Church leaders weigh in on bunkhouse debate

Bishops in London, Hamilton support Nesathurai

Most Rev. Ronald Fabbro, Bishop of London, (pictured), and Most Rev. Douglas Crosby, Bishop of Hamilton, have weighed into the debate in Norfolk and Haldimand counties about a controversial public health order restricting bunkhouse occupancy to three for migrant workers conducting their mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Canada. – File photo

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Some members of the local faith community find themselves on the other side of the fence from farmers when it comes to the management of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bishops of London and Hamilton have weighed into the discussion on bunkhouse quarantines in favour of Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health.

Nesathurai has been under fire since he went above and beyond federal and provincial regulations in March and imposed a three-man-per-bunkhouse cap during offshore workers’ mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Farmers with large acreages have complained this is delaying the arrival of employees at a critical time of the growing season. Despite the vocal opposition, Nesathurai has Catholic dioceses in south-central Ontario in his corner.

“We are aware that Dr. Nesathurai has worked tirelessly and at great personal cost to uphold the prudent 14 days of self-isolation in a safe and secure environment and has provided medical care when cases of the virus were identified,”  Bishop Ronald Fabbro, of the London diocese, and Bishop Douglas Crosby, of the Hamilton diocese, said in a letter to the Norfolk and Haldimand board of health this week.

“Because of his professional oversight and humanitarian concern, migrant farm workers have, to date, received the high level of care expected in our country.”

Blessed Sacrament Church in Burford has weighed in because several of the 181 offshore workers diagnosed with COVID-19 at Scotlynn Group in Vittoria were lodged in Brantford and Brant County for the duration of their quarantine and recuperation.

In a letter to Norfolk and Haldimand’s board of health, Rev. Peter Ciallella, pastor at Blessed Sacrament, relates how churches and the general community in Brantford and Brant County prepared 221 gift bags for the entire Scotlynn workforce.

Ciallella also supports Nesathurai’s policies regarding migrant workers and bunkhouses. He expressed surