The Seasonal Agricultural Work Program began in Canada in the mid 1960's. It was developed in response to the growing labour crisis with Ontario farms who struggled to find a reliable labour source. For over 50 years farms in the Niagara Peninsula have relied heavily on offshore labourers primarily from the Caribbean and Mexico. Traditionally they have been a virtually invisible segment of the local population, seen only at grocery stores and banks on a Thursday or Friday night.
In 2005 I was asked to help with the music at the Sunday evening church services for Caribbean farm workers hosted by the Caribbean Workers Outreach Program and Bethany Mennonite Church.The church service was a great opportunity to make friends and learn more about their culture and challenges of living their lives in two different countries.
In February 2007 my daughter Kate, Josh Toal and I accepted the invitation to visit the families of our Jamaican friends who worked on neighbouring farms. We spent nine days travelling across the island, staying in their homes and exploring the beautiful countryside from Montego Bay to Kingston. It was a life changing experience to meet their families and visit their churches and schools, experiencing the culture first hand.
We were inspired to create an event that would honour and provide an official welcome to our Caribbean neighbours. Together we organized the first Workers Welcome Concert in May 2007 in conjunction with the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project.
Josh Toal headed up the music with his band Newworldson, who have since continued to be an ongoing part of the success of the concerts. In 2010 Newworldson was joined for the first time by the internationally acclaimed Toronto Mass Choir. The Toronto Mass Choir has continued with their involvement since then, returning to perform in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Thanks to coverage by CBC's The National, CBC Radio and articles in major newspapers the word has spread to other agricultural regions across Canada. It is exciting to see interest develop as communities seek to show their appreciation and create a warm welcome for their seasonal neighbours.