Migrant Farmworkers Project and COVID-19

by The Rev. Antonio Illas and Gillian Doucet Campbell

“It was a hard decision, but the right decision,” says Rev. Antonio Illas, missioner of the Migrant Farmworkers Project located in the Niagara region. He recounts that it was, “Early in the morning of March 13 as the coronavirus was a clear threat to the health and safety of people in Canada. It was then that we made the decision to suspend the Project’s activities.” 

With the COVID-19 emergency restrictions in place the MFWP stopped the much-enjoyed community meal and visits to farms. It also closed the clothing bank, medical clinic, bikes for farmworkers, and religious services. Pastoral care had to adapt to online chats and videos.

Soon after the lockdown of restaurants and other sectors of the economy the MFWP’s St. Alban’s (Beamsville) site received a call from a local wholesaler offering foodstuff donations for the migrant farmworkers. “This was the spark to reignite ministry and started a metamorphosis of the Project,” said Rev. Illas, “and it’s still on-going as migrant farmworkers quarantine and their movements are restricted.” 

Since the weekly grocery bag drop-offs were started people from the local community have joined in making financial and food donations. “We’ve been blessed with volunteers, individual donations, and recently we received two grants: one for $1,500 from the Anglican Diocese of Niagara Pandemic Response Fund; and $7,500 from United Way Niagara COVID-19 Emergency Community Support Fund. This has made the grocery bag drop-off program a success because we’re now able to purchase the ethnic grocery products that the Mexican migrant farmworkers enjoy” says Rev. Illas, “But there’s still more we can do together.”

As grocery bag drop-offs were made, a second need was identified — clothing. Migrant farmworkers that arrive to Canada are required a 14-day quarantine. COVID-19 restrictions prevent many migrant workers from leaving their residential areas. With the Project’s clothing bank closed, migrant workers cannot access the Tiendita, as it’s known in Spanish. 

So, the MFWP has now added clothing to the grocery bag drop-offs. Rev. Illas explains, “Many migrant workers come with only the cloths on their backs or just a small suitcase. They are often unprepared for the Niagara climate, especially the cooler temperatures.”

Rev. Illas shares, “The Project is a blessing to the migrant farmworkers, our neighbours for eight months of the year.” He then adds, “These men and women are also a blessing to our communities as they work hard to ensure the farms, greenhouses, and fields are looked after. It is my hope that more people will join us as they are able. 

All this work and ministry is possible because of the donations received and the dedication of the volunteers.” With the closed borders and travel restrictions Rev. Illas welcomes more people to join this exciting ministry to do mission work here at home, saying, “It’s wonderful to watch volunteers get involved with grocery bag drop-offs to the migrant workers in the agricultural fields. It truly is a delight to see the joy of doing good work – gospel work – on the volunteers’ faces.”

To get involved or learn more about the Migrant Farmworkers Project visit: migrantfarmworkers.ca.