SIMCOE, Ontario — Three weeks after they began cutting asparagus in the thawing fields, Luis Gabriel Flores Flores noticed that one of his co-workers was missing. He said he found the man shivering with a fever, in bed — where he would remain for a week.
“I was trying to tell the foremen, ‘He is very ill, he needs a doctor,’” said Mr. Flores, one of thousands of migrant farm workers flown into Ontario in April to secure Canada’s food supply. “They said, ‘Sure, soon, later.’ They never did.”
The sprawling vegetable farm where he worked became the site of one of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. Almost 200 workers, all from Mexico, tested positive, seven were hospitalized and one died: Juan Lopez Chaparro, the one Mr. Flores said he had tried in vain to help.
The farm owner insisted that Mr. Chaparro had been treated promptly and called Mr. Flores a “bad apple” being used by activists to score political points. If that is the case, it has worked: The outbreak and others like it have spurred national protests about the systemic vulnerability of migrant farm laborers, a population unknown to many Canadians until they began to fall ill at a rate 11 times that of health workers.
Canadians pride themselves on a liberal immigration system welcoming to an array of ethnicities and nationalities, contrasting their attitude with what many see as xenophobia in their neighbor to the south. The reality does not always match the rhetoric, but Canada encourages different groups to maintain their cultures, and an embrace of multiculturalism is enshrined in Canada’s charter and self-image. When other world leaders shunned refugees from Syria’s civil war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed them in person, handing them winter coats.
But in importing large numbers of seasonal farm laborers from abroad and offering them no path to residence or citizenship, Canada looks disturbingly un-Canadian to many of its people. Canada admits temporary workers who stay for most of a year but requires them to return home when their contracts end (the United States does, as well, but they are outnumbered by farm workers who are undocumented and often do stay year-round).
As in the United States, farm workers live for months on their employers’ property, often in large bunkhouses where disease can spread easily. Those who enter Canada with work permits often return year after year with no prospect of ever legally putting down roots. Canada, at least, guarantees them health care, but on isolated farms, gaining access to that care can be difficult.
“In no other immigration category do you have people who come only from certain countries, are trapped in certain occupations, living only on their work sites and must absolutely leave the country at the end,” said Jenna Hennebry, director of the International Migration Research Center at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
“It’s not consistent with our ideals of multiculturalism.”
Professor Hennebry was among a group of academics who warned the Canadian government about the heightened risks migrant farm workers faced from Covid-19 before the first planeload of Mexicans arrived in April.
The coronavirus outbreaks prompted the Mexican government to pause sending workers to Canada for a week in June. In response, Mr. Trudeau said: “We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect. Can we change the system to do better?”
Since then, his government has announced 59 million Canadian dollars — about $45 million — for improved farm housing, sanitation and inspections. But it has not offered the cure that advocates for migrant workers demand: a path to citizenship.
“We have a group of people defined as good enough to work in Canada, but not good enough to stay,” said Vic Satzewich, a sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “As a country we have to ask ourselves why that’s the case.”
The seasonal agricultural worker program began in 1966, when 264 Jamaican farm hands arrived in Southern Ontario as a temporary solution to chronic farm labor shortages.
It was designed “to prevent Black settlement,” Mr. Satzewich wrote in his book “Racism and the Incorporation of Foreign Labor.” Unlike earlier agricultural worker programs for Europeans, the Jamaican workers were not permitted to apply for Canadian citizenship or bring their families because of fear that there would be “race relations problems” and that they would not assimilate or be “competitive,” he wrote.
The program has expanded to include more than 56,000 workers from a dozen countries, making up one in five farm workers across Canada. The coronavirus has infected more than 1,600 of them in Ontario alone this year and killed three.
In theory, migrant farm workers are protected by all the laws that shield Canadian farm workers. But their contracts state that any worker fired for cause requires “immediate removal” from the country, which keeps people from complaining about abuses, advocates say.
The federal government introduced an enforcement system in 2015, with a complaint line for migrant workers, but Canada’s auditor general inadequate: Only 13 of 173 planned inspections were completed in the 2016 fiscal year. This year, no farms have been found noncompliant.
“The employers have too much power over their workers,” said Mr. Flores, 36, at a protest by migrant workers and their supporters in downtown Toronto in August. Around him, masked men and women held up pictures of Mr. Chaparro, his deceased co-worker.
“It could have happened to any of us,” said Mr. Flores, a father of two from the outskirts of Mexico City, who has worked on farms across Canada in four of the past six years.
This year, the program placed him at Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers, a family-run agribusiness with a large trucking fleet and 12,000 acres in Ontario, Florida and Georgia.
He tested positive for the virus, but experienced only mild symptoms. The day after he learned of Mr. Chaparro’s death, he left the farm two hours southwest of Toronto.
He has been supported since then by the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance For Change, which helped him file a complaint with the provincial labor board, seeking 40,000 Canadian dollars from Scotlynn for lost wages and suffering. He contends that he was fired for asserting publicly that the company had a role in Mr. Chaparro’s death.
The farm’s owner, Scott Biddle, said his family had hired farm workers from Mexico for more than 30 years and never fired a single one. He said Mr. Flores was one of three workers who asked to be returned to Mexico after the outbreak began.
Mr. Biddle said his farm had strictly followed the district’s coronavirus regulations, putting almost all the workers up in hotel rooms for two rounds of quarantine. He called Mr. Chaparro’s death an unfortunate reflection of the disease’s vagaries, not of systemic failures.
“Every regulation was followed that needed to be,” he said, standing in a parking lot behind his office. “At the end of the day, these gentlemen are living in close contact, they work in close contact, they are frontline workers providing food.”
He invited a New York Times reporter to speak to three of his employees, one of whom had worked for him for 32 years.
Two confirmed that Mr. Chaparro had lain sick in bed for a week. They said that four other workers in the bunkhouse had also had fevers and that one coughed so much, they thought he had pneumonia.
“All of us were 100 percent convinced it was just the change in climate,” said Daniel Hernandez Vargas, a roommate of Mr. Chaparro’s who was working at the farm this spring for the first time.
Workers in another bunkhouse, who were unsure where to turn when one of them became seriously ill, reached out to the assistant to an anthropology professor, whom they had met during a previous growing season. With the help of the two academics nearly 2,000 miles away, at Okanagan College in British Columbia, an ambulance was called.
“It had gotten to the point, one of their co-workers was so ill, he was slipping in and out of consciousness,” said the professor, Amy Cohen, who is an advocate for migrant workers.
Mr. Biddle said he believed a foreman had called the ambulance, but wasn’t sure of the details.
“If anyone showed any symptoms of being ill, they were always taken to the hospital,” he said.