The Inside Agenda Blog

Rural Discontent Examined

by Meredith Martin Tuesday November 13, 2012

Sometimes when you're working on a story, it leads you to another one.

While talking to Laura Redman of the Muskoka YWCA about the issue of affordable housing, or lack thereof, the conversation zigged and zagged, as they sometimes do. One thing Redman said about the dwindling number of seasonal jobs struck me, because the issue of temporary, foreign workers came up. This was unexpected, because although I knew that migrant labour was often used on farms in Ontario, I had no idea that some of the resorts in the Muskokas were using it too. I spoke to a well-known Toronto labour lawyer about it, and she confirmed it was indeed happening. I then went back to Redman and asked her to clarify what she was talking about, because what she had been told anecdotally by some locals seemed suggest a certain resort was engaging in borderline illegal activity. Here is how she responded:

Hi Meredith:

So this situation with the resorts is more complicated than I had previously been told – so I’m glad you asked the question to clarify this "local talk" in my project and in my mind.

I’ve had several women swear to me, in the last few months, that the situation with “The Resort” (Editor's note: Redman asked that the resort in question not be named) is that it:

  • no longer hires local residents
  • prefers to hire cheap, offshore labour
  • hires offshore labour and then charges them room and board and transportation fees
  • owns housing in town and also puts up foreign workers in local motels – at their own cost

However, I’m now hearing another side to this story – and one woman went so far as to say that negative talk is a bit of a rural myth based on resentment, increased frustration with the increasingly tough times, and possibly even some racism in small-town Ontario.

So, I’ve just had several conversations with local staff at an employment agency and at the Chamber of Commerce and their version of "The Resort" employment story is this:

  • The Resort does in fact own housing in town, and does charge its workers what may seem like a lot of money – one man did pay $600 a month for a room in a five-bedroom rooming house – and they run a shuttle bus for their workers but the workers must also pay for the transportation – and those rooming and transportation costs come directly off of paycheques.
  • The Resort however does do an annual job fair in the spring, posts its jobs in the fall for the next season, and does hire some locals – of which the local employment agency could name six people – out of I’m not sure how many staff.
  • In order to get the offshore labour subsidy, The Resort must apply for their permit in January – and many locals will not respond to local job ads in the fall for the next year – because many of them are looking for full-time work and do not want to commit to a seasonal 10-week job that early.
  • The Resort posts its jobs on its website in the fall – and many of the women I’m dealing with do not have great access to the Internet or the knowledge of how to use it unless they are already registered at an employment agency – so in their minds, the jobs have "disappeared" or become "unavailable."
  • The new EI rules mean that even if people end up working at a local resort for the summer they cannot get enough hours to qualify.
  • The new EI rules also mean that any work is directly deducted from your EI premium encouraging people to stay in the welfare system.
  • The Chamber manager said that many of the workers being hired out of the Caribbean have really good resort training – some even with post-secondary in hospitality – and the resorts cannot find that "skilled" level of help locally.
  • The Chamber also said that the offshore workers are quite happy to have the work – even for 10 weeks – and that no longer works for local workers, who can’t afford to work for $12 an hour and can’t qualify for EI at the end of the season.
  • The resort always says on their website that they’re open year-round, but they actually close all winter.

So, it’s an interesting story to navigate. The bottom line to all of this – and what I believe is the real story – is that people in Ontario are not being given any real incentive or support to move forward in life. They are treated worse than most five-year-olds in the welfare system, and then expected to somehow leap from that world straight into a world of work without support, daycare, or transportation subsidies – and if they attempt to do part-time or seasonal work, they are cut off from the system. Internet is not accessible to rural Canadians – those who can afford it usually have ridiculous fees (ours at home is more than $200 a month) – and it’s intermittent service at best – and those who can’t afford it simply don’t have it. Welfare is not the answer. Food banks are not the answer. They are band-aids and we’ve become a society that stops at the band-aid without attempting to find cures.

In rural Ontario, we have to shift our focus to seriously creating "village" economies – as we’ve been doing with women in Africa for years. There is no corporation that is going to drive up the highway to have locals assemble widgets and then drive them back out again just to be nice and employ the unemployed in Central and Northern Ontario. It’s not feasible and, in fact, it’s ludicrous.

There is also no future for Canada in tourism – it creates minimum-wage jobs, resentment, and servitude in rural Canada – people become servants in their own front yards expected to jump through new hoops every summer to entertain visitors. Ask Portugal about that story – they have a nation of impoverished people serving British and German wealth.

The only real and practical solution to the current issues is through creating local economies based on manufacturing that can be sustained locally – so it comes back to food production, food processing and food sharing, forestry, woodworking, arts, and traditional, small-scale industries – canoes, paddles, and survival tools.

When our farmers did well in this country, rural Canada did well. Now that our farmers have been struggling for the last 50 years attempting to compete in an unfair global market, we have people starving on our streets in small-town Canada. So, we have to fix the food piece. We have to fix the housing piece.

I compare it to the old-world notion of the South American "La Minga" or a "peasant"-based society. Farmers now attempt to grow large-scale crops that require expensive equipment – and each year they need more and more land that is robbed of its natural nutrients to support that ever-decreasing profit margin.

In a "peasant"-based or even in some of our traditional aboriginal societies, people grew enough food to last the village through the winter, caught some fish, killed a few local deer – and then they celebrated because they all had enough food to eat. That is the level rural Canada has to get back to.

We need to proverbially and literally "teach a man to fish" but also, using modern methods, teach people to grow, harvest, and preserve enough food to sustain them through until the next growing season. And it’s not rocket science – it’s about sharing knowledge with a lost generation that honestly believes food comes from a lit-up supermarket. The disconnect that Canadians currently have with their food is unprecedented and we need to reconnect that link in every possible way we can.

That’s where I’m at with the YW4Work project and that’s where I’m at when I speak to this issue in workshops and/or meeting settings. We are working with other local service providers to set up a community kitchen, a community garden, and hopefully, a hub that supports a marketplace, a daycare, and a small business incubator for area women who can take their work from home into a shared and supportive work space.

Thanks for asking.

Laura Redman

Project Coordinator

Women’s Community Economic Development

YWCA Muskoka

Laura makes a lot of interesting points in her email and what I love about her response is that it’s very passionate; she obviously cares a great deal about rural Ontario and is trying to effect change in her community.

So, above and beyond the issue of temporary foreign workers, which is of course quite controversial, I thought the points Laura made regarding the dynamic between locals and tourists were very interesting, as well as the inequity that exists between people with Internet access and those without. And, perhaps most interesting was what Laura said about the "disconnect that Canadians currently have with their food,” and how correcting that disconnect might breathe new life and purpose into rural Ontario. I don’t know if she’s right, but it’s an interesting idea. 

Image credits: aerial shot courtesy of Muskoka Tourism; and Muskoka chairs courtesy of Larry Wright.

This blog post is part of TVO's contribution to the global "Why Poverty?" project. Read more about TVO's contribution to "Why Poverty?"