Migrant workers clean fields near Salinas, Calif., March 30, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

Migrant’s death brings tears, prayers

By 
  • June 24, 2020

Following the third death in Canada of a migrant farm worker from COVID-19, Fr. Peter Ciallella had the grim task of informing other workers that their friend had died.

Juan López Chaparro, 55, died June 20 at University Hospital in London, Ont.

Ciallella had to make the announcement six times as he visited different bunkhouses accompanied by Haldimand-Norfolk medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai. López Chaparro worked at property owned in Vittoria Ont., by Scotlynn Group, where 221 mostly Mexican migrant workers are housed.

One hundred and ninety-nine of the Scotlynn temporary foreign workers have tested positive for COVID-19. A further 18 workers associated with Scotlynn have also tested positive.

It took Ciallella from 10:30 p.m. to past 1 a.m. to make the six announcements of López Chaparro’s death. At each stop he would also interpret for Nesathurai as the doctor took questions from workers. Ciallella offered to pray with any of the men who wished to offer a prayer for their friend.

López Chaparro had been coming to Canada to support his wife and four children since 2010.

In one of the bunkhouses, Ciallella met López Chaparro’s nephew. There were tears.

“We took the nephew aside, myself and the supervisor,” Ciallella told The Catholic Register. “We spent a good 15 or 20 minutes with him, trying to console him.”

The midnight trek from bunkhouse to bunkhouse over the sprawling property was met mostly with grim silence by workers, Ciallella said. The workers had few questions for Nesathurai.

“Most of the questions revolved around getting sick again and about the impact on the family,” Ciallella said.

Meanwhile, Nesathurai is engaged in a legal battle with farmers as he tries to contain the virus.

Farmers are upset that Nesathurai restricted occupancy of each bunkhouse to three people while workers wait out their 14-day quarantine period on arrival in Canada.

Forced to house workers in hotels and motels, the farmers have challenged Nesathurai’s ruling and the dispute is currently before the courts.

 While Nesathurai has angered farm owners and local politicians, he has found allies in the Catholic Church.

Hamilton Bishop Doug Crosby and London Bishop Ron Fabbro co-wrote a letter to the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit Board, asking the board to put the welfare of workers first.

“They are a group of vulnerable people who depend on your care and protection,” the bishops wrote.

Once on Canadian soil, temporary farm workers should get the same level of care and protection from COVID-19 that Canadians expect, the bishops said.

“That high level of care rejects discriminatory attitudes and stigmas to which we might be tempted to succumb, unworthy of our common humanity,” wrote the bishops. “We encourage the board of health to assure the same degree of care for every human person.”

Ontario Farm Association director Larry Davis called the rules “overly restrictive, burdensome regulations.” In a letter to the board of health, Davis claimed the three-in-a-bunkhouse rule would “ultimately lead to many Norfolk farmers having to lose their farm and livelihood. Further, some Canadians and world consumers will not have food.” 

López Chaparro’s death came at the end of a dramatic week. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission announced it was conducting investigations into the deaths in Canada of 31-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and 24-year-old Rogelio Munoz Santos. Mexico also suspended the flow of Mexican migrant labour to Canada, but by June 21 Canada and Mexico reached an agreement to resume travel for Mexican workers to Canada.

Ciallella has been speaking with management at Scotlynn, hoping to be allowed back in the bunkhouses in the coming weeks.

“Definitely follow-up care, spiritual care. They indicated to me that they felt it would be necessary,” Ciallella said.

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