Posted on September 11, 2013

Mayor of Leamington, Ontario, Says Sexual Harassment from Migrant Workers a ‘Cancer’ on the Town

Sarah Boesveld, National Post, September 10, 2013

Every year, between five and six thousand migrant workers arrive in Leamington, Ont., to help the tomato and greenhouse capital of Canada live up to its name.

The lion’s share come from Mexico, 20% from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean. Others are Filipino, Mexican Mennonite, or from various parts of Asia.

And every year, according to Leamington Mayor John Paterson, local women in the rural, lakeside town of about 28,000 have complained of sexual harassment on the part of the seasonal labourers — unwelcome sexual invitations, persistent queries about relationship status, comments about physical appearance. Some women even reported workers grabbing their genitals and making lewd gestures at them.

It’s led women to avoid the downtown and certain stores, Mr. Paterson said, especially on weekends when the workers are more likely to be cashing their cheques, doing laundry and shopping for groceries.

More complaints than usual flooded in to council this year, which led Mr. Paterson to ask the police services board in late August how to address “sexual comments and aggressive tendencies” of some migrant workers employed in Leamington. One hundred per cent of the complaints, he said, have been about Jamaican and “island” migrant workers. Mr. Paterson said he’d worked quietly with the previous Jamaican liaison officer for temporary foreign workers but nothing changed.

“We need some ideas, we need some suggestions, we need help because it’s like a cancer in our community,” he said. “It shouldn’t be like this.”

The public plea has brought racial tensions to a boil in a town where they’ve long simmered, according to those who advocate for migrant workers. And it’s raised uncomfortable questions about clashing social norms and latent racism — about whether the conflict is about more than sexual harassment.

In July, the Ontario human rights tribunal ordered a greenhouse owner pay $23,000 in damages to a St. Lucian migrant worker who said he had been the target of racial slurs while working there in the summer of 2009.

In an open letter to Mr. Paterson last week, activist group Justicia for Migrant Workers wrote that “cultural differences” have been used to justify the community’s “adverse reaction” to migrant workers for far too long.

“Instead of dealing with sexual harassment on an individual basis, you skip right to racialized stereotypes; drawing from some of the worst parts of Canadian history,” the letter reads. “It does not escape us that the community of Leamington once supported ‘sundown laws’ which made it illegal for black Canadians to walk freely in the community after sunset.”

The letter goes on to allege racially motivated loitering laws, and multiple complaints from migrant workers that they have been victims of hate crimes, sexism and racism whilst working in Leamington.

Meanwhile, Mr. Paterson said he’s been called a “racist and white supremacist” by critics online, something he fully anticipated.

“You can’t sugarcoat this one — you’ve got to meet it head on,” he said. “The simple solution is just to have the guys who are doing it stop.”

Local women have publicly aired their complaints of being aggressively pursued by migrant workers.

“I’ve had them taken [sic] a hold of my shopping cart, start picking up my food out of the cart and wanting to pay for my groceries telling me how much they earn, jesting that I’ve not had a man til I’ve had a black man,” said resident Yvonne Craig. “I’ve had to in turn become lewd and mean … not how I want to be.”

Resident Linda Tessier said she stopped going out at night when large groups of workers spend time in town.

“They sometimes ask me if I’m free or single, if I want to go home with them,” said Ms. Tessier. “I get nervous, I refuse to go shopping Friday nights.”

Mr. Paterson said his wife and daughter have also been harassed over the years. One incident came in mid-August — just weeks before the police services board meeting — when a worker allegedly made comments to the mayor’s daughter about her appearance.

Vernon Melhado, deputy chief liaison officer with the Jamaican liaison office in Leamington, did not return calls to the Post, but he told the Windsor Star his office had not received one complaint about sexually aggressive behaviour. Reached at his Toronto office, Jamaica’s chief liaison officer for Foreign Agricultural Management Services Larkland W. Stone said he had “absolutely no comment.”

But the issue could be more nuanced and complicated, critics say, deserving of deeper attention to underlying issues and cultural differences.

On her blog, Jamaican-Canadian writer Bee Quammie pointed out that sexual harassment is a problem across ethnicities and that she herself had been subject to the same kind of alleged interactions (“Many of those incidents have been forced upon me by men who looked just like you — and some even in your hometown,” she wrote, addressing her post to Mayor Paterson.)

When Ms. Quammie, who grew up in nearby London, Ont., told her Jamaican-born mother about the allegations of sexual lewdness in Leamington, she said that she’d experienced the same type of attention from men in Jamaica, but viewed it more as an “annoyance,” than particularly troubling.

“Because of those cultural differences and the lack of understanding that both sides have of each other, it’s most likely being taken a way that these men are not meaning for it to be taken,” Ms. Quammie said.

Migrant workers get a booklet on Canada before arriving for work, but they are often just loosely reminded that they are to represent their home country abroad — no specifics on how social norms may be different, how the laws work or what they should do if they run into trouble, said Stan Raper, national coordinator for the Agricultural Workers Alliance section of the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada union.

He said the transient nature of temporary foreign workers — they are separated from family for long periods — perpetuates these kinds of tensions in Canada.

“I would argue if [a worker’s] wife and kids were there, and they were living in that community, they’d be acting a little differently,” he said.