Lincoln Thomas just celebrated the best birthday of his life, in style, with family and friends to make it a special day for him.
When he turned 65 in April, for the first time ever he had his oldest son and daughter with him on his birthday, along with about 50 fellow farmworkers and neighbours.
Like many other migrant workers, when he comes to Niagara-on-the-Lake for eight months of the year, as he has for the last 38 years, he leaves his family at home and misses out on many family occasions and celebrations. With a spring birthday, the day has gone unmarked for him for almost four decades.
Linda and Dave Epp live on Concession 6, neighbouring the Lepp family farming operation, where Lincoln works. They have come to know him and some of the other seasonal workers over the years. Linda met them through her job at the Queen Street LCBO, where they would go to buy their beer. She’s moved around to various stores in the region, but spent 21 years working at the Niagara-on-the-Lake branch, and during that time, Lincoln and some of the other farmworkers became friends. This spring, she met his daughter Janelle, who was able to come to Canada to visit her dad, and to organize a birthday for him.
The Thomases have family in Ontario, in Paris, and North York, and Janelle stayed with them, visiting with her dad in Niagara-on-the-Lake when she could.
Her older brother Phillip is also here, working at Tregunno Fruit Farms on the Niagara River Parkway.
Janelle told The Local her younger sister and brother wanted very much to make the trip with her, “but it’s very difficult to get visas,” she says.
“I really wanted do something special for my father this year. He’s not been around the family to celebrate in the past, and I wanted to be here with him,” she says. “It’s been a dream for me to come and see what our father does here. I wish my other siblings could be here.”
Phillip is 34, Janelle 31, and being with their father on his birthday was a first for both of them.
Their father, she says, “comes here in March or April, and comes home in November,” and that’s how she remembers every year of her life growing up.
It was interesting to see where he lives for eight months of the year, she says, and to see first-hand the sacrifices he makes by choosing to be away from his family. “I definitely know he did it for us.”
Her brother has been doing the same for the last three years, and although she was surprised he too made the choice to leave two young children to come to work in Niagara, he also appreciated the hard work his father did for his family, and wants to do the same for his.
“He has two kids, and now he’s doing the same thing for them. They’re too young to understand or appreciate it now, but as they get older they will understand why their daddy has to leave,” she says.
“It’s hard work and long hours, but I appreciate and respect what they do for us. This is a good opportunity for them to come and work. These men are grateful to have the experience, and to know they have a job to come to.”
Phillip and his father meet up as often as they can, but being on different farms makes that difficult, she says.
She was leaving to return to Jamaica Saturday, but she says she has taken lots of videos of both of them, to show family when she gets home.
“I don’t know that I could make the same sacrifice,” she says, “but I’m a product of what my father did. He lived his life here. He has not really lived a life at home.”
When Lincoln talks of the special day he spent with his family and friends, his gratitude is obvious — his previous birthdays have gone by unmarked, so this celebration was really meaningful. He was still feeling good about the party Janelle arranged for him, held outdoors at the home of the Epps, a week later, “the first in my life to have one of my boys and one of my girls with me.”
Although he is retirement age, “I’d like to stay here another two or three years. As long as I have the energy, I’d like to keep working.”
It is hard work, and he misses his family when he’s not with them, but this has become his life — farming in NOTL eight months of the year, and when he goes home, working on his own small farm, where he grows vegetables, and has coconut and banana trees. “It’s not much, but it’s enough to feed a family.”
He says working in Niagara-on-the-Lake has made it possible for him to send his kids to school, and while he’s sorry to see his son follow in his footsteps, “he’s happy to be here, happy to be able to help his family the way I did, and I’m happy to have him here. Jobs here are secure, and we can make a much better living.”
Linda says when she first met Lincoln at the LCBO, he would chat about his family at home, and when Janelle arrived and said she wanted to arrange a party for her father but wasn’t sure where she would hold it, Linda offered their property.
She ordered some balloons, and on the day of the party, a Sunday afternoon, Janelle arrived with more balloons and other decorations, and a lot of food.
It worked well that Lincoln and his fellow farmworkers had the afternoon off, “and it turned out to be a great party,” she says. “There was a DJ, a band and sound system, and it was a beautiful afternoon. It was amazing.”
Everyone took turns talking about Lincoln, including some of the farmworkers, and there was Jamaican music and dancing. “It was just like a wedding, really awesome. It was great to be able to hear them and watch them having so much fun.
Lincoln deserves it — he’s such nice man. It was good to spend that time with him and celebrate with him.”
She says the men are all such hard workers, and when she passes by in her car she likes to honk and wave at them, and to let them know “how much we appreciate what they do.”
Janelle says if there is one thing she could change to help her father, it would be for him to receive permanent status in Canada. He will receive a Canadian pension, which he has paid into for all the years he has worked here. But because he has not worked in his own country, he won’t be entitled to the health care benefits others receive, nor will he receive those benefits from Canada. She’d like to see him able to travel back and forth freely as a Canadian citizen, maybe stay in Canada for part of the year, and be entitled to Canadian health care. “I’d like to at least see him given the choice. He should have citizenship for this country. This is where he lives. He goes home for just four months. For eight months he is providing something valuable to this country and its economy. Citizenship would be a reward for what he has done for Canada.”
She says her father has never seen Niagara Falls, has never travelled as far as Toronto or visited the CN Tower — he comes here to work. She would like to see him able to spend some time here, in what has become his home for so much of the year, when he retires,”and be able to take a drive to Niagara Falls if he wants to, or to the CN Tower.”