Case Study: Canadian Farmworkers Union in British Columbia
By: Natalie Zacharewski
Natalie is a museum education professional based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a passion for creating learning opportunities for students of all ages through immersive, inquiry-based experiences. She has worked in museums and heritage institutions across Canada and the United States such as Museums of Burlington, the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum and Colonial Williamsburg. She has held the role of Faculty Instructor for the Public Programs course in the Certificate in Museum Studies Program with the Alberta Museums Association. She has also worked with the British Columbia Museums Association as Museum Education Consultant, assisting small museums develop educational programs. Natalie holds a Master of Arts in History from the University of Ottawa, specializing in Canadian, American and gender history.
The Nine Hour Movement and the adoption of the Trade Unions Act of 1872 will provide a framework for examining labour events across Canadian history. In this case study, learners will explore a microhistory of the Canadian Farmworkers Union (CFU). Using the Canadian Farmworkers Union Project at Simon Fraser University, learners will discover how multiculturalism and migrant work relate to labour organization on farms in British Columbia. Learners will work directly with the archival collection, engaging with primary sources. Migrant workers are a significant source of labour across Canada; this case study will allow learners to make ties between the food that is on their tables and those who grew it.
Case Study Overview
Throughout the 20th century, farmworkers, in particular workers from overseas (especially South Asia), were, and continue to be, vitally important in southwestern British Columbia. The Fraser Valley is home to many farms whose produce (such as berries and field vegetables) is shipped across Canada. Even though this region has hosted a growing population of foreign workers, these workers historically laboured in squalid conditions. Exposure to pesticides and poor housing made farmwork extremely challenging for labourers. In addition, workers were not provided with childcare options for their young children. This meant that parents of children too young to go to school had to take them with them when they went to work in the field.
In September 1978, a group of community members and activists gathered in a school in Surrey, BC, to discuss working conditions for farmworkers in the region, and to organize to improve these conditions. In April 1980, the CFU held its first convention and by July had achieved union status – all because of that first meeting in Surrey.
The CFU was active throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, when they lobbied for the enactment of health and safety regulations related to agricultural workers. CFU’s founding president, Raj Chouhan, later became the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of BC, in 2020.
As a large class group, discuss these questions:
Why is it important to include childcare in workers’ rights?
Why do you think workers come to Canada to work?
Archival Photo Study
Visit this page (image courtesy of Simon Fraser University)
Respond to these questions in your journals:
- Why do you think the sign reads “inevitable”? What does that word mean?
- Read the description of the archival photo below. What do the details tell us about this labour movement?
Title Support BC farm workers
Date October 1, 1979
Place British Columbia; Lower Mainland; Fraser Valley
Description The first booklet produced by a Canadian farmworkers’ organization about their working and living conditions in BC’s Fraser Valley. Also an overview of the Farm Workers Organizing Committee (FWOC) activities, including direct action and the fight for farm workers’ equality. Highlights one of the first FWOC picket lines at Mukhtiar Growers Ltd. in Abbotsford that resulted in $80,000 in back wages paid to farmworkers. Exact date of publication to be determined but between Sept 1979 – April 1980. Early photos of women farmworkers in direct action. Cover photo features Raj Chouhan, President of FWOC.
Connection to Current Event
- Read this article:
“Migrant workers deserve to know the details of how they’re being tracked, union says”, CBC, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/windsor-workers-tracking-data-1.6790643
- In groups, discuss these questions and reflect on your responses in your journals:
- How would it make you feel to have your work tracked? Would you want to know that it was happening?
- How does the union advocate for workers in this case?
Film Viewing and Letter Writing
*Coarse language used (minute 29, minute 33)
*Stories of violence and infant mortality (minute 34)
1. Watch this film (approx. 40 min) by the National Film Board: A Time to Rise – ਉੱਠਣ ਦਾ ਵੇਲਾ | Canadian Farmworkers Union
- Take notes while watching.
- What parts of the film affected you the most?
- What are three to five key things you learned from the film?
- Did anything in the film surprise you?
2. Imagine you are a student (about your age) in the late 1970s in British Columbia: you are witnessing farmworker struggles, but also the beginnings of their organizing. Write a letter to a family member in Ontario about what you are witnessing, based on the film you have just seen. The letter should be one page, double-spaced. It should include:
- What conditions are like for farmworkers;
- How unions are organizing to gain members; and
- Why it’s important for unions to advocate for farm workers.
3. Your letter should include both informational aspects (seen in the film) and personal reflections in your imagined role as a student in the 1970s.
Need a rubric? Check this one out here
The Canadian Farmworkers Union Project: Special Collections and Rare Books. Simon Fraser University. https://www.lib.sfu.ca/about/branches-depts/special-collections/exhibits-projects/canadian-farmworkers-union
Bush, Murray, and the Canadian Farmworkers Union. A History of the Canadian Farmworkers Union. https://www.vcn.bc.ca/cfu.