Emigrate to Canada for Work Experience on Farms

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Don't feel limited by national borders when you're searching for the right farming opportunity.

A little over a year ago, a small group of us here in Ontario decided that Americans – at least, MOTHER EARTH NEWS types – should be encourage to emigrate to Canada. We were hoping to find people who were interested in getting farming experience, and who might enjoy living and working in Canada enough to stay. Since our government wasn’t doing anything in that direction, we thought we ourselves might help a few good people settle in our county.

We felt that such a program was necessary because the rural areas of Ontario (Canada’s second biggest province) are rapidly becoming depopulated and the number of people farming in Canada is decreasing. Here, as everywhere else, too many young people are leaving the land for the big city. The situation can be summed up as “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen the farm?” We really need a goodly number of Mother Earth’s children to keep small-scale agriculture alive in parts of this region . . . so we set out to bring them here. Little did we realize the enormousness of the project we were undertaking, or the range of joys and disappointments it had in store for us.

Our first move was to place the following notice in the “Positions & Situations” column back in the November/December 1972 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS:

I’ll help sincere, strong chicks who want to leave the rat race to find work and accommodation on Ontario farms, to start spring of ’73 or earlier. No charge, no strings. Must be willing to adapt to primitive lifestyle, to learn and to remain for the entire season. My object: to bring alternatives-oriented people to Canada, hoping they’ll stay. Write a letter about yourself to me.

Jim Bannister
Bolton, Ontario

You may be wondering why we directed our ad to persons of the female persuasion (that word “chicks” got us a couple of pretty snarly letters from the liberationists). Our reasoning right or wrong was that women were [1] more needed, [2] less likely to get up and go without a little encouragement and [3] more apt to need our help if they did want to immigrate. We got replies from men and couples too, however, and did what we could for all who wrote.

The first and toughest hang-up was created by our own federal government. Politics rears its ugly head even in Canada, and around the time our P&S notice appeared the incumbent party had just about lost a national election. In case you can’t imagine what connection that fact had to do with our project, the picture was something like this: Before the election, if you wanted to live in Canada, you did. You came, settled . . . and then at some point applied for what is called “landed immigrant status”. And lots of Americans were doing just that.

Trouble is, the influx from the States took place at a time of increasing unemployment (a condition which generally leads to political disaster, and did in this case). The politicians’ answer was simple: Blame the work shortage on the immigrants . . . they’re not established here and can’t complain.

The federal government therefore decided, about three days after the election, that you couldn’t just walk into this country, that you had to apply for landed immigrant status from outside Canada and that you couldn’t cross the border for more than a three-month visit without such status (or at least a work permit, which also had to be obtained before entry).

In one fell swoop the authorities had effectively slammed the door on would-be immigrants . . . and would have killed our plans, too, if we’d heeded their stern dicta. As it was, we decided to take the usual Canadian approach to dealing with government: Simply keep a low profile and ignore the whole thing. We warned those who seemed interested in immigration about the change in the laws, and counseled them on how, one way or another, they could still enter this country. As it turned out, many of our contacts just came for visits.

The next problem was how to screen those who replied to our ad. We thought this step was necessary because we didn’t want to stick any really straight farm folk with absolutely incompatible apprentices . . . and we also wanted to spare potential settlers the effort of coming here only to find the life too hard and the work too rough. To be frank, we suspected many of our correspondents probably wouldn’t give enough consideration to the fact that they’d be placed on real, live, up-to-your-butt-in-manure farms where the work is hard and dirty (although, as we see it, rewarding in its own way).

Our answer to the selection problem was to devise a questionnaire . . . which sounds like a terribly institutional proceeding but was really an effective way to weed out those who were just looking for an escape or a good time. We asked our applicants what experience they’d had with farm work, whether there was any job they wouldn’t want to do, what sort of accommodations they expected, whether they’d ever had to manage without “all the facilities” . . . and so forth. The questions were straightforward (enough so, apparently, to scare off some of our contacts) and brought equally candid replies that gave us a pretty good idea of where each respondent was at. Next we made up a corresponding questionnaire for Ontario farm folk, and placed an ad in a widely read rural newspaper asking those who had room for an immigrant to get in touch with us. We were pleased with the response . . . surprised, too, for Ontario’s country people, like New Englanders, have often been pictured as rather cold and aloof. We thought otherwise, and were in general far from disappointed with the positions that were offered.

