Ontario officials tell Windsor’s top doctor that now-rescinded pause on migrant workers was ‘discriminatory’

Top Ontario officials say Windsor-Essex’s acting medical officer of health went beyond his mandate and acted in a “discriminatory” manner when he ordered a halt to the arrival of temporary foreign workers as the region was dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.

Separate letters from Minister of Citizenship and Multiculturalism Parm Gill and the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, were sent to Dr. Shanker Nesathurai after his instructions Jan. 12 to businesses were walked back just a few days later.

Copies of their letters were obtained by CBC News.

Nesathurai’s letter of instruction told employers to cancel, suspend or postpone the arrival of temporary foreign workers to the region between Jan. 13 and Feb. 1. 

When the directive was first issued by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU), officials sounded the alarm over a lack of space and resources to safely house migrant workers who needed to isolate because of COVID-19.  At the time, a federally funded Isolation and Recovery Centre was at full capacity after it had been empty a week earlier. 

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, acting medical officer of health for the Windsor-Essex region, initially told employers to cancel, suspend or postpone the arrival of temporary foreign workers to the region between Jan. 13 and Feb. 1. The directive was later walked back. (McMaster University)

WECHU rescinded the letter of instruction two days later, after resolving that issue with the help of “all levels of government.”

In his letter to Nesathurai that was sent on Jan. 21, Gill said, “While we have had to take unprecedented steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 over the past two years, your direction to halt entry of temporary foreign workers was discriminatory and directly targeted a vulnerable population that has already been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. 

“These targeted restrictions would have placed undue blame and substantial financial burden on the temporary foreign workers who come to work in Ontario to help put food on our tables.”

The minister thanked Nesathurai for lifting his instruction, but urged him to offer the same protections to migrant workers that would be afforded to any essential worker in the province. 

Moore, in his letter to Windsor’s top doctor, questioned the legality of Nesathurai’s letter of instruction under Ontario legislation. Moore said the Reopening Ontario Act is aimed at supporting organizations and businesses in efforts to adhere to public health guidance. 

“We were concerned when we received your letter because, on our read of the letter, it went beyond instructing on public health measures for the safe operation of businesses and organizations, and instead sought to prohibit one or more aspects of their operation in a manner not consistent with O. Reg. 263/20: Rules for Areas at Step 2 under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to CoVvid-19) Act, 2020,” Moore wrote. 

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s medical officer of health, questioned the legality of the initial letter of instruction issued to businesses by Nesathurai. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The province made it clear it would not support a move such as this in the future. 

CBC News requested an interview with Nesathurai on Tuesday, but wasn’t granted one at the time of this publication. WECHU said it would make officials available during a regularly scheduled media briefing Thursday morning.

Controversial move saw some support

While some advocacy groups for migrant workers were skeptical of the move to pause their arrival, at least one local official saw reasoning behind Nesathurai’s letter. 

Hilda MacDonald, the mayor of Leamington, Ont. — a major farming community in the region — said the health unit had been “pushed to the wall and saw [the order] as their only alternative.”

“Sometimes we have to engage in drastic measures to get results,” MacDonald said, after the letter was rescinded. 

Leamington Mayor Hilda Macdonald says that at this point in the pandemic, and after the reckoning that the industry has had when it comes to taking care of migrant workers, something needs to change. (CBC News)

The mayor expressed disbelief when the letter was first introduced, saying she couldn’t believe “three years in” there was still little support for the workers or farm owners themselves who have been hard hit by the pandemic.

She said the municipality itself has been unable to find a path forward in advocating for farmers and workers without jurisdiction on the matter.

The federal government oversees the temporary foreign workers’ program, which facilitates the entry of seasonal workers and provides guidelines for housing accommodations. 

Thousands of workers have already begun arriving in the Windsor-Essex region for seasonal work, with thousands more anticipated in the next few weeks. 

WECHU estimates 8,000 to 10,000 are expected during peak growing season. 

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