'You had no choice': Indigenous Manitobans shed light on exploitative farm labour program that ran for decades

Survivors of a little-known work scheme that saw indigenous Manitobans forced onto farms and into hard labour are now speaking out -- as yet another example of their historically grim treatment at the hands of the federal government.

Called 'grab-a-hoe Indians,' were recruited to work sugar beet farms with brutal conditions, little pay

Government exploitation of Indigenous sugar beet labourers, which occurred from the 1940s to the 1980s, was exposed by the Winnipeg Tribune in the summer of 1975. But little changed after the report. (Winnipeg Tribune/University of Manitoba digital archives)

Survivors of a little-known work scheme that saw Indigenous Manitobans forced onto farms and into hard labour are now speaking out about yet another example of their historically grim treatment at the hands of the federal government.

"We worked until our hands were blistered, our skin was burnt and we were always hungry," Rebecca Bone recalled from her home in Camperville, Man., more than 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

"They didn't give us food. There was nowhere close to get water."

Bone, now 50, was just 13 when she and her family became what locals called the "grab-a-hoe Indians" — a moniker that referred to the thousands of Indigenous families, recruited from the 1940s to the 1980s to work on sugar beet farms across the Prairies. In Bone's case, they ended up at a farm just outside Altona in southern Manitoba.

The gig was this: farmers would go into Métis communities and northern reserves and offer families work harvesting sugar beets from May to August, promising pay and accommodations. 

The reality was this: the work was grueling. Labourers worked 12 to 14 hours a day, no food or water was offered and the pay was nearly non-existent (on average, a worker would go home with about $300 by the end of the summer).

The accommodations were spartan — sometimes there were none, meaning families would sleep in their trucks. Other times, farmers offered tents. Most often, the workers lived on the floors in empty grain bins.

"I remember the mice in the grain bin," Bone said. "Always afraid of them biting us."

The racism was rampant.

"People in town called us savages. Once they chased us with bats," Bone said. "I felt awful. I'd ask my mom and dad, why were they doing that? Why did they treat us like that?"

Forced to return

Despite the conditions, families returned to the farms year after year. Their alternatives were limited.

If they were on social assistance, the Department of Indian Affairs would cut them off. If they had a lot of children, Indian Affairs sent local children's-aid workers to apprehend them. Their get-out-of-care-free card? A trip to the sugar beet farms.

"When [Children's Aid] came after you, you had no choice," recalled Peter Paul Chartrand, who was 13 when they tried to apprehend him from his Camperville home.

"[The sugar beet farm] is where I ran away to. I had to."

Thousands of Indigenous families were recruited from the 1940s to the 1980s to work on sugar beet farms across the Prairies. According to a 1975 Winnipeg Tribune report, workers next to a sugar beet farm in Winnipeg lived in crude makeshift work camps. (Winnipeg Tribune/University of Manitoba digital archives)

The irony was ugly. If children ended up on the sugar beet farms or were left behind, child welfare officials got involved.

"They would come in and take some of the kids when the parents were gone or a lot of the kids were taken from the community and forced to go and work, and then when they worked they took them from there," said Lorne Bone, who was just seven when he first worked on the farms.

"Either way, we got the bad end of the deal."

Labour experts cried foul at the time, calling it exploitative labour masterminded by Indian Affairs.

But it was not unprecedented. During the Second World War, the federal government, in concert with Alberta and Manitoba, recruited Japanese Canadians from internment camps to do the same work under the same brutal conditions on these sugar beet farms.

When the war ended, they were allowed to leave. That's when the governments turned to Indigenous Canadians to pick up the slack.

Exploitation exposed

In the summer of 1975, however, reporters with the now defunct Winnipeg Tribune newspaper exposed conditions at a Winnipeg-based sugar beet plant, where dozens of Indigenous families lived in squalor while working the fields.

They then reported the crisis to the Children's Aid Society. Terry Nicholaichuk was the social worker assigned the case. He now says he'll never forget it.

"There were people sitting in the dirt in badly put-together tents and no access to sanitary facilities," Nicholaichuk said. "It was pretty unsanitary. It was a makeshift small camp beside a sugar beet field."

But instead of seizing the children, he confronted the farmer, he said, and convinced him to let the families live in nearby houses the farmer owned.

"He didn't seem too happy about it," Nicholaichuk said. "But he was sort of caught. I was on his front step and there were a bunch of media behind me."

Soon after, Indigenous farm workers began to rally together and demand better conditions. They didn't succeed but they didn't make it easy for the farmers anymore. That, combined with an increase in farm machinery meant their manual labour was soon no longer needed. By the mid-1980s, the "grab-a-hoe Indian" industry came to an end.

Today, those who spent childhoods on those farms will never forget it and want others to know about it — an effort, Rebecca Bone says, to make sure history does not repeat itself. 

"I still remember the blisters on my hands," Bone said. "I would never let a child do that today."