Seasonal workers feel relief as some head home to Trinidad and Tobago after pandemic delays

Some seasonal workers stranded on Canadian farms were able to fly back to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, while others eagerly await their flight home or consider staying.

'To feel the sun on me ... and realize I'm home. That is all I want,' says one worker

Embling O'Garro said he couldn't wait to be reunited with his family and feel the warmth of the sun after flying back to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday. The 47-year-old was among hundreds of seasonal workers stranded on Canadian farms. (CBC)

After missing his sons' birthdays and spending Christmas stranded on a southwestern Ontario farm, Embling O'Garro couldn't wait to leave the cold behind and return to the warmth of his home and loved ones.

"It was a heartbreaking experience, I tell you the honest truth," the seasonal farm worker said Tuesday as he prepared to board a flight back to Trinidad and Tobago from Pearson International Airport.

"Just to feel the sun on me ... and realize I'm home. That is all I want."

O'Garro, 47, is one of hundreds of people from the Caribbean country who laboured in Canada through the pandemic as essential workers and were unable to return home on schedule after Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders and set up strict entry requirements to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The virus, and the new regulations that followed, made for a season unlike any other O'Garro has seen in his 20 years coming to Canada. It also kept him at Martin's Family Fruit Farm in Waterloo, Ont., long after he typically would have left in November.

"This is the first year where I missed two of my sons' birthdays since they were born. This was the first year I missed Christmas at my house. So that was the scary part for me," he said.

"In a sense, some of the major joys of your life already passed. You feel like a shell just going back."

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Inshan Mohammed, 45, who was originally scheduled to fly out Oct. 6, also had a ticket for Tuesday's flight out of Toronto.

After months of postponements, Mohammed was worried he wouldn't get his negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of takeoff, as required by his government. But that couldn't dampen his spirits, he said.

"We are going home now, which we are very happy," he said. He said he was excited to be reunited with his daughters and six-year-old grandson.

"The feeling is so nice. I just can't wait to see them. I miss them a lot."

Limited capacity at quarantine facilities

But some seasonal workers are still waiting in Canada, due to regulations set by Trinidad and Tobago. 

To limit the spread of COVID-19, the Caribbean country's government dictates that any citizens who re-enter the country must quarantine in a state-sponsored facility, according to Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

That facility has "limited capacity," meaning the country must control the flow of people coming back on government-chartered flights that have so far been scheduled every 10 days or so.

The capacity of those sites is not clear. Representatives of the Trinidad and Tobago government have not responded to CBC's requests for comment. GAC previously said "roughly 400" seasonal workers were waiting to return to the country from Canada.

"We have been pressing the importance of ensuring the safe and rapid return of foreign workers to their home country," GAC said in a statement.

"The government of Trinidad and Tobago is seized with the issue and is working to identify other facilities to expand the availability of quarantine facility and accelerate the return of their citizens."

O'Garro — who wears a gold chain with a pendant in the shape of Trinidad and Tobago — said he and the other workers recognize that coming to Canada this year was their decision, but they had to support themselves.

"I had a choice to make: I come and face the pandemic or lose my car or lose my home."

O'Garro said missing Christmas with his family and the birthdays of two of his sons left him feeling like a 'shell' as he prepared to return home. (Submitted by Embling O'Garro)

Seeing farm workers from other countries such as Mexico or Jamaica go home without major complications hurt, O'Garro said.

"All these countries are facing the same pandemic as us. But they respected their farm workers."

Some workers looking for ways to stay

Not every worker is rushing to get home. Some are considering staying.

Sidique Ali-Hosein is at Schuyler Farms near Simcoe, Ont., and says he plans to remain in Canada and has paid to extend his work permit.

"It just became so complicated because nobody was actually getting flights to go home," the 40-year-old said.

While he misses his family and is happy for those who are going back, Ali-Hosein said he worries the application process to return to Canada when the next season begins in spring will likely be drawn out, which could keep workers from their jobs.

That would mean "a lot of time wasted and lost," he said.

Nicole Anatascio-Davis, left, and Racheal Singh react as Charles Haggart and Petty Ramrattan deliver a box of food to their bunkhouse at Schuyler Farms in Norfolk County, Ont., on Dec. 22. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Other workers are willing to take that gamble. 

Akole Moses is also at Schuyler Farms. While he hasn't been scheduled for a return trip yet, he said Tuesday that he would like to get home, even if it he can't get on a flight until January or February.

"It's a relief to know farm workers [are] actually going home," he said. "It would have been more scary to know that no one is going home."

Still, Moses said he believes everyone who wants to return should have been able to do so together.

"We come up as a team," he said. "We all should go back home at the same time."

For the other workers who flew out on Tuesday, quarantine was set to begin from the moment the plane landed. 

O'Garro knew he wouldn't be able to see his wife and children, but before the flight he said that he hoped he might catch a glimpse of them waving from a distance.

"That will give me comfort," he said. "While I'm going through my quarantine."