Family Farmers to Foreign Fieldhands: Consolidation of Canadian Agriculture and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

  • Robert Falconer University of Calgary


In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions regarding the participation of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in the Canadian workforce may seem reasonable. With borders closed to most international traffic due to public health concerns, and high levels of unemployment, the Canadian public, policy makers, and even employers may question the need to employ workers from abroad (Statistics Canada 2020; CBSA 2020). In addition to concerns over the health and employment of Canadians, the spread of COVID-19 among migrant workers has raised alarm over the security of both our food supply chain and the safety of workers (Rodriguez 2020; Yasmeen, Alexander, and Paskal 2020). These concerns have prompted policy makers at the federal level to study the issue in greater detail, and calls from advocates for expanded worker rights and protections (Migrant Rights 2020; HUMA 2020).

            In this briefing paper we provide answers to some of the above concerns. We begin by outlining the necessary role of foreign workers in Canadian agriculture. Despite the sometimes-common notion that TFWs displace domestic workers, we present data that provides a more plausible history of the program. We demonstrate that, following the Second World War, Canadian agriculture underwent significant consolidation and a steep drop in the number of smallholder farms and unpaid family members working on them. As average farm sizes increased and the unpaid labour force fell, producers responded with efforts to mechanize their outfits and offer higher wages for paid employees. Despite efforts to attract local workers, the number of domestic labourers in food production has fluctuated between stagnation and marginal decline. The participation of foreign workers in Canadian food production may have little to do with the displacement of domestic workers in comparison to the consolidation of agriculture, the exit of own-account workers and unpaid family members from the sector, and their substitution with capital investment and expansion of the labour pool beyond the border.

            This narrative of industrial transformation rather than displacement should inform the decisions of policy makers. Governments desiring to shutter the TFW program and replace the labour pool it provides with domestic workers may find little uptake among Canadians, replacing foreign workers with a shortage of workers. Producers may not be able to rapidly substitute towards further mechanization of food production, potentially resulting in higher prices at grocery stores, a reduction in exports, and greater reliance on imported food. We instead provide several suggestions that the federal and provincial governments may wish to consider to protect the lives and supply of foreign workers, and thereby secure the Canadian agricultural sector.

Briefing Papers