As Bill French sat in a hotel room in Windsor last Sunday, he spoke highly of the organization that has taken charge of the group of offshore workers he could see kicking a soccer ball outside his window.
They are men who have come to Canada to work in the agricultural and industry, and have been moved from their workplace due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Canadian Red Cross has stepped in and stepped up, sending an emergency response team to look after them.
French is a volunteer with that team. The men he is there to help have either tested positive for COVID, or are showing symptoms and have not yet been tested, and are being cared for in a red zone of the hotel. There is also a yellow zone for those who have come in contact with those who have tested positive, and then there’s the green zone, for French, the only volunteer who is not local and going home at night.
“I’m also the only logistics guy here, but doing back-up for the others.”
He cannot share the name of the hotel, or the number of workers in isolation. But it is clear from what has been reported in the news that Windsor Essex, in the provincial lockdown zone, has a soaring number of COVID cases, a significant number from the farming community.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake resident is known in town as an active, involved volunteer, chiefly in his role as a Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotarian, and as a past president of the service club.
But he says he found himself looking for something more to do, and began researching other humanitarian organizations. “The Red Cross kept coming to the top of the list,” he says, “so I gave them a call.”
The organization offers a number of volunteer avenues to pursue, from community health and wellness, preventative and education programs, and emergency relief, which he chose.
That program also offers choices of five levels of disaster, from local to regional, national and international.
A local disaster would include situations such as last Saturday’s house fire in Port Colborne, French explains. A Red Cross volunteer would have been called to pick up a kit with all the necessities to provide immediate help for that family, including accommodation, clothes, and enough cash for personal items to get them through 72 hours, until their insurance companies take over. The volunteer who responded to the call would also have sat with them in the car while they watched their house burn down, French says. “It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that.”
French chose instead to be one of the 31 people who make up Niagara’s emergency response team, and when the pandemic hit, he became a Red Cross volunteer during “its first level 5 national disaster in the history of Canada.”
After a “fairly eclectic” business career in senior management, he says, “I’ve had no background in this,” and he continues to be amazed by the ability, efficiency and readiness of the Red Cross organization.
His first call was to Winnipeg to help Indigenous people during flooding. He worked alongside university students who were taking time from their studies, and other individuals of all ages and from all walks of life, some with full-time jobs who spent their two days off volunteering with the Red Cross. They are all “fascinating people, with their hearts in the right place,” he says.
Another of his deployments was to take a truck of supplies from the Red Cross Mississauga warehouse to CFB Trenton, for the first group of cruise ship people in isolation. “We took everything we thought they could conceivably need,” he says. He was alone onsite at CFB Trenton for its second round of cruise ship passengers in isolation, looking after logistics and supplies.
He has done a couple of stints in the Mississauga warehouse, helping to restock the Emergency Response Unit, a field hospital that is on 24-hour notice for deployment. It includes tents, beds, medical supplies, ventilators — anything that might be needed, ready to be sent anywhere in the world. “That was a fascinating experience,” he says. “It’s amazing, having it all ready to be rolled into a transport truck.” One was sent to Montreal, and set up in a parking lot to function as a hospital.
In August, he was deployed to the Windsor/Leamington area, and has been back there for the last three weeks, coming home to NOTL Monday. Although his role is again logistics and supplies, the support the Red Cross is offering involves the overall care and safety of migrant workers while they’re in isolation.
“There are 8,000 workers in the Windsor area at any given time,” says French. “I was gobsmacked to see how many there are in this area. I know there are about 5,000 seasonal workers who come to Niagara, and I thought that was a lot. This is definitely a very different situation.”
With the large number of greenhouse operations requiring temporary workers year-round, there is a regular rotation as they leave after their eight or nine-month contracts are up, and others arrive.
Some at the hotel will return to work when they are finished quarantining, others will have completed their contracts, and are anxious to be home for the holidays, says French.
In the meantime, he says, they are well looked-after. One group of volunteers is in charge of the “care and well-being” of the men. EMS staff look after routine medical care, and WINMAR looks after cleaning. The volunteers deliver prepackaged meals three times a day, along with snacks, and organize recreations sessions outside, including the soccer games he can watch from his window.
If people start to feel ill, volunteers are the first contact, and they arrange appropriate care. “We’ve had to manage several 911 cases,” he says.
His job is making sure there are sufficient supplies, to meet their basic daily needs. If there is anything the workers ask for, the requests go to him.
He also helps check the workers in and out, and figures out the logistics of sending them home.
There isn’t an opportunity for much communication with the workers, but they seem very appreciative, he says. When they’re outside, “they’re in masks and we’re in PPE, but we can talk to them. They’re grateful for the level of support. They all want to know when they can go home, but generally they’re in a pretty positive state of mind.”
The farmers are also doing a good job, taking accountability for their workers and taking COVID “very seriously, in keeping with the times.”
French says his evenings are quiet, often spent watching football — more than he’s ever watched before or even knew was available, but with so many sports cancelled, there’s not much else to watch. The days, however, are busy, and go by quickly. There’s always something new coming up to look after, including an influx of workers, who can arrive at all hours on a bus or in a taxi, and with little notice.
“It’s not glamorous work, but it’s necessary work, and at the end of the day, these are people who are in a different country, away from their families, during a pandemic, and they’re vulnerable.”
By now, he will be home in NOTL, on standby for redeployment within 24 hours notice, to go anywhere in Ontario.
“I’ve said I’ll happily drive anywhere in the province, but I’m uncomfortable getting on an airplane at this point.”
He can’t say strongly enough how impressed he is by the commitment and the efficiency of the Red Cross, and the volunteers, “all wonderful people with their hearts in the right place.”
“If you have it in your heart to volunteer or donate, this is a great organization doing great work, helping the most vulnerable.”
There are many different opportunities to help, from community need to the national and international.
“If you can’t see yourself volunteering, then please, donate,” says French.
There are many initiatives of the Red Cross in cities and rural communities in every province across Canada during COVID, and a huge range of services they provide, include helping in long-term care homes, providing assistance with basic daily living activities; helping Indigenous communities; and ensuring those without access to food or other supplies are cared for.
More information about volunteering or donating can be found on the Niagara Red Cross website at https://www.redcross.ca/about-us/contact-us.