OTTAWA — Employers bringing thousands of agricultural labourers into Canada in the coming weeks will be required to quarantine them before they can work, and the federal government is promising to offset some of the costs.
Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced $50 million in federal funding Monday to provide $1,500 per worker, which can be used to cover wages while they are in quarantine or the costs of space to isolate for the 14 days required under a law meant to stop the spread of COVID-19.
"I'm very proud of the strong and resilient food system we have in Canada," Bibeau said.
"Step by step we are giving our farmers and food processors the tools they need to continue their vital work."
The money was heralded by the country's agricultural federations, many of whom have been pressing the Liberal government to do more to help their sector as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the national economy.
Housing workers in a way that complies with federal requirements — including giving them at least two metres of space apart from each other — means farmers are taking on additional costs, said Keith Currie, the vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Those come as they also pay workers while they are in isolation, and watch the clock tick down on a viable planting season.
The CFA had been asking Ottawa for a grant worth 75 per cent of the $2,000 emergency benefit being made available to all Canadians — which works out to the $1,500 per worker announced Monday.
"We all know that we're all going to pay some kind of a price for this, we are all going to have a little bit of hurt," Currie said.
"We've always been willing to step up to the plate and do our part. This is no different but to bear it all on our shoulders, we felt was a tall ask."
Last month, the Liberal government shocked the agriculture sector by declaring that temporary foreign workers would be barred from Canada as part of severe restrictions placed on immigration.
Some 60,000 people arrive annually to work on farms and in processing plants. Without them, the industry would face near collapse this year, farmers and others insisted in a public outcry that eventually led to that decision being reversed.
Now, entering workers are expected to screened for symptoms before they leave their home countries.
The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have said that's not enough — they have argued all the workers must be fully tested for COVID-19. Bibeau said Monday the screening for symptoms is the best measure, for now.
The money announced Monday only applies to workers arriving after the mandatory quarantine was put in place, and will only be available as long as the requirement exists.
Several thousand workers have already arrived in Canada for this farming season, and are now in or just emerging from isolation.
Farmers and producers are unlikely to get all the workers they need this year.
A chronic labour shortage is being exacerbated by global travel restrictions, said Ken Forth, the president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, which assists farms and other related companies to bring in foreign labour.
While Jamaica, and more recently Mexico, have said they will allow flights into and out of their countries to transport labourers, other source countries are still closed, for now anyway, he said.
"It is diabolical how this is all changing," he said. "It could change by the time I get off this call."
With unemployment rates in Canada at record highs, there have also been questions to the Liberal government about why a made-in-Canada labour solution isn't being created.
Last week, the Liberals did announce improvements to the Canada Summer Jobs program in a bid to make it more attractive for agricultural firms and others to hire students to fill gaps.
Bill George, who runs a wine-grapes farm in the Niagara region of Ontario, said students can help out, but it's not enough.
The workers he uses have been coming to his farm for 20 years and know the specific ins-and-outs of the work, he said. Students can't be trained up in time.
George, who is also the chairman of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association, said the money announced Monday was an acknowledgment by the federal government of the importance of the agricultural sector.
"We need to make sure the federal government has the farmers' backs," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press