Federal health minister says COVID-19 in ag sector a crisis, during private meeting with local officials

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu used a Thursday meeting with municipal and health-care leaders in Windsor-Essex to declare COVID-19 in Canada's agriculture sector a crisis. 

The gathering was an introductory meeting aimed at bringing key voices together to discuss the issue

Federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu expressed support for both agricultural sector workers, as well as agricultural companies, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during Thursday's private meeting. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu used a Thursday meeting with municipal and health-care leaders in Windsor-Essex to declare COVID-19 in Canada's agriculture sector a crisis, and official said.

The meeting was a private gathering requested by Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, and included a number of voices, including Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed, Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald and Windsor Regional Hospital president and CEO David Musyj.

Andrew Teliszewsky, chief of staff for Dilkens, said Windsor's mayor had a one-on-one meeting with Hajdu earlier this week, during which they "came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to get all the right people on the line, where she could tuck into the issue and drill down a bit further."

Teliszewsky, who was present during Thursday's private meeting and recounted details to CBC News, described Hajdu as a "rock star" who was incredibly well-informed not only about the COVID-19 situation across Canada, but more specifically to the COVID-19 context as it applies to Windsor-Essex.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens Dilkens has been a proponent of mandatory COVID-19 testing for Essex County agriculture workers. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

"She was really getting into the weeds on the matter. It's clear that she's engaged and well-informed about the challenge that we're facing."

According to Teliszewsky, Hajdu committed to a formal strategy to help deal with the COVID-19 situation as it applies to the agriculture sector. Hajdu also reportedly said she wants to see additional measures in place to increase testing for all agriculture workers. 

"She made the point throughout, but very clearly, that the federal government wants to support both the workers to safeguard public health, and then also support the agricultural companies who are vital to Canada's food supply."

Teliszewsky added that a significant chunk of the conversation focused on the federal government's Temporary Foreign Worker program, saying that MacDonald also made a "very powerful presentation about the crisis that's occurring out in the county and in her community."

Hajdu also reportedly acknowledged that there have been jurisdictional challenges between the responsibilities borne by federal, provincial and municipal leadership when it comes to addressing concerns about migrant workers, Teliszewsky said. 

"Here clearly the minister acknowledged that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is where the federal government could play a role in assisting in this crisis," he said. 

Despite the meeting, Teliszewsky emphasized that discussions about a formal strategy were still in their early phases, explaining that no timelines were provided.

It's clear that [Health Minister Patty Hajdu is] engaged and well-informed about the challenge that we're facing.- Andrew Teliszewsky, chief of staff for Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens

"Obviously, a very encouraging start," he said. "We need to see some deliverables come out of the federal government. But if Hajdu is able to deliver on even a portion of what was discussed today, then I think we'll be on a really good trajectory."

Dilkens has been a vocal proponent of mandatory testing for Essex County agriculture workers, even calling for "stronger intervention" from the province when it comes to testing migrant workers, during conversations last weekend with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and provincial Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman. 

To date, more than 350 agri-farm workers in Windsor-Essex have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Windsor-Essex's health unit announced that five of the six COVID-19 cases confirmed on Thursday were in individuals working in the agri-farm sector. 

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Two Windsor-Essex migrant farm workers from Mexico died as a result of COVID-19, which prompted the country's government to temporarily halt on Monday the influx of migrant workers to Canada.

The president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture later clarified that his organization has been informed that the halt only applies to farm with active COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Though there have been calls for mandatory testing, Ontario Premier Ford has clarified in public statements that no one can be forced to get tested for COVID-19 without consent. 

"You can't force anyone to get tested, that's the thing," said Ford, during a Wednesday media conference.

Ahmed also said that mandatory COVID-19 testing has "never occurred in Canada."

With files from Jason Viau and the Canadian Press