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Harvesting Freedom: The Life of a Migrant Worker in Canada

by Gabriel Allahdua; with Edward Dunsworth

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportee,” to Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 Harvest of Shame broadcast and Canadian filmmaker Min Sook Lee’s documentary Migrant Dreams, the brutal working and living conditions of exploited farm workers have been periodically documented in piercing challenges to the conscience of anyone who eats but never wonders how food arrives on their table.

In a rare first-hand account of the backbreaking labour and daily living challenges faced by those toiling under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), migrant justice organizer Gabriel Allahdua recounts his years as a member of this “permanently temporary” underclass and portrays his subsequent path to activism. It’s a unique contribution to the genre, presenting a fully rounded, before-and-after narrative of a life, one that’s often erased by the limiting archetypes of powerless, pitiable victims that adorn fundraising brochures.

In collaboration with labour historian Edward Dunsworth, Allahdua constructs a cause-and-effect tale that reveals how his relatively successful life in St. Lucia as a teacher, small business owner, and agricultural expert was upended by a global recession and climate change disasters. Like the 1930s California-bound Dust Bowl refugees of Oklahoma, Allahdua thus became one of thousands lured to Canada with the promise of farm work and a better life as a “guest” worker.

But with his arrival one bitter January night at the Toronto airport – no one informed him about the need for winter clothing – and a heater-less, four-hour bus ride to a bleak southwestern Ontario bunkhouse, Allahdua’s shiny perception of Canada as a beneficent, welcoming paradise cracked, and it would completely shatter in the coming weeks. Believing his farm research in St. Lucia would be valued by his Canadian employers, he quickly learned it was only his hands that would be prioritized as he toiled for 16 hours a day weeding, de-leafing, harvesting, and packaging.  

Allahdua’s description of “indentured servitude” is part of a two-front war: even as he struggles to survive overcrowded company housing, a brutal work pace, and often racist community members, he is also trying to keep his family together back home with short weekly phone calls that fail to bridge the emotional distance imposed by an eight-month contract. Those untold ripple effects and human costs are never calculated in the government’s evaluations of the SAWP. 

Allahdua’s narrative, though choppy at times (the product of edited oral history interviews, the book would have benefited from the elimination of unnecessary repetition), ably lays out a prescription for a major surgical overhaul of the half-century-old program; SAWP’s attributes reek of 19th-century company towns where employers were also landlords and concepts such as overtime pay and bathroom breaks were dismissed as the wedge issues of communist agitation. In 21st-century Canada, it’s the constant fear of deportation that whips workers into silence.

But Allahdua refuses to give in to fear, and instead works with fellow organizers to define the “Twenty Injustices of Canada,” ultimately embarking on educational speaking tours to change restrictive legislation and push open pathways to permanent residence for all farm workers. It’s that final piece of the puzzle, he argues, that will allow for family reunification and eliminate much of the structural cruelty by which our well-stocked grocery aisles are supplied.

Harvesting Freedom is an important contribution that puts a human face on a well-hidden, legislated inequality. Beyond the massive greenhouses and verdant fields of Canadian agribusiness, it also invites us to consider the similar shackles on folks serving our drive-thru double-doubles and those who, without status, work as “domestics,” raising Canadian children instead of their own. Equally important, it’s also a hopeful reminder of the ever-percolating seeds of change that Allahdua and his communities of mutual aid seek to bring to fruition.


Reviewer: Matthew Behrens

Publisher: Between the Lines


Price: $24.95

Page Count: 224 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-77113-618-1

Released: March

Issue Date: April 2023

Categories: Memoir & Biography, Politics & Current Affairs, Reviews