New documentary explores the illusion of the ‘Canadian dream’

May 4, 2024

New documentary explores the illusion of the ‘Canadian dream’

'The Canadian Dream,' directed by the daughter of a former farm worker who sued the farm that forced him to use pesticides without proper protection, premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs festival on April 26

While thousands of Mexicans continue seeking the so-called “Canadian dream” for a better life — despite visa requirements being reinstated in February — former Leamington farm worker Alberto Moreno defines it as an "illusion."

Ten years ago, Albert was one of the thousands of temporary farm workers who came to Canada to work in the ​agricultural industry. He worked with dangerous pesticides every day without proper protection, and it caused him serious skin problems.

When he complained, the farmer asked him to sign a resignation letter that claimed his job performance was poor and that he was problematic. Because he refused to sign it, the farmer ordered him to pick up his belongings and be ready to go back to Mexico. 

But at the airport, Alberto decided to stay in Toronto and look for help.

Thanks to advocacy from Justicia for Migrant Workers, Moreno was able to sue the employer and eventually won the case. He is now a permanent resident in Canada, where his daughter Ilse Moreno also lives.

Each year, more than 60,000 temporary farm workers, mainly from Mexico, Jamaica, and Guatemala come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP).

Migrant workers' advocates have denounced that immigrant workers face precarious conditions due to a policy framework denying them basic labour protections, hindering permanent settlement in Canada, and fostering dependence on employer goodwill.

Alberto’s case against his farmer was historical, which is why  his daughter wanted to tell the story as an example of resilience.

This past week, Ilse’s short documentary, The Canadian Dream, premiered at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

“When I was little, I didn't know why I only saw my dad once or twice a year,” Ilse narrates in the 10-minute long doc.

It 'was like a prison'

“I worked 14 hours a day. Most of the time spraying pesticides,” Alberto recalls in the documentary. “At the end of the day, I ran to be the first of 20 workers to shower because my skin was burning so much. That was like a prison." 

In an interview with The Media Co-op, Ilse explained that her dad was told that he was just using soap, but after checking the product's labels, he found it was a dangerous product.

“He started taking pictures and talking with other coworkers,” said the filmmaker after her first of two public screenings that she attended with her father, who was watching it for the first time.

Ilse says her father didn’t speak English, but the internet helped him. “He found migrant advocates in Ontario who helped him to know his rights,” she said.

In her documentary, his father says temporary workers should know their rights.

“I tell my colleagues, ‘Don't be fooled. I am an example of what can be done,’” Alberto says in the film.

Reflecting on his bitter journey as a temporary farm worker, Alberto says he thinks the Canadian dream is not to come to Canada looking for a better way to live, but “to see that your rights as a human being and worker are respected. That is the true Canadian dream.”

Farm workers need to know their rights

Ilse understands now why she saw her dad only twice a year when she was a child.

“I thought Canada was very different from the United States. I saw it as a utopian country, but when I arrived I saw some human rights are not respected,” the filmmaker tells The Media Co-op.

Ilse says that while Canada offers immigrants many opportunities, many “do not know their rights and are exploited.”

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program began in 1966 with 263 Jamaican workers. In 1974, Canada added Mexico to the list. Mexicans are an important part of the seasonal programs, with about 30,000 coming into the country annually. Most of them work in Leamington and Niagara’s fruit and vegetable farms.

Language barriers and fear of reprisal are among their challenges, which can make it difficult for them to know their rights, migrant advocates say.

“Despite decades in the program, temporary workers struggle to form unions or enhance their rights, raising concerns about their long-term well-being,” reads a statement from Justicia for Migrant Workers that’s included in Ilse’s film.

Ilse says that far from being disappointed, when she began learning of the injustices taking place, it motivated her to film her documentary.  

“With my short film, I want to provoke a change and tell immigrants that it is possible to create a utopian society where we are all equal," she says.

The Canadian Dream is being screened again today, May 4, as part of the 31st edition of the Hot Docs Festival.

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