complaint I read against the SAWP is that it does not lead to permanent residency in Canada – the workers cannot stay in the country for longer than 8 months at a time. As well, temporary farm workers are under contract with a single employer and cannot change jobs without the written consent of that employer. While some do move from farm to farm throughout the season, their right to be in Canada is tied to the contract with their sponsor.

My sister and I plan to visit Desert Hills Ranch this summer, or maybe for Fiestas Patrias and again in the fall when the farm has a big Pumpkin Patch festival.  And of course, I want to see how my 150 new amigos are faring!

 

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If you want to visit Desert Hills Ranch, check out the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Desert-Hills-Ranch-140871702651700/

 

*** Photo credits: All images are from the farm’s website and facebook page.

 

Memories

Many children have a tattered coverlet or a favorite plush toy they carry everywhere. It gives them confidence and comfort.  As we get older, our security blankets are not made of wool or stuffed fleece. When I feel down or insecure, I let my mind drift back to happy times. Sometimes I fall asleep and dream about them.

Dad and me in front of our house
Me with Mom
Me with my grandparents

 

 

 

 

 

My parents

Either way, the memories make me feel better quite quickly.  They are like a patchwork quilt with many colored squares – they come from different periods of my life – but I must say that many of the warmest ones are of the house where I grew up.

My childhood home was a panabode – a cedar log house – built in 1953 by my father and my grandfather.  Both of them were good carpenters and they could also wire and plumb. They knew how to lay shingles on a roof and fasten siding over a foundation. Granddad was a master at grooving hardwood planks together to make a floor.  Mom and Granny varnished the wooden walls, sewed curtains, and they planted roses, dahlias and lilac in the garden.

Fifteen years later the original house could no longer accommodate us all – two additional bedrooms and a family room were added – our house grew with us.

I was 20 when Mom and Dad sold it and moved to Princeton, a town in the interior part of the province. Since then I have driven past the place a few times but I never went inside – until last Tuesday.

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Serendipity was certainly at work when I met “Cheryl” at Auntie Alice’s knitting retreat on Pender Island. I learned that she and her family live five doors away from my former home and she said she’d try to get an invitation for me to visit. Fortunately the present owner was pleased to oblige.

My childhood home in North Vancouver

The angle of the front stairway felt immediately familiar, and at the top, I pivoted to face the front door – the original front door with its long black hinges and the same “tricky” lock – I couldn’t believe it.

The same “tricky” lock
New glass in the windows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The same steps lead downstairs

The coatroom seemed smaller to me, but the living room with its wood burning fireplace looked just the same. Several new skylights are a great addition – they allow lots of sunshine inside. My parents’ bedroom is now a sleek kitchen and my mother’s galley has been repurposed into a pre-teen’s bedroom.

Looking all around, I remembered how my grandfather’s paintings used to decorate many of the walls, and now the present owners’ art works hang in their place.  The backyard has been beautifully landscaped – my mom loved gardening and she would be so pleased to see the way it looks now.

 

 

The dining room and kitchen

 

The back garden

When I went to see the house, I took a floor plan of how it looked when our family lived there. I told a few funny stories from the “good old days”, and I think the family who now own the house enjoyed learning about the history of their home.

Seeing how much they love it created a happy new memory for me, and I know my parents and grandparents would feel gratified to know that the house they built has stood the test of time.

British Columbia’s State of Emergency

Areas where the fire danger is highest

For the past three weeks, I have been in Vancouver and on the Islands, enjoying time with friends and family. However like most residents of British Columbia, at 6 pm I make sure I am close to a TV so I can see the latest news reports about the wild fires burning in the interior of the province.

Evacuees on their way to safety

 

Getting animals out of harm’s way

There have been good days when it looked as though the fire fighters were getting the upper hand. But the forests are tinder dry at this time of year and strong winds propel the embers from established fires, starting new ones every day – 15 yesterday – and today another city was evacuated.  Some of the fires are so huge they have jumped rivers and highways.  Thousands of fire fighters from across Canada are now battling more than 160 fires in BC!

 

                                          Water bombers loading over one of the lakes

Much of the province is relatively out of harm’s way, and these cities and towns are taking in evacuees. One of them is Kamloops, the place where I will be living until December. On a news channel, I saw footage of suburban streets lined with campers and trailers, and tents pitched in front yards – the Kamloops homeowners were shown running power cords out to the stranded families and inviting them use their bathrooms.

Six Kamloops women have joined together to run a temporary donation centre, operating out of the Sandman Signature Hotel. They provide clothing, food and toiletries to those forced to evacuate their homes.

In Kamloops, sorting donations for fire evacuees

One of the women, Dusti Naud, said she and her friends used social media to spread the word. Their friends began dropping off items, and soon local businesses and others – even from outside the province – started donating items. Independent grocers donated 15 pallets of food, and another relief agency dropped off 16 bags of clothing they had collected.

Jamie Maclean, another of the six friends talked about the gift bags that have been personalized for men, women, and families. “The community has been absolutely astonishing with their donations, with their support,” she added.

Hundreds of evacuees have used the donation centre. “It’s open each day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We’re here for the people that need us,” Maclean said.

I will be returning to Kamloops on Wednesday. I’m happy that I’ll be living in a community where such caring people live.