Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review of Vincent Pietropaolo's "Harvest Pilgrims" in the Winnipeg Free Press

Vivid Photos Capture Migrant Farm Workers

"When one visits a bookstore, a vaulting pole is required to get past the seemingly endless variations of books on the 100-mile diet.

Substituting locally grown food for vegetables that have been shipped from half-a-continent way seems environmentally attractive.

But as this vivid work of documentary photographs of migrant farmer workers in Canada reminds us, much of the labour in Canadian fruit and vegetable farms is done by workers who have flown to this country on temporary visas and must return to their homes in Mexico and the Caribbean once the harvest is in.

Migrants rather than immigrants, they make tremendous contributions to our well-being but are denied the right to establish a toehold in our country.

Harvest Pilgrims, the product of over 20 years' work, places photographer Vincent Pietropaolo firmly in the ranks of such chroniclers of the uprooted and marginalized as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

Pietropaolo, who was born in southern Italy and spent his childhood there has not only documented the lives of the harvest workers in Canada, but followed them back to their countries of origin, providing vivid reminders of how these workers live in two worlds.

In an introductory essay, he sketches the history of the development of industrial-style greenhouse gardening in Canada, the health risks these workers face, and how these workers, despite the many obstacles in their path, are struggling to gain union rights in this country.

In 2007 the Manitoba Labour Board, in a historic decision, recognized the right of migrant farm workers to organize, while this past December the Supreme Court heard arguments from farm workers who are challenging Ontario laws that deny farm workers formal bargaining rights.

Winning these rights will constitute an important first step, but creating and maintaining unions in the face of opposition from employers and fears that activists will not be allowed to return to Canada in following years will not be easy. In every possible sense, these workers have a long row to hoe.

To return to the point raised at the beginning: the idea of a 100-mile diet raises many important questions and should not be quickly dismissed.

But we should not forget to ask why our food prices are so low and our borders so high."

- Doug Smith (Winnipeg writer and editor.)

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