Good morning and thank you very much for the opportunity to contribute to this very important discussion.
My name is Eduardo Huesca and I work for the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, or OHCOW, a network of clinics funded through the Ontario Ministry of Labour as a free-of-charge resource to Ontario workers and their employers.
Specifically, I'm the program coordinator of OHCOW's migrant farm worker program, which has been running since 2006. With me I have my colleague Michelle Tew, who is an occupational health nurse who has been working with our program since its beginnings.
Our program works directly with Ontario migrant farm workers to better understand their work experiences, to identify key occupational health issues that affect them, and to respond with initiatives, recommendations, language and culturally appropriate educational resources useful to these workers and their employers in support of occupational health and safety on their farms.
Through our work, we have identified mental health challenges affecting Ontario migrant farm workers. We are also seeing these findings reflected in a growing body of research coming from leading universities across Canada. More recently, clinical data has also begun to emerge from an increasing number of Ontario community health centres that are running specialized primary health care clinics for migrant workers in these regions. This data is identifying mental health distress among these workers as well.
In addition, similar to the findings presented on the lack or limitations of mental health supports currently available for farmers, through our work we have identified difficulties in finding mental health resources to support migrant farm workers in the local rural regions where these workers are residing.
Our intention today is by no means to try to eclipse or overshadow the focus on understanding and responding to the mental health of Canadian farmers. Through our work, we recognize and continue to learn about the extremely difficult challenges faced by farmers. We recognize their resilience and strength, and we want to thank the farmers who have previously contributed testimony to this committee, speaking about their lived experience on these matters.
We would also like to commend those leading important initiatives that have provided key supports to them. We have worked hard to gain the trust of Ontario farmers and we see our program as a support to them. Many of the farmers we work with, who invite us onto their farms to present our information sessions to the migrant farm workers they hire, have identified relief in connecting with us after experiencing great challenges finding effective occupational health and safety resources to support the particular needs of migrant farm workers and meet their legislative responsibilities towards them as their employers.
Today, our intention is to echo the testimony of Dr. Patrick Smith, the national chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and his reminder for us not to forget the experience of migrant farm workers in this review.
Again, in no way do we want to suggest that farmers and migrant farm workers are somehow in competition for our concern, but rather recognize the opportunity that is in front of us to seek a more comprehensive understanding of mental health challenges facing the agricultural industry and to challenge ourselves to develop responses for this sector that do not leave anyone behind.
The mental health of farmers and that of the migrant farm workers they hire are linked. We have had fruitful conversations with Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and her team from the University of Guelph about how in the same way the mental health challenges of a farmer have direct effects on the farm family, they also have the potential to affect the workers the farmer manages. Similarly, a worker experiencing mental health distress may affect his or her employer.
Two years ago, we received a call from a community member in Carlisle, Ontario, between Hamilton and Guelph, who was supporting a very distraught farmer after one of the migrant farm workers who she was employing was hospitalized after suffering from alcohol poisoning connected to what had been an ongoing experience of depression. The worker's depression had reached this level of crisis after the sudden death of a close family member and the realization that he might not be able to return to his family in Mexico before the season finished without potentially losing his employment on the Ontario farm. After the fact, his co-workers noted they had seen symptoms of distress in this individual, but the farmer admitted that she had not noticed them. The farmer was woken up in the night, confronted with having to call for emergency services, tasked with communicating with the Mexican consulate, and required to figure out how to support the other workers who had witnessed the situation. The experience left this farmer quite affected.
A mental health support strategy for farmers that provides, for example, education on signs and symptoms of mental health distress not only has the potential to help farmers recognize and understand feelings they may be experiencing themselves or recognize behaviour in a husband, a wife, a partner, a friend or a neighbour, but also, if it includes migrant farm workers in this picture as being potentially at risk, could help farmers prevent potential mental health crises among the workers they hire.
We are in support of the recommendations that have been presented thus far to this committee by experts in this field. However, we suggest considering the migrant farm worker experience for inclusion within these recommendations to seek a more comprehensive understanding of this picture and to develop inclusive responses and solutions.
Whether it's having the call for funding for research in this area include research that focuses on farmer mental health as well as migrant farm worker mental health or possibly innovative research that looks at the intersections between the mental health challenges of both groups, this inclusion and possible exploration of commonalities and differences may result in a greater understanding across these groups, creating space for recommendations that may be mutually supportive.
In the scenario of the field worker meeting with the farmer on the farm and supporting their mental health, we can envision this field worker bringing a Spanish- or Thai-speaking translator with them, for example, who has familiarity with migrant farm workers, to then allow the field worker to also possibly visit with migrant workers who might be interested as well.
Whether the field worker visits the farmer and the migrant farm worker on the same day or on a separate occasion independently, whichever is decided to be the most effective, in such an example we would still hope that this dual focus of support would come from the same initiative to be able to leverage the working with both groups towards fostering greater empathy and potentially creating a space for farmer-farm worker relationships that are increasingly supportive of mental health.
In closing, the programs allowing for the hiring of migrant workers in Canada were themselves a federal solution to stresses experienced by Canadian farmers around labour shortages in the industry. Therefore, in a way, migrant farm workers have been part of this conversation and solution around the mental health of farmers. Considering this, we hope that we can move ahead with including these workers in our concerns around mental health in the agricultural industry and our search for increased understanding in our development of effective responses. This would result in a strategy that would seek to support a healthy agricultural sector for all those involved.