Ontario premier considers mandatory testing for migrant workers, wants to consult constitutional lawyer

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his team has been asked to consult a constitutional lawyer to find out if the province can mandate COVID-19 testing for migrant farm workers.

Windsor-Essex now has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the province

During his province-wide tour Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he's considering bringing in a constitutional lawyer to decide if the province can mandate COVID-19 testing for migrant farm workers. (CBC)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his team has been asked to consult a constitutional lawyer to find out if the province can mandate COVID-19 testing for migrant farm workers.

"If someone comes into our country ... that's a privilege when you cross the border into someone's country," Ford told a new conference Friday. "I tried to work — work until you can't work any longer — with the folks. I would like to look into mandatory testing."

The announcement comes as Windsor-Essex's medical officer of health said the region now has the highest rate of coronavirus cases in the province.

On Friday, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit reported 53 new cases of coronavirus, with 43 coming from the agri-farm sector. The number of migrant farm workers who have tested positive for coronavirus surpassed 1,000 Friday.

Ford said the province would foot the bill on ensuring migrant workers are cared for if they contract the virus, adding the "least" they can do in response is to get tested. 

"If for any reason, they're sick, they're going to get paid. If they were here last year, they're going to get CERB. We're going to make sure we take care of them. We're going to feed them. We're going to put them in hotels — at our cost," said Ford.

He added that farm workers not being tested may hold Windsor-Essex back from advancing to Stage 3 of the province's reopening plan.

"We have to check the constitution. I've got to make sure I go through the lawyers. I have to make sure to call the federal government. But what's the problem to get a quick test? I've been tested a couple times."

On Thursday, Ontario's chief medical officer of health said an on-farm testing effort had recently been paused after only 19 of 176 farms in the region participated.

Dr. David Williams said testing would restart with a new communications package created for farms and their workers.

Concerns raised over singling out migrant workers

Jenna Hennebry, associate professor with the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University and co-founder of the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group, said she believes testing is essential and more of it is needed. 

Henry said imposing mandatory testing on one group could single them out and send a bad message.

"It can breed xenophobia. It can create conditions where people don't understand that the risk isn't necessarily from those people — that, in fact, those people are at risk," said Hennebry.

Jenna Hennebry, associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, says imposing mandatory COVID-19 testing for one group such as migrant farm workers could single them out and send a bad message. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"If the approach is to try to find the most effective public health approach, then it's about testing as many people as possible — not just a subgroup of people that are facing heightened vulnerabilities."

Hennebry suggested COVID-19 testing should be mandatory for "everybody that's entering the country" and not just migrant workers who are "not any more likely to have it than anyone else showing up at a border."

She said the conditions in which the migrants work and live heightens their potential for exposure to the virus and for spreading it.

Hennebry added that testing multiple times throughout the season would be helpful, especially if it was facilitated by somebody other than employers. 

In a statement, Migrant Workers Alliance For Change said Ford is "back to blaming migrants," referring to the premier's statement earlier this month when he suggested migrant workers were hiding from COVID-19 testing. He later apologized. 

"Unless testing is mandatory for all residents, including farm employers, this measure if implemented clearly targets low-waged, racialized people and is racist and discriminatory," read a statement from the group.

It added that the responsibility for COVID-19 outbreaks on farms "lies with working and living conditions, not with workers."

"Premier Ford knows how to fix this situation: He can mandate physical distancing at work and at home for all migrant farm workers and ensure equal rights for migrant workers. But he won't do it, and thousands continue to be infected, and three migrants are dead."

Migrant Workers Alliance For Change said it is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to "step in and give full and permanent immigration status to migrant workers so that they can protect themselves."

Decision on Stage 2 regions advancing delayed 

On Friday, Ford also said the remaining three regions in Stage 2 of the province's reopening plan — Windsor-Essex, Toronto and Peel  — will have to wait until next Wednesday to find out if they can advance.

"I know the people are expecting to hear an update on Stage 3 reopening from us on Monday, but the health officials have asked for a little more time to analyze the numbers," said Ford. "And I've always said we can't rush this."

With files from CBC Toronto and Jacob Barker