Article by Windsor Star
Security at the large Prince Edward County farm where Diego lived and worked, helping with the growing of thousands of cannabis plants, was largely the responsibility of a single dog.
On Sept. 15, on the eve of this year’s pot harvest, the dog began barking at about 5 a.m., waking Diego and his five bunkmates. He peeked out into a darkness pierced by police vehicle lights illuminating armed police officers on the move.
“Open the door! Open the door!”
As Diego began opening the door, he said it was pushed in. One officer grabbed him by the arm and shoved him against a freezer. “Who is the boss here?” an officer demanded. “We are just workers,” Diego responded.
A farm supervisor had advised the foreign labourers, who barely understood English, how to respond if the police ever came calling. Marijuana, of course, is a strictly controlled and regulated plant despite legalization in Canada in 2018. “Licence here, please check licence,” Diego said in broken English, pointing to a document on the wall next to the board used to post work schedules and job assignments.
Diego, a Spanish-speaking peasant farmer from Guatemala and seasonal farm worker in Canada since 2009, didn’t know what the paper said, but it certainly didn’t impress the officers, members of the Ontario Provincial Police’s east region community service crime unit.
Diego and his five roommates, all hired in Leamington earlier in the growing season, were among 17 people arrested on Sept. 15 after the OPP crime unit, accompanied by an emergency response team, raided three pot-growing operations along County Road 8 near Picton, about 160 km east of Toronto. Nearly 4,600 cannabis plants were seized, along with power tools, a shotgun and approximately $10,000 in Canadian currency.
All those arrested were charged with cultivating, propagating or harvesting more than four pot plants contrary to the Cannabis Act, as well as with possession of the proceeds of crime under the Criminal Code. Diego and the others, most from the Toronto area, are scheduled to appear in Ontario Court of Justice in Picton on Nov. 25.
The six from Leamington must now negotiate their way through the Canadian justice system and try to successfully argue they had no idea what they were doing was criminal. Their future livelihoods — to continue working on Canadian farms to provide for their families in Central America — depend on them proving their innocence.
“They were just working for an employer … we hope to convince the judge they didn’t know what they were doing was illegal,” said Santiago Escobar of the United Food and Commercial Workers, who is trying to help find affordable legal representation for the Leamington six.
Diego, who moved to the Leamington area in 2015 to work in the greenhouse sector there, agreed to the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse when he was told last spring the job southwest of Kingston came with slightly better pay, as well as free room and board, important considerations for someone working in a foreign country in order to support family back home. He said he was told the extra remuneration was due to the faraway location.
It all seemed legit. “It was a normal farm — there were lots of people … we didn’t hide anything,” Diego told the Star through an interpreter.
He said a professional recruiter who links foreign temporary workers to Canadian farmers in need of such help first connected Diego to a London man who claimed the Picton farm was his. Before Diego started work there, he was offered a tour of a nearby cannabis grow-op already staffed by dozens of labourers. Cannabis is legal in Canada, he was told.
Without money and advised they could no longer stay at the raided farm, the six Central Americans called a supervisor who dispatched a taxi to deliver them sufficient funds for the next train back to Leamington. They were told not to talk to police and that legal representation would be provided.
The supervisor and the purported farm owner have since gone incommunicado and not returned calls, said Diego. The $1,900 in cash in his pocket that police seized as purported “proceeds of crime” that morning, he added, was his pay package for the previous two weeks.
It shows how inscrutable employers, criminals, can exploit them
Diego said he had just been promoted at the farm and had had dinner with the boss and his girlfriend two nights before the raid. “He said the harvest would begin in a few days: ‘At the end, you’ll have a bonus.’”
Diego is not his real name. Worried about repercussions from those who own and ran the farm, as well as from potential future employers, he agreed to be interviewed by the Star on the condition of anonymity. The other five from Leamington, all Mexicans, are keeping a lower profile as none of them are currently employed under Canada’s temporary farm worker programs. They are part of the army of undocumented foreign farm workers in Canada estimated in the thousands.
The UFCW, a national union that has been helping vulnerable migrant workers and advocating on their behalf, is helping the local group understand what legal challenges they now face and seeking to find them legal assistance. Diego, who reached out to the UFCW after a fellow worker said the union might be able to help, said he didn’t understand what was happening on the day of his arrest nor whether he was informed of his rights. There was no translator.
A spokesperson for the OPP’s east region told the Star that the police could not comment on the case now that the charges are before the court.