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Reviewed by:
  • Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism ed. by Shirley A. McDonald and Bob Barnetson
  • Rachel Herron
Shirley A. McDonald and Bob Barnetson, eds., Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2016)

Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism examines the ways in which social, political, and economic conditions have shaped the organization and conditions of farm work in western Canada from the late-19th century to the present day. The contributors to the book make use of government documents, testimonials, life writing, interview data, and national and international law to interrogate the rights and disadvantages of agricultural workers across different sectors. One of the greatest strengths of this book is its emphasis on unsettling a series of longstanding myths about agriculture in western Canada.

Drawing on political economy, Bob Barnetson examines how the rhetoric of the so-called "family farm" has been strategically employed to exclude farm workers in Alberta from rights and protections available to almost every other working citizen in the province. Many large and intensive agricultural operations remain family-owned; however, the social relations of production have changed as a growing number of farm operations expand, intensify, and externalize production costs onto farm workers. Barnetson argues, quite persuasively, that the family farm is a misleading and politically charged label that is not [End Page 324] particularly useful for public policy debate. In the subsequent chapter, Darlene A. Dunlop and Shirley A. McDonald illuminate the lived experience of farm workers, the dangers they face, and barriers to reforming labour relations and rights. This testimonial puts to rest any disbelief about the inequitable conditions of labour many farm workers endure; it falsifies the myth that governments do not know about such conditions; and it exposes continuous barriers to farm worker activism. With this contemporary political portrait in view, McDonald takes a more historical approach by examining the ideologies and hierarchies of white settlers in the late-19th and 20th centuries. She demonstrates the ways in which settler narratives promote the hard work, rights, and privileges of the white aristocracy while obscuring the dispossession and work of nameless "Indians" and "Chinks." (73) McDonald's analysis illustrates the longstanding class and racial hierarchies underlying relationships between farm owners and farm workers in western Canada. It offers a powerful counter history to the dominant story of the settling of the west that ought to be required reading for all Canadians.

In the second half of the book, the contributors continue to explore the role of government policies and racialization in other agricultural sectors and provinces. Michael J. Broadway and Jill Bucklaschuk interrogate the shift toward migrant and immigrant workers in the meat processing industry in Brooks, Alberta and southwestern Manitoba. Broadway focuses on the implications for the community while Bucklaschuk examines the physical, mental, and emotional challenges that emerge from the particular conditions imposed on temporary foreign workers. Her work contributes to the growing body of research on the injuries, pain, and silences that temporary foreign workers endure to secure permanent residency in Canada. Moreover, she argues that the two-step structure used by the Manitoba government to first recruit foreign workers, and then allow them to apply for full residency, exacerbates inequalities between workers and employers. In doing so, she illustrates the importance of ensuring the right to collective action and advocacy particularly for foreign workers.

In Chapter 6, Zane Hamm turns the reader's gaze toward the experiences of farm owner-operators. This is the only chapter to focus on "small farms" and the impact of competition from agribusiness. More specifically, Hamm explores the increasing dependence some farms have on the oil and gas industry for off-farm employment as well as its implications for family dynamics and decision-making. Hamm also identifies gender differences in employment related geographic mobility. Such family and gendered dynamics require further investigation and theorization, particularly in regions that are not as strongly influenced by the oil and gas industry. Moreover, more attention needs to be paid to the role of place and scale in the organization and mobility of farm labour in Alberta and western Canada more broadly.

Jennifer Koshan and...


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pp. 324-326
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