Volume 43, Number 5: September/October 2009

Leamington, Ontario: Bloom or Bust

A worker atop a field-tomato harvester, removing stones, clumps of soil, and other debris. The tomatoes travel on a conveyor belt to a bin towed alongside. Wheatly, Ont., 2006. Images provided from Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s Harvest Pilgrims: Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farmworkers in Canada.

In his 87th year 2006, my grandfather Stefan Torau harvested his last bumper crop of tomatoes from his small, meticulously-kept vegetable garden in the southern Ontario city of Leamington. In producing this rich bounty, he was simultaneously cultivating his place – digging his hands into the soil of a land always partially foreign to him as a German-Croatian post-WW II refugee. As my mother and I sat on stools in his garden, listening as he directed us about which tomatoes to can, which ones to eat, and which to disregard, thousands of Mexican farm labourers were similarly engaged in tomato harvesting down the road at one of Leamington’s many tomato greenhouses. They were part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program and as they laboured, they were engaging in similar, yet distinctly different place-making practices.

Although this is a story of one city, one fruit, it is composed of many stories of (im)migration, settlement, and home-making. This article is collaboration between a mother (Katherine) and daughter (Tonya) as we engage with Leamington, past and present. We know this city as a hometown, from the perspective of a first-generation Canadian, a place of 1960s Sadie Hawkins dances, lounging at the beach on Lake Erie, and adolescent experiences that can’t be divorced from the close German-Croatian community that produced this city as a home. These recollections of Leamington as a first-generation Canadian born to German-Croatian immigrant parents are Katherine’s, in italics. Leamington is also remembered from the standpoint of a grandchild visiting in the 1980s-2007, mostly knowing the city as the warm interior of a grandparental home with doilies and honey cookies, while also becoming aware of the changes that occurred.

Opening the Doors to the Tomato Capital

Leamington, Canada’s “Tomato Capital,” is a small Canadian city that was settled on Ojibway land, on the shores of Lake Erie and near Canada’s most southern tip – Point Pelee. The city was established as an incorporated town in 1890. It has since grown into a city of 31,113 in large part due to many waves of immigrants. In the 1920s, Leamington saw its first waves of Swabish immigrants – members of a German Diaspora that includes parts of the former Yugoslavia from where our ancestors came. Thirty families of German Mennonites exiled from Russia, and immigrants from Italy also found their way to Leamington at this time. World War II brought further waves of German, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants. Mexican Mennonites, European Mennonites who, after having settled in Canada, accepted an agreement with the Mexican government to move to Mexico in the 1920s, returned to Leamington later in the 1950s and have continued to constitute another distinct group in the city.

My parents purchased our first home on Ontario Street in 1954. As a child, I could easily walk to approximately a dozen households of German relatives and friends. These paths became very familiar to me and I walked them frequently, especially the route to my grandparents. My particular German community largely descended from one small Croatian town Kapetanovo; its German residents had been forced to flee en masse in 1944 after continued land expropriations and harassment by Josef Tito’s partisans. This collective past seemed to have forged enduring friendships and loyalties among my family’s acquaintances. It had also, for the most part, produced the strong work ethic, fortitude, care, and appreciation of a second chance that I remember these people exhibiting. My memories of the subculture of the German immigrants tug at my identity; my home, my extended family, and family friends occupied much of my childhood. For my parents, Leamington offered the benefit of many friends from their homeland and opportunities for employment such as work in farming, the fisheries, the H.J. Heinz Company, and construction. It is striking how closely knit the German community was, especially those families from Kapetanovo, Yugoslavia. They remained relatively close geographically, in work, in play, and in forging a semblance of their past lives together.

