Donations of food, gifts bring taste of Trinidad and Tobago to stranded farm workers

Roughly 400 people from Trinidad and Tobago are stuck on Canadian farms after labouring through the pandemic as essential workers. They won't be home for Christmas, but the community is bringing the celebration to them.

'It was very heartwarming knowing there are so many people ... thinking about us'

Nicole Anatascio-Davis (left) and Racheal Singh react as Charles Haggart and Petty Ramrattan delivery a box of food to their bunkhouse at Schuyler Farms in Norfolk County, Ont. on Dec. 22, 2020. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Dion Taylor likely won't be back in Trinidad and Tobago in time for Christmas, but he could almost taste home on Tuesday.

"Everything was just perfect," said the seasonal worker, after sampling a donated roti and a sip of the traditional Caribbean Christmas drink sorrel. "It tastes just as at home."

The federal government estimates roughly 400 people from the Caribbean country are still stuck on Canadian farms after labouring through the pandemic as essential workers. Their border has been closed since March because of COVID-19 and returning workers are only being allowed to trickle back a few at a time.

Nearly a quarter of the stranded men and women are at Schuyler farms near Simcoe, Ont.

Ninety-two workers are still there, according to farmer Brett Schuyler. Only two had been able to fly back as of Tuesday morning. Two others were waiting at the airport to see if they could get their test results withing the 72 hours necessary to be allowed home.

Workers at the farm have spent the past week or so decorating their bunkhouses with lights and trying to make the best of the tough situation.

"This year we've been making lemonade all year because they just keep throwing lemons at us," said Schuyler.

"What's been a real blessing is learning about celebrating Christmas with Trinidadians because they do a great job at it."

Bringing 'a little bit of Trinidad'

Ronnie Cabie pulled on Santa's famous red and white suit, along with a face shield, then climbed into the back of a cube van, which was transformed into a sleigh of sorts to deliver presents.

It's a role he's played back home before, but this was his first year as Saint Nick in Canada.

"I feel happy, grateful," the worker said of the chance to hand out gifts. "I put a smile on their faces. That's me."

Ronnie Cabie fills his "sleigh" with presents as farmer Brett Schuyler peers back at the load before delivering the gifts. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Charles Haggart and his wife Petty Ramrattan also joined the celebration, driving down from Toronto with a car-full of Trinidadian foods and drinks from roti and rum cake to chocolates and other snacks.

The couple spent the past week raising funds and pulling together everything needed for a holiday meal.

"I just wanted to bring a little bit of Trinidad to them," said Ramrattan, who grew up there.

Haggart lived in Trinidad for a few years and said he understands what it's like to be far from home for the holidays, calling the meals they provided "comfort food."

"It's not hard to empathize," he added. "These guys are up here, working hard, putting food on our tables."

Workers can apply for open permits

The Canadian government announced last week that it will allow farm workers to apply for open work permits so they can access health care and employment insurance while they wait to go home.

Federal and provincial officials are working with consular officials from Trinidad and Tobago.

"We will continue to do all that we can to support these workers until they can get home," Alexander Cohen, press secretary for the office of Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, wrote in an email.

Bedding, winter clothing and accommodation during the colder months are among expenses that can also be covered under an emergency support fund, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Dion Taylor said the donated food reminded him of home. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Schuyler said securing EI was crucial. He and his staff have been helping workers to apply and said he's pretty confident they'll be able to access it.

"Coming up on a year with COVID, leaving your family ...  we've got to support those that made those sacrifices, went out every day and put themselves in a higher-risk situation because they're out working," said the farmer.

Nicole Anastacio-Davis left her two boys and husband behind when she came to Canada. This will be her first Christmas away from them.

"I miss them," she said, explaining that she calls them on WhatsApp every day to make sure they know "mom loves them very, very much."

A store room at Schuyler farms is packed with donations to feed the workers. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

As baby of the family, Racheal Singh is used to celebrating the holidays with her siblings.

Being so far from them is tough, she said, but over the past few months the people she lives with in the bunkhouse have become like a family too.

The community has also responded to the situation in a big way, packing a store room with donated food that brings the flavours of home to the workers.

"It was very heartwarming, knowing there are so many people out there thinking about us and willing to do so much to help us out," said Singh. "We appreciate it very much."