Several councillors in Leamington, Ont., are standing behind their mayor's claims that some migrant workers living in the farming community are making unwanted sexual advances toward women.
At the same time, a group of activists who fight for the rights of migrant workers is criticizing the mayor of the Tomato Capital of Canada, accusing him of "racialized stereotypes."
Last month, Mayor John Paterson claimed a group of Jamaican migrant workers made "rather lewd comments" to his daughter.
The mayor would only say the comments were "in reference to her body parts."
Paterson raised the issue at a police services board meeting and went so far as to propose a no loitering bylaw to prohibit migrant workers from hanging out downtown.
"Not to be bigoted, not to be racist, not to be anything, it is directly related to some of the Jamaican migrant workers that are here," Paterson told CBC News last month.
On Wednesday, the mayor was quoted in the National Post newspaper describing the alleged behaviour as "a cancer in our community."
'Fear, uneasiness downtown'
Paterson told CBC News on Wednesday that the "fear, uneasiness and discomfort felt by the town is the cancer, not the migrant workers."
"It’s been handled with kid gloves for too long," Paterson said of the alleged behaviour. "I've been getting letters of support and calls of support since it was first reported."
Don Taylor, chair of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, said it's not fair to generalize and that there are always one or two workers who could be problematic.
Coun. Larry Verbeke, who is also past president of the Essex County Federation of Agriculture, suggested the mayor's concerns are warranted.
'Nobody wants to come downtown.' — Larry Verbeke, Leamington councillor
"They’re different. They walk four or five abreast, they won’t get out of the way like the Mexicans do," Verbeke said of Jamaican migrant workers. "It’s to the point where we need migrant workers, however it’s hurting our downtown. Nobody wants to come downtown."
Verbeke said he has heard about workers asking women to "be their wife for the night."
"Just say no and move and on," Verbeke said. "But I guess some women don’t like the attention."
Paterson claims there have been "hundreds" of complaints about sexual harassment "over the years."
The allegations came as a surprise to the Jamaican liaison office in Leamington.
"I don't know any of this to be factual. It has never been brought to our attention that this is happening," new deputy chief liaison officer Vernon Melhado said.
Paterson said the previous head of the liaison office was "well aware" of the complaints.
Coun. Chris Chopchik said she has also received complaints.
"It’s really too bad. It kind of lumps them all into one," she said, adding a handful of migrant workers are to blame.
She also supports the mayor.
"We have a mayor that is very fair. I think right now, he’s frustrated," Chopchik said. "He’s a good man. He’s frustrated. We all are. Maybe we’re not as vocal."
Mayor criticized in letter
In an open letter sent to Paterson last week, Justicia for Migrant Workers criticized the mayor’s comments.
"Instead of dealing with sexual harassment on an individual basis, you skip right to racialized stereotypes; drawing from some of the worst parts of Canadian history," the letter reads. "It does not escape us that the community of Leamington once supported ‘sundown laws’ which made it illegal for black Canadians to walk freely in the community after sunset.
"Your analysis does not acknowledge the power imbalance in your community. You and your council are free to condemn and stigmatize migrant workers without any real and significant response from workers themselves; a population who have lived and worked in Leamington for 50 years, but continue to be considered temporary."
Thousands of migrants work in Leamington
Leamington, which has a population of 28,000, has 5,000 migrant workers employed in greenhouses and on farms under a variety of temporary foreign and agricultural worker programs every year.
"The workers are good for the economy. We want the workers," Coun. Charlie Wright said. "We don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate this massive influx of workers. There's no way for them to assimilate."
Chopchik called migrant workers "really good people," but said "they have nothing to do" but hang out and loiter downtown at night.
"I don't know what the answer is," Chopchik said.
Paterson said the idea of building separate facilities for the workers has been discussed.
"That’s just segregation. That’s not what any of us want to do," Paterson said. "We have the amenities for them."
Taylor said given the number of migrant workers in Leamington and nearby Kingsville "we may well need more resources."
He said the association works closely with the town when it comes to migrant worker programs. He also said the workers receive education and a booklet about Canada before arriving in Leamington.
'I understand the concern of the community.' — Don Taylor, Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers
"Every year we need to re-evaluate whether the programs we have in place are adequate. There will be a stepped up effort [of evaluation]," he said. "I understand the concern of the community if this is, in fact, happening.
"Migrant workers are a critical resource to the greenhouse industry and the economy of the whole region.
"We need to work together with the town."