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Many migrants come to Osoyoos for adventure or to earn money for travel
Hundreds of migrant orchard workers made their way down Hwy. 97 each evening last week for a free dinner served by volunteers at the Osoyoos Baptist Church.
Some hitchhiked. Others drove. A few bicycled or walked.
Many had long hair, some in dreadlocks. Some were shirtless. Others wore ragged clothing or multicoloured shirts or dresses. A few were neatly and conservatively dressed.
Most are working in the orchards and vineyards that surround Osoyoos and Oliver, but a few are simply tourists passing through. Even a few locals dropped by to socialize or play music.
Their numbers varied each night last week, reaching as many as 650 on Wednesday evening.
“I think most of the kids are here for an adventure,” said Pastor Phil Johnson, who greeted many of the visitors with a high five when they lined up for a hamburger dinner Thursday evening. “It’s something different, kind of a mini game of survival. The thing they have in common is they’re here for an adventure.”
Johnson estimates that about 90 per cent of the migrant worker guests at the church come from Quebec, but there are some from other places.
There was a couple from Victoria and also a group of several Mexican tourists.
Several young people from Japan also participated, but they weren’t there on Thursday.
Many of the Quebecois youths have never been west before, though some are making return trips.
Colin Dinard, from Montreal, said he’d heard about the Okanagan from friends who have picked fruit in previous years and he decided to see it for himself. Until now, he’d never been west of Ottawa.
“I didn’t believe that there was actually a desert in Canada, but here we are and it’s a desert,” he said.
Dinard had just started work that day at Mission Hill’s vineyards off Road 9 south of Oliver where he spent the day tucking grape plants into the wires that hold them up.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “You don’t have to think much, so it’s OK. You need a lot of sunscreen lotion.”
Dinard said he’s just making a little extra money as he crosses the country as a busker with several other musicians. They plan to go right to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“We play music everywhere,” he said. “We come into a town and pick up our instruments.”
Dinard said he’s only on a break from school where he is studying music and specializing in jazz saxophone. His goal is to become a musician.
Nearby a group of young Mexicans is conversing in Spanish. They are tourists visiting from Mexico City who are in this region as migrant workers for the second year in a row.
One, Jesús Riveira, said he arrived the day before and is only here as a tourist, not as a picker.
His friend, Juan Carlos Vargas, however, acknowledges that he has been working in a cherry orchard, although he is in Canada as a tourist.
Vargas has worked on average four to seven hours a day for the past week and a half.
His only previous orchard work was on a visit last year.
“If there’s a lot of sun it’s very difficult,” he said in Spanish. “If it’s in the shade and the weather is mild, it’s easier.”
They plan to visit other locations in Canada including Vancouver and possibly Quebec.
Niamh, from Victoria, is also picking cherries near Osoyoos for her first time. She was planning to save some money for her schooling, where she is studying environmental science.
In a stroke of bad luck, she will be working to pay off a $500 fine she received when she got lost and found herself at the U.S. border.
Niamh, who didn’t want her last name used, said she intended to drive back to the Osoyoos Baptist Church to pick up some laundry, but she mistakenly drove south on Hwy. 97 and found herself in the line to cross the border to the U.S. Border officials wouldn’t let her turn around and she had no passport.
Before letting her turn back to Canada, the officials made her complete what seemed like a mountain of paperwork and they detained her for what seemed like hours. Then they found a small amount of marijuana.
Niamh said she was told she was getting off easy with the $500 fine, as it could have been as high as $5,000.
Still, she finds it ironic that marijuana is now sold legally across the border in Washington State.
“I didn’t even want to go into their country,” she said. “I just wanted to turn around.”
The same thing happened to another picker the previous day, a border official told her.
Louanne Girouard, from St-Amable, Quebec is in B.C. for the first time and has already been in the Okanagan for about two months. She just started picking cherries near Osoyoos the day before.
“I got better from yesterday, so tomorrow I’m hoping to do even better,” she said. “But it is a different kind of work than I’m used to.”
She’s worked previously in restaurants, call centres and for a cement company.
“I’m used to physical work, but I’m not used to the really hot weather and working outside,” she said, referring to the temperatures that reached 37 degrees last Wednesday. “I thought I was going to die.”
Girouard said she was planning to return to school in Quebec, but has decided instead to keep travelling.
“I’m planning on going all the way south to Argentina maybe,” she said. “I’ll do travelling and working for a couple years and then go back to school eventually.”
Before working with cherries, she worked in apple orchards and vineyards near Osoyoos, Okanagan Falls and Cawston.
“I’m kind of surprised to see that there’s this many Quebecers,” she said. “There are so many of us here, but it’s cool because at least you get the feeling of being at home.”
Among the local people at the church Thursday evening was singer-songwriter Kansas-Lee Hatherly, who had a banjo and visited to socialize and enjoy jamming with other musicians.
With her was her friend Gabriel Tremblay, who was also wearing a ponytail and also playing banjo.
Tremblay, from Fermont in northern Quebec near the Labrador border, speaks fluent English, but said he’s been refused work at a few local farms that won’t hire Quebecers.
Some Quebec migrants have behaved badly, he admits, but he said this shouldn’t reflect on the whole community.
“About 45 per cent of the economy of the valley is made by the pickers mostly and tourism,” he said. “It’s funny that some of the locals are really angry, but it’s been part of the culture for the last 40 years. Forty years is a long time not to get along, to do a little spat with the pickers. It’s a bit silly.”
Some farmers cheat the Quebec migrant workers on what they are paid, he added, saying he got fed up and is now making money by busking.
Pastor Phil, as Johnson is called, agrees a minority of migrants has behaved badly and this has reflected on them as a group in the minds of some local people. Tourists on holiday also sometimes engage in behaviours they wouldn’t do at home, he adds.
“Perhaps they do a little more weed than they might do at home,” said Johnson. “You’ve got the visible few that are creating problems. Here tonight we’ve got probably 600 to 700 kids and we’ve probably got a dozen that are pretty drunk.”
Most, he said, are good people.
“We just want to encourage them, support them and let them know that not all Western Canadians hate them,” he said. “Sometimes we perceive injustices in our federal-provincial system and we kind of impose some of that on the kids, but that’s not where they are. I don’t think I’ve heard any of them talk about separation. None of them. That’s their parents.”