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Behind the Lens
Foreign investment and immigration are changing Canada’s farming communities
By Diana Dai, director of My Farmland

Our world is becoming a global village, with an unstoppable flow of people, goods and services crossing international borders. Canada is no different. Investments made by foreigners and immigrants have become a controversial topic — especially when they happen in our rural farming communities, a story that is told in the CBC Docs POV documentary My Farmland.

Just like cities, our rural communities are becoming more diverse

When wealthy Chinese national investors and Chinese immigrants begin to buy farmland in Canada, it directly impacts local farmers, who have lived and farmed on their land for generations. Unlike in cities, where people from many different backgrounds are omnipresent, these farming communities are tight-knit, with many relatives living in the same small towns, sharing similar lifestyles. 

In recent decades, it was rare for ethnic minority immigrants to settle on farms. Now, aspiring farmers are coming from around the world, and they bring with them more money to buy land, which challenges the traditional lifestyle in Canadian rural communities. It’s understandable why some locals are afraid: they don’t know these newcomers; they feel that their community might lose its Canadian identity; and, typically, with change comes resistance.

David Fu with his son Tony

Some provinces put strict limitations on the number of acres that foreign individuals or corporations can own in Canada. When immigrants who purchase farmland are labelled as foreign investors, it can create hostile relationships with the locals. The line is blurred when farmland is purchased by an immigrant, who may or may not be financially backed by foreign investors. It’s confusing for locals who don’t understand where the money is really coming from. This is further complicated by the fact that some locals will describe visible minorities by their ethnic origins like “Chinese” or “Indian,” even when they are Canadian citizens.

I was born and raised in China and educated both in the U.K. and China. Living in Europe and Canada for many years has given me the advantage of understanding both Western and Eastern cultures. I know how difficult it can be to uproot yourself to start a new life in a country with a different culture and socio-economic norms. I can also relate to the other perspective: how hard it can be when something or somebody new comes along and your comfort zone is suddenly and irrevocably forced to change.

Newcomers struggle to be accepted in rural communities

When I heard about David Fu, a Chinese immigrant farmer who had bought land in small-town Saskatchewan a few years ago, I travelled to meet his family. In China, farmers cannot own the land they farm. Fu was thrilled to become a landowner in the province, and the whole family worked hard and enjoyed the fruits of their labours, which Fu would have never had on his tiny, state-owned farm in China. But I also witnessed their struggles, as shown in My Farmland. They were having more problems than the local farmers and were trying hard to be accepted by the local community.

At the same time as families like Fu’s are working to prove themselves, young local farmers’ livelihoods are being threatened. Stuart Leonard, another subject of the film, is finding that foreign investment is increasing the price of land so much that he’s no longer able to purchase it — similar to young families in Canada’s cities who find themselves priced out of the housing market. The only locals who benefit are the retirees who sell their land to foreign investors, who are often the highest bidders.

A well-known winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., purchased from locals by a Chinese investor, is also a focus of My Farmland. Struggling with a high staff turnover rate, it was up for sale again. Some locals had mixed feelings about working for a company whose owner was a foreigner from a different culture and who lived in another country. On the other hand, the owner had invested a lot of money to revive the business and was offering jobs to the community.

Canada, like everywhere else, is a global village

There are two sides to this story. New people coming to Canada are hoping to have a better life and a successful business, while locals want to maintain their livelihoods and longstanding traditions.

The landscape in Canada is changing, whether we like it or not. Our communities may change; our neighbours may change. But through communication, locals can work together with newcomers to form a new harmonious and integrated society, while newcomers make efforts to understand the locals who have lived in their communities for many generations.

No man is an island, and success does not come easy. We all have common values and goals. I hope people from both cultures can strive to understand others’ perspectives — to see the strengths inside each other and to make the best of them. I think this is what Canada is about.

Watch My Farmland on CBC Docs POV.