Kitchener-Waterloo

Church retreat venue welcomes temporary foreign workers in need of isolation space

A religious education and event centre in Paris, Ont. has scrapped its summer season and has instead become an isolation centre, hosting temporary foreign workers during their 14-day quarantine period.

Workers arriving in Canada must isolate for 14 days

Michael Shewburg, executive director at Five Oaks, delivers breakfast to workers staying at the centre during their 14-day isolation period. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

A religious education and event centre in Paris, Ont. has scrapped its summer season to become an isolation centre, hosting temporary foreign workers during their 14-day quarantine period.

The centre's executive director said he offered up the space to county officials in March, at the time thinking it could be used as housing for healthcare workers.

Instead, Michael Shewburg said the county asked if he'd be willing to reconfigure the space as an isolation centre for the many temporary foreign workers who work on local farms each summer. 

"I said, 'Absolutely, we'd love to host anybody that you think would need quarantine care,'" said Shewburg, executive director of Five Oaks.

Shewburg said he's been in talks with five local produce farms and expects the centre to be booked solid through July.

Saul Sanchez-Guerrero was part of the first group of workers to stay at Five Oaks this spring and said he was looking forward to getting started at work. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Saul Sanchez-Guerrero was part of the first group of workers who arrived at Five Oaks in mid-April, and spoke to CBC News toward the end of his quarantine period.

Sanchez-Guerrero has been coming to Canada for the last 11 years to work on a local produce farm and said he expects to stay until November or December this year.

He said the season would likely be different from years past, when workers could take occasional breaks by going into town for shopping trips. 

This year, "We're just gonna ... work all the time," he said. 

Sanchez-Guerrero kept busy during isolation by calling and texting his family and worried about being away from them during the pandemic. 

"I'd prefer to be busy working and not thinking about what could happen," he said.

"In my case I'm pretty thankful to be here, to come here ... and keep working."

'They're essential workers'

Shewburg said he, too, is thankful to play host to seasonal workers. 

"Temporary foreign workers have left the safety of Mexico in this situation to come to Canada ... at their own risk," he said.

"They're just like their grocery store worker, they're just like the doctor, they're just like the nurse, they're performing an essential service."

Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, agrees. 

Every year, roughly 60,000 temporary foreign workers travel to Canada to work on farms, many of them in Ontario. These workers bring with them the agricultural skills that are in short supply in Canada, and that farmers need to maintain a successful business, he said. 

"The difference between a good strawberry picker and a poor strawberry picker can be the difference between being profitable or losing money as a farmer," said Fraser.

Shewburg said the money he's earned through the program has also helped keep Five Oaks afloat without its typical summer revenue. He's even re-hired some of the staff who were laid off in March when the province banned large gatherings.  

"It's a really great opportunity to stay open ... and survive, hopefully, through this unprecedented time," he said.

Five Oaks typically hosts retreats for churches, scouts and other community groups. Like many organizations, it had to pivot when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and large gatherings were banned by the province. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now