It wasn’t what they expected when they moved to Niagara.
It has only been a year and a half since Antonio Illas first set foot on the most fertile soil in Canada, but it feels like he has had a decade’s worth of life-changing experience crammed into that short time.
Although Christ Church McNab began reaching out to the Spanish-speaking farmworkers in 1988, it began a more structured program in 2015, welcoming workers by providing church services and other support programs
In response to growing awareness of the needs of these hard-working people, the Anglican diocese of Niagara hired Father Antonio Illas in the spring of 2019 to run the Migrant Farmworkers Project. It is hosted by three parishes: St. Alban’s in Beamsville; St. John’s in Jordan; and Christ Church McNab in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
He brought with him a wealth of cross-cultural experience that has spanned the globe. Spending his formative years in Puerto Rico, his family travelled widely, preparing him for a career of travel and adventures as a chaplain in the U.S. military.
Cela Tecamachaltzi de Illas, Antonio’s wife of 31 years, is his partner in ministry. Her childhood years are full of special memories growing up in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Her life was heavily influenced by her father, a pastor who served Mexico’s most vulnerable people with a deeply committed love and compassion. She is also an ordained minister in the U.S. Presbyterian Church, and enjoyed preaching and assisting in the mass celebration in their first year here.
Together Antonio and Cela have crisscrossed the back roads of Niagara, reaching out to the hundreds of Spanish speaking men and women who work on Niagara’s farms and greenhouses. Men and women from Mexico are here on eight-month contracts with SAWP (Seasonal Agricultural Work Program). However those from Guatemala and Honduras are here under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, with contracts ranging from one to four years.
Cela has been impacted by the stories of the women, mothers and grandmothers who are away from their children for as long as eight months.
As a mother of an adult daughter living in the U.S., she finds the stories of long separation from families and loved ones resonate deeply with her.
Family separation, especially when involving young children, and isolation due to language barriers, are the top two concerns that quickly became apparent during their first year of ministry.
The heart-wrenching hit-and-run accident in August 2019, that took the life of Zenaida, a mother of two young children, brought a painful awareness of these issues in a new way.
Another concern with more serious immediate consequences was the growing food insecurity. The weekly food budget for most farm workers is already stretched thin due to the many remittances deducted from their minimum wage, and the money sent home to support their families.
Many of the women in particular have large gaps in their employment. Some are stranded here for up to three months between greenhouse work in the winter and starting their work in the packing barns in late June or early July. Although they pay into employment insurance they are unable to collect. In recent years, women employed by some greenhouses have no longer received an advance when they arrive, waiting almost three weeks for a paycheque to buy groceries. For them, hunger is a stark reality.
What Antonio and Cela witnessed first-hand during their farm visits prompted them to step up efforts to try to provide adequate nutrition.
With the growing impact and uncertainty of the pandemic this past year, this issue has consumed most of their time and attention.
“Due to COVID-19, the farm worker project experienced a metamorphosis, as we could not continue to operate the clothing bank, medical clinic and religious services. A wholesaler from Burlington called us to offer food for the farmworkers so that it would not go to waste,” says Antonio. “We started to pick up the food and the grocery bag drop-off program started. Then other generous donors started to donate food and the diocese gave us a grant to continue with the operation. Finally a grant from the federal government of Canada also provided funding.”
Cela reinforced his comments. “We take groceries to the farms because we don’t want food to be missing on their tables. It is necessary to be able to subsist. They have to be able to eat, and meet the economic needs of their families in Mexico.”
Cela helps to organize the grocery bag drop-off program, focusing on the St. Catharines-area farms. The teams from the churches were careful to adhere to all safety protocols when preparing the deliveries and taking them to farms, where the men and women were eager to connect. Reusable, washable masks were greatly appreciated, she says.
“The biggest challenge has been COVID-19 restrictions, as it has prevented our meetings from taking place, and not being able to share the Sunday meal with the farmworkers,” says Antonio. “The meal provided a vital social space to connect, develop friendships and have a great time. We like to party, and COVID-19 has prevented us from those important celebrations.”
“We are grateful to have survived the pandemic this season. Although several farmworkers have tested positive to COVID, they continue fighting, attempting to make it and survive,” Cela says.
“The highlight for the past year and eight months has been to assist in time of needs, for example the fire at Pioneer Flower Farms, when the men lost all of their belongings just before they were to return home,” continues Antonio. “This year, we have been able to find new ways to connect and develop relationships with the migrant farmworkers safely, in spite of the challenges of COVID.”
Developing new ideas to provide a much needed clothing delivery and grocery bag drop-off program will continue well into the winter as they prepare for 2021.
It takes a lot of time and energy to meet the needs of a population that does not have the opportunities or the rights that most Canadians take for granted.
Based on conversations with their parishioners, what recommendations would they like to share?
They are both in agreement here.
If they had three wishes to make changes to the farmworkers program they would be:
1. Permanent resident status to prevent family separation and breakdown.
2. Decent living wages, and employment of 35 to 40 hours a week, with overtime benefits.
3. National standards that are consistent, and more accountability for decent housing.
“Any surprises?” I asked them.
“I’ve been surprised just how much and how quickly this ministry can grow! When I arrived I had no training manual, it was on the job training. A leap in faith and so much goodwill have supported this ministry,” says Antonio.
They both say they did not expect that in little more than a year, they would develop such deeply-rooted relationships with the men and women who work so hard in our vineyards and greenhouses.
They did not expect their lives to be impacted in so many meaningful ways, or discover how God would provide, even during a pandemic.
They didn’t expect their lives would be so quickly rooted in Niagara, but then again, this is not only the most fertile area in Canada for growing the best tender fruit, but a caring community as well.
For more information visit their website at www.migrantfarmworkers.ca, firstname.lastname@example.org