The annual Niagara Grape and Wine Festival, focused on the local wine-growing industry began this past weekend. The Festival opened with the return of the Pied Piper Parade on Saturday, with participants in the Parade celebrating the growth of wine in Niagara. However, the Parade was not the only local event focusing on the wine industry this past weekend. On Sunday, the Niagara Anti-Racism Coalition held Harvesting Justice in downtown St. Catharines, an event highlighting issues surrounding the use of the migrant worker program in the region.
Wine grapes have been grown in the Niagara region since the early 17th century, and today there are currently 17,000 acres of grape vines across southern Ontario. A lot of this success is due to the micro-climate that is created from winds travelling off of Lake Ontario and being trapped underneath the Niagara Escarpment, creating good conditions for growing certain types of wine. There are 88 wineries in the Niagara region, which contribute significantly to the local economy and create hundreds of local jobs. However, a lot of the work that is needed to create the wines here is not performed by Niagara residents, but in fact by thousands of workers who come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (or SAWP).
The Harvesting Justice event, which was held at Mahtay Café in St. Catharines, featured a variety of speakers including experts in Canadian labour and employment law, and community activists focused on better conditions for the workers. Karrie Porter, one of the organizers behind the Harvesting Justice town-hall, criticized the large-scale labour abuses and lack of oversight that befall these migrant workers.
“The workers, mainly from Mexico and the Caribbean, spend significant money on fees and flights to come here every year to grow our food. Workers are tied to only one employer with little oversight by any level of government, leaving them vulnerable to unfair labour practices and inhumane living conditions”, Porter explained. “Workers simply can’t get another job elsewhere if things are not working out; they are sent home and not invited to return. Workers who speak out are often blacklisted. This situation results in high levels of workplace stress and injury. Migrant workers are excluded from accessing many of the benefits they pay into designed to support and protect workers. The WSIB does little to recognize the unique challenges faced by injured migrant workers and fails to protect them.”
Kimberly Hundertmark, Executive Director of the Niagara Grape & Wine Festival, spoke with great excitement about the opportunity to launch the Canada 150 celebrations at Montebello Park in St. Catharines as part of the 66th annual celebration of Grape and Wine. Hundertmark also spoke to the diversity of the Parade and other celebrations, as well as, “[a] focus on agriculture and identity, as a community, which will allow us all to come together and bake bread as residents of Niagara”. Hundertmark also spoke of the Eat Together initiative, which will allow Niagara residents to come together — free of charge – to eat and celebrate with one another.
Activities celebrating the Festival will continue for weeks throughout the region, including the Meridian Grande Parade on September 23 and the Discovery Pass program, which wineries across Niagara will participate in on Sept. 9-24.
For more information on migrant workers in the Niagara region, please visit http://nmwig.blogspot.ca/p/about-us.html or the Niagara Anti-Racism Coalition at https://www.facebook.com/NiagaraARC/.
-Quinton Ascah, Assistant News Editor