Our work then became a matter of trying to match the offers with the people who wanted to come. We let the parties deal directly with one another as much as possible and work out their own arrangements about room and board, work expected and so on. Only one or two of our correspondents wrote to say they’d changed their minds about immigration after replying to the questionnaire. What really ticked us off, though, were those very few who decided not to follow through and then didn’t tell us. It was an awful feeling to get a letter from a farm owner asking, “How come I didn’t hear from so-and-so?” We hardly knew what to say. I suppose it was just human nature at work, but somehow we wouldn’t have expected the sort of person who reads MOTHER EARTH NEWS to pull a trick like that. After all, no one -least of all us- was in this for the money . . . so a little note of explanation, or any courtesy at all, would have gone along way to repay us for our efforts. (Conversely, however, some people who couldn’t participate in the project wrote anyhow to wish us well and enclosed a dollar or two to defray expenses.) Costs, incidentally, were greater than we’d estimated. Postage mounts up when you write a couple of times to, say,100 people, and we figure we spent about $16.00 that way. The small newspaper ad came to a total of about $6.00. (That paper -the Woodbridge Advertiser of Palgrave, Ontario- is really terrific: charges only $1.00 per insertion for whatever you want to say, and covers a good deal of the province’s rural area. No, we don’t owe the Advertiser a plug, we just feel sure MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers would like it. A year’s subscription is $4.00 in Canada. We’re not sure about rates to the rest of the world, but a quarter should bring you a sample copy.)

We also ran into staggering phone bills. These could have been avoided, I suppose, but every now and then the immediacy of a call seemed necessary (or at least preferable to trusting our mail service, which is only a cut above that in the U.S.). Fortunately, one of our little group is a lawyer who has horrendous phone bills anyway and didn’t mind adding a few more dollars to the enrichment of Ma Bell.

Our responses came from just about everywhere in the U.S.A.: Washington State to Florida, California to Texas to New England. People actually arrived here from just about every region in the United States except the Deep South. A great many have stayed, and we’ve yet to meet one we don’t like. Indeed, some pretty close friendships have grown out of our project and we’re still in touch by mail with one or two who didn’t want to immigrate but were -we guess- lonely for someone to write to. This was the great joy and beauty of the program.

Another high point came in the middle of the summer, when the government had a change of heart and decided to grant an amnesty for “illegal immigrants.” During this period such people could come forward without fear of prosecution or deportation and “regularize” their status. Of the some 50,000 who took advantage of the offer, a few had arrived in response to our notice . . . so we now have some bona fide landed immigrants in Ontario who came and stayed with our help. Better still, one or two of our correspondents took the formal “get your papers before leaving the States” route and managed to get here anyhow. The last one arrived around the beginning of December and is now happily ensconced on a pretty good farm where she’s learning to tan hides and repair harness. We share her excitement in all this (and in the thrill she finds in our winter, too, since she came all the way from California).

On balance, we have a good feeling about the whole project . . . but the discouragements can’t be overlooked. We were most disappointed in those people -we came to call them “plastic pioneers”- who gave up too soon and went back to the Big Smoke in the U.S.A. Notwithstanding our screening and our personal letters about the solitude, hard work and grubbiness (if you want to put it that way) of farm life, we did encounter visitors who couldn’t cope with being deprived of a flush toilet, or who couldn’t stand getting wet or dirty. Needless to say, they didn’t last long . . . and I guess their hosts were, like us, only half sorry to see them go. The lesson is obvious: Living on the land isn’t for everybody. It’s all very well to read MOTHER EARTH NEWS and dream . . . but before you actually make a start you should think very carefully about the privations of such a life (and, if possible, find a way to take a practice run at it).

I’m sorry to say that one nice young couple we helped was deported. Since they were a little short on hard cash, they made the mistake of crossing back to New York State to sell their car . . . and were stopped by the border authorities on their return. Our lawyer friend had warned them of that possibility and told them what to do if caught, but they were young and apparently forgot the magic words. The pair are now making a fresh start by applying to the Canadian consulate near their U.S. residence. What’s really ironic is that if they’d just stayed “out in the sticks” they would probably have been here to take advantage of the amnesty (which, incidentally, ended a couple of months ago).

As back numbers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS continue to circulate in the States, we’re still getting occasional replies to our P&S and are doing what we can for those who write us. We don’t think we’ll try an organized program again, given our present immigration laws (which are back at the “do it from there” stage). If, however, you’d like to know the procedure for entry into Canada -or wonder what our province of Ontario is like- write to the scribe of our group: Jim Bannister, Bolton, Ontario, Canada.