Cultivating Community

The H.J. Heinz Company, the city’s largest employer, celebrated its one hundred year anniversary in 2009. Leamington is also North America’s greenhouse capital, with 1200 acres of greenhouses, each of which requires two to three farm labourers. A summertime stroll down Erie Street or Talbot Street, two of Leamington’s main thoroughfares, offers a kaleidoscope of immigration practices and the lived everyday activities of forging out spaces of habitation on foreign lands. Driving into the city you pass the Leamington Lebanese Club marked by a stunning monument featuring a stylistic spiral staircase. On Erie Street, in front of the city’s library, there is a large fountain celebrating the city’s Italian community. Tony’s Tacos on Erie Street constantly bustles with a crowd of Mexican migrant labourers, while down the street customers delight in a range of breads in pastries at the Germany bakery. The Mennonite-operated Ten Thousand Villages store occupies a prime location at the city’s main intersection.

Places of employment were often sites of maintaining and developing friendships. My mother met a best friend of German origin while they worked in the local Wheatly fishery, and later at the Heinz factory, she exchanged recipes and needlework patterns with several other German women. My father found employment in construction with a former Kapetanovo resident; he worked in greenhouses that were operated by owners of Italian origin; and he eventually worked until retirement in the Heinz Company where many German acquaintances were employed. A German social club was formed where entire families congregated on weekends for dancing or possibly for viewing a German movie in a rented hall. This preceded the construction of the Rhine-Danube German Canadian Club on Erie Street, not far from the once bustling arena and fairgrounds. Germans from Kapetanovo and other origins collaborated to plan, finance, build, and administer this hub of German cultural activity where my own wedding reception took place.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when our ancestors came to the agriculture-rich Leamington region, many worked as farm labourers. From these employs, with the material and emotional support of extended and already established families, some pursued unionized labour at Heinz, employment that offered secure pension plans, benefits and company picnics. Others went into business. Pat Amicone, an Italian immigrant from this era, went on to establish a highly successful vegetable growing operation – Amco, which would in turn become a large employer of Mexican labourers.

Labourers, Not Citizens

The 4000 Mexican farm labourers that come to Leamington to harvest up to half a billion tomatoes a year are not afforded the same means for making Canada their place. Since 1974, an agreement between the Canadian and Mexican governments and private sector has established the conditions under which Mexican workers come to and work and live in Leamington. Min Sook Lee’s 2003 National Film Board film, El Contrato or The Contract, illustrated poignantly the exploitation of this new migrant Leamington population. She narrates in the film, “They are wanted as labourers, not as citizens. The program only accepts men who are married, with less than a grade school education and with strong ties and families back home, men who will go back after months of painful separation.”

In 2002, a workers’ centre opened in Leamington, offering counsel and advocacy for the farm labourers. In 2003, the time of the filming of El Contrato, the migrant farm workers worked seven days a week, ten hours a day for a flat rate of $7.25 per hour, no overtime, no holidays.

The mark of the Mexican farm labourers on Leamington is necessarily transient. Despite working and living in Leamington up to eight months of the year, some workers returning ten seasons in a row, their presence is often treated with suspicion. Prohibited by the contract to stay (or utilize the Canadian services that they pay into), the migrant workers don’t establish churches like previous waves of Leamington immigrants have. They do, however, enthusiastically visit the churches that exist. On Sundays, during the working season, one of Leamington’s Catholic churches that offer Spanish services has a full lot of bicycles. Their presence is also felt on Friday afternoons at the butcher shop which serves up to 300 or 400 customers; in the film, the butcher acknowledges that the Mexican migrant workers have been great for his business.

Cancelling the Contract of Transience

Given its small size, Leamington is full of diversity; immigrant populations have come from different parts of the world, at different times, and under tellingly different circumstances. At the closing of The Contract, one worker is asked if he is going to return for another season, to which he replies that he will let his daughter decide. Back in Mexico, he asks his daughter, “Should I go back?” When she answers “No!” with a big hug, you can see his relief and smile. Fifty years earlier, our relatives came and this decision did not have to be made. For those who had been refugees, there was no other home to which they could return. For the Germans, Portuguese, Lebanese, and Italian immigrant settlers of other generations, similarly hard-working farm labourers, Leamington became a place where churches and cultural centers could be built. They could cultivate the place into a home that was more tangible and less transient than a collection of bicycles outside a church.

The authors would like to thank Maria-Carolina Cambre and Bonar Buffam for their help with this article

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