New Vancouver-Made Series Challenges Whether Buying Local Equals Buying Ethical—in Song

“We praise ourselves on shopping ethically—but do we? How do we know?” asks Pedro Chamale, co-artistic director of Rice and Beans Theatre. “Food can be local and organic, but the people power that got it to your table might not be ethical.”

Oftentimes all we see of our local agriculture is what’s on our plates, but our food systems are complex and troubled—as are the folks who get our produce from seeds to supermarkets. In fact, much of Canada’s farm labour is dependent on the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) Program.  Pre-pandemic, Chamale decided to investigate this, looking for real migrant workers to lend their voices on a program that’s shrouded in mystery.

“I realized that the only time we hear about migrant workers is when something happens or when someone is protesting against the migrant workers,” says Chamale. He aimed to turn his exploration into a play that featured music and stories from workers, farmers and activists. As he and composer Misshelle Cuttler worked on the project, they started talking about legacy. “Theatre sometimes only happens on a two-week run, and then never gain,” he says, “and then people miss out on a subject that is really interesting.” Chamale and Cuttler vowed to at least get a cast recording of the show. It could live on digitally after the run was through.

But when the live production was put on hold due to COVID, the pair started looking at recording in a new light—the only light. “I pitched my co-artistic director Derek Chan a podcast and an album as companion pieces to a play that could happen one day,” says Chamale. “This is what we can do now.”

That idea grew into Made in Canada: An Agricultural Operetta and Made in Canada: An Agricultural Podcast, two digital works that tell stories directly from migrant workers. At first, finding workers who were down to participate was difficult. “A lot of the folks either have precarious status, or they are currently in action against their former employers, or they just don’t want to get blacklisted,” explains Chamale. (“They say there isn’t a blacklist, but there is,” he adds.) But once he was cleared by a few activists, workers were more comfortable talking to him—and through the grapevine, the project grew. 

Farmers were even more difficult to get in contact with, and the government? Impossible. For now. “The farmers are busy, they’re running businesses, and I’m sure they don’t want to be painted in a bad light,” says Chamale. “And I’m not trying to do that—these are systemic problems.” The government officials he has reached out to have offered no response. “It’s difficult to talk to people because it is political and it’s personal and there’s people’s jobs and national economies involved,” he explains.

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has been in place for 50 years, and Chamale says that the most shocking thing about it is how few people know it exists. “It’s been systemically advantageous for the Canadian government to order a workforce with lower labour costs,” he says, “and the program is built to allow folks to arrive and work here, but it never gives them status to work here [in any other capacity].” In other words, an individual can come to Canada and work for 8 months out of the year for a decade, and if they want to stay, they start at zero. “It’s as if they have never been to this country before,” says Chamale. He also notes that when workers first arrive, they don’t have healthcare coverage, so if anything happens to them in their first 3-6 months of (very physical) work they have to pay out of pocket.

But you don’t have to take it from him—give the operetta and podcast a listen and hear from workers, activists, and farmers themselves. Both give an inside look into our agricultural system without being condescending. “I never want to condemn the consumer for not knowing where the food comes from, because ultimately, what you eat depends on what you can afford,” says Chamale. “Sometimes you have to live in hypocrisy and choose the less ethical source because of what you can access.”

The Made in Canada series provides education and tools for making a difference. There are avenues for taking action on their website, and the vinyl version of the operetta (available to order now) includes a pre-written letter you can sign and send to your MLA, asking for status approval upon arrival for migrant workers.

You can listen to the podcast and operetta here—and keep an eye out for the live show, coming at you when we’re allowed in the theatre again.