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Trudeau Scholar planting seeds of equity for migrant farm workers

Photo of: Anelyse Weiler

Anelyse Weiler’s research will likely ruffle feathers in the agriculture industry, because she is interested in food justice and the perspectives that migrant farm workers in Canada can offer about creating a more equitable and ecologically sound food system.

Anelyse Weiler plans to take to heart the Trudeau Foundation’s permission for its scholars to be audacious as they conduct interdisciplinary research and undertake original fieldwork for their PhD theses.

Weiler and fellow University of Toronto PhD students, Erin Aylward and William Hébert, are three of the 16 Trudeau scholarship recipients for 2015. The Canadian foundation, created in memory of the late prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, annually awards doctoral scholarships to “exceptional Canadian students who have distinguished themselves through academic excellence, civic engagement, and a commitment to reaching beyond academic circles.”

Weiler’s research will likely ruffle feathers in the agriculture industry, because she is interested in food justice and the perspectives that migrant farm workers (seasonal agricultural workers) in Canada can offer about creating a more equitable and ecologically sound food system.

“I am interested in how it can be possible for both farmer and farm workers to have dignified livelihoods,” Weiler said. “There is so much energy now around local and sustainable food. There is an opportunity to support social justice and funnel some of that energy and enthusiasm to farm worker health and justice initiatives.”

“Local food efforts have often looked only at farmers, and there is tons of racial and economic privilege within the local food movement. There needs to be space for farm workers to participate.”

Canada’s migrant farm workers face systemic conditions that make people vulnerable, Weiler noted.

For example, migrant farm workers have no access to citizenship or to seniority, no matter how many years they have returned to Canada to work in the fields. They are at the mercy of the farmer whose land they work; their visas are tied to an individual farm, so they must be wary of complaining about conditions for fear of deportation. They undertake much of the physical work on Canadian farms and are regularly exposed to pesticides.

“When I talk about equity, I’m talking about people being able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and having access to the social and material resources to live a good life,” Weiler said.

She is delighted that the Trudeau Foundation’s three-year scholarship supports creative approaches, because she has structured her sociology PhD as a dual-purpose project.

“I’m interested in my work from an academic perspective,” Weiler said, “but also in the possible means of collaborating with the community and in pragmatic outcomes so people actually benefit at the end of the day.

“I’ve had a lot of mentors who have encouraged me to think about what I’m doing as benefiting more than the academic community. It is partly due to service learning courses, too.”

This past year, Weiler did fieldwork with Sustainable Ontario, a not-for-profit organization that focuses on healthy food and farming. They are exploring ways the food movement could support the work being done by various interest groups farmers, unions, immigrant services organizations and farm worker justice groups, for example to advance equity. As a first step, Weiler hopes to bring various groups together to start a discussion about agriculture and the future.

“There is a way to make farm work a more dignified job and a way for people to advance, but it means restructuring the way we do agriculture,” she said.

Given the challenges of climate change, food security and aging farmers, Weiler believes migrant farm workers have a great deal of experience to contribute in helping the agriculture industry to prepare for the future.