“There is a third world in every first world, and vice versa.” -- Trinh T. Minh Ha, writer and filmmaker
Our country is no exception. Migrant workers inhabit a third world in Canada that is, conveniently, rarely seen by Canadians — but the relationship between the people who inhabit these two worlds is intimate. Migrant workers pick our fruit, wash our floors and wipe our babies’ noses. They subsidize the lifestyles of Canadian households.
The relationship is historical as well as contemporary: it is the same balance of power that helped Canada establish its colonial footprint. Migrant workers come from the global south, are racialized, are poor and many are indigenous. These workers come from regions that have been underdeveloped by global capital and dominated by foreign ownership of resources, factories and land. Canadian mining companies in Central and South America, Canadian manufacturers in Southeast Asia and Canadian banks in the Caribbean control resources and own the means of production to flow profits back to Canada. This political and economic context sets the stage for the movement of non-citizens to work as migrants in Canada.
It also sets the stage for anyone trying to tell stories about these workers — for reporters, for writers, and in my case, for filmmakers. We all face choices: how to frame a fraught, complex situation with vulnerable subjects, caught in a web of bureaucracy, economic interests, legal grey zones and a history of subjugation.
When the mainstream media covers migrant workers — which isn’t very frequently — it is often in the context of xenophobic protectionism. Stories make headlines in the context of migrant workers taking Canadian jobs. Other times, workers are overwhelmingly depicted as victims of bad bosses — but never a bad system. This way of framing the issue feeds into a larger, well-worn story: that these workers are fleeing terrible conditions back home and need the benefit of Canada’s generosity, twisting temporary work programs into a form of international aid or development.
Canada is celebrated as a diverse nation, but migrant worker programs reveal that vaunted multiculturalism to be a myth. More people currently come into Canada on temporary permits than those who immigrate permanently. In 2008, the number of temporary residents entering Canada exceeded the number of permanent residents for the first time; since 2003, temporary foreign workers coming into the country has increased by seven to 15 per cent each year.
That myth, as well as the workers who I met in the course of making Migrant Dreams, is one of the film’s subjects, and helped framed the choices I was faced with in making it.
Migrant labour programs are not new; they are engineering the racial makeup of Canada’s citizenry, as they always have. The versions in practice today are simply extensions of historic labour schemes developed by the Canadian state to designate the “preferred citizen,” according to class and race. It is imperative to remember how deeply entrenched labour and immigration programs were and continue to be in fostering the fantasy of Canada as a white nation. In the 1800s Chinese workers had to pay exorbitant fees, in the form of a head tax, in order to be eligible to do the dangerous work of building the train tracks that would literally knit the nation together.
As a filmmaker, I’m critically aware of how documentaries, like media stories, can reinforce or challenge dominant representations of migrant workers in Canada, and how those stories can inform the public’s ideas about Canadian identity. Migrant Dreams tells part of the story about migrant workers in Canada. It doesn’t tell the whole story; pretending it can would be hubris.
Historically, documentaries have played a formative, nation-building function in Canada. The National Film Board, the main production hub of documentary films in this country, was founded by the federal government on the premise that the nation needed a mirror in order to better see itself.
Documentary filmmaking is not a neutral process. Its history is tied to the history of imperialism and colonial narratives, where encounters with the “other” are framed to reinforce the viewer’s supremacy and point of view. I am interested in reframing how documentaries are made, who they’re made for and who is authorized to tell stories. To paraphrase writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “You can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,” and I believe this is very true for film. What you see on screen is important, but equally important are promises, conversations and dialogue that happen off-screen in the process of making the film.
Telling the story of injustice behind our food system can have material consequences. In 2000, I released a documentary called El Contrato, produced with the National Film Board of Canada, which told the story of migrant Mexican men who work in Canada’s farms under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. The film’s release was barred by a libel threat issued by Leamington farmers, who succeeded in shutting down distribution of El Contrato for a year. This was a classic SLAPP-suit tactic: corporate-driven media censorship at its finest.
Because of such challenges, media-makers must make sure their work serves their subjects honestly, and not the corporate interests that are often threatened by their stories. When you work with people who are deemed by others to be vulnerable, it’s important to be transparent about your process, and to think through the ripple-effects your project might have. You make choices that prioritize safety over dramatic storytelling. When starting out with the making of Migrant Dreams, there were worker organizing meetings I wanted to film — but doing so would have jeopardized the safety of the workers who were attending, the activists they were meeting, and all of their trust in me. Refraining from filming those scenes in the short term allowed me to make a stronger film over time.
Omission and refusal are forms of power the participant and and storytellers can exercise. Participants are not required to splay the whole of their interior lives for public consumption: There are parts of their lives that they can choose to keep private.
Consent is not one-time agreement but an ongoing negotiation. A subject can say yes to your project one day and slip out the next. This happens to me on virtually every long-form project. Filmmaking can take place over years and often at times of extreme duress; you must be granted consent each time you film. I can ask people to sign waivers that acknowledge consent, but these are files for insurance agents; they don’t embody a collaborative relationship that unfolds over time. Making a documentary takes time, and the commitment of your time is one of the most important means by which you earn consent.
That Migrant Dreams exists is a testament to the courage of workers who continuously gave their consent to participate in its making. Migrant workers are constantly told they are disposable and replaceable; speaking out can mean job loss and deportation. They have seen workers injured on the job and sent back home without proper medical treatment, workers berated and penalized for not working fast enough, workers fired for speaking out about unsafe working conditions. Despite this climate of total control, migrant workers resist because they understand justice.
The workers who appear in this film trusted me. They trusted the activists who vetted me, and they trust you. They believe in the power of film to inform, engage and mobilize. If you watch this documentary, you can no longer say “I didn’t know.” And so the next move is yours.
Min Sook Lee is a writer, broadcaster and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her previous documentaries include El Contrato; Hogtown: The Politics of Policing; Tiger Spirit and The Real Inglorious Bastards. Lee is also an assistant professor of art and social change at OCAD University, a recipient of the Cesar E. Chavez Black Eagle Award for El Contrato’s impact on the rights of migrant workers, and in 2016 was awarded the Alanis Obomsawin Award for commitment to community and resistance.
Watch Min Sook Lee's documentary Migrant Dreams:
Learn more about the making of Migrant Dreams, and the state of migrant labour in Canada today.
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