Canada has been a significant beneficiary of Jamaican manual labour in the last four decades.
Precipitated by a shortage of apple pickers, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) was established in 1966 to bring Jamaicans to Canada to fill the void.
Nearly 6,000 Jamaicans are employed annually under the organized labour mobility initiative, overseen by Human Resources & Development Canada, to meet the temporary seasonal needs of agricultural producers.
Two years after the launch, the then 20-year-old Larkland “Willie” Pearce arrived at Magalas Produce Ltd. farm in Waterford, a small community in southwestern Ontario.
Now, in his 45th year on the job, Pearce is set to be honoured by the Jamaican government for outstanding contribution to the farm work program in Canada. He will be presented with a Badge of Honour for Long & Faithful Service on National Heroes Day on October 20 at King’s House.
“Willie is a wonderful employee,” said Cheryl Magalas who, with her husband Martin, took over the family farm in 1994 that produces strawberries, sweet corn, cantaloupe, tomatoes and zucchini. “He takes his job very seriously and he knows the crops.”
Magalas, which has been part of the SAWP program from its inception, employs 117 Jamaicans, who Pearce manages at the work site.
“He scouts the fields and keeps things together,” said Magalas.
Pearce said a cousin, who was a politician in Jamaica at the time, encouraged him to join the program.
“I was a young man who was not doing much in Jamaica back then and I saw this as an opportunity to make some money and support myself and family,” said Pearce, who lives in St. Mary parish in Jamaica. “To be honest, I didn’t like the job at first, but it put bread on the table and helped me financially to the point where I have been able to help my grandchildren, other family members and friends.”
Pearce refused to speculate about retirement.
“I will continue to work here as long as I can,” was his terse response.
Gary Cooper, who has employed Jamaicans on the family-run Simcoe farm since joining the program in 1972, will share the spotlight with Pearce at the Jamaica awards and honours ceremony. He will be recognized with an honorary Badge of Honour for Meritorious Service for his sterling contribution to Jamaica through the employment of thousands of Jamaicans in the SAWP program in the last three decades.
“This is quite an honour,” said Cooper when learning about the accolade from Share. “Though unexpected, it makes my heart feel warm because I have had the opportunity to see what this program can do for many Jamaican workers, their families and friends. I have had several employees tell me their children would not have been able to go to college or university if it wasn’t for this program. That makes me feel good. With school about to open, it’s not uncommon for some workers to seek a loan to send funds back home to buy uniforms and school books for relatives.”
In 2012, a Jamaican couple vacationing in Simcoe recognized Cooper and thanked him for employing Jamaicans.
“It was a coincidental meeting on the street,” he said. “I didn’t know them, but after I asked how they were doing, the wife said she was a teacher in Jamaica and she knew who I was. She and her husband then proceeded to express gratitude for all that I have done and am doing for Jamaican people. Jamaicans come here with a desire to work hard and provide for themselves and their family. I love their work ethic and spirit.”
Cooper, who makes it clear that labour intensive agriculture in Ontario would be virtually non-existent without migrant workers, was the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service (FARM) president for 10 years. FARM represents employees in the SAWP program.
“In that position, I had the opportunity to interact with Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, when she was the labour minister,” said Cooper, who runs the 800-acre Strawberry Tyme fruit and vegetable farm with his son John and daughter-in-law Diane. “I have been to Jamaica nearly 15 times and I love the country and its people.”
A total of 145 Jamaicans are employed on the Strawberry Tyme Farms this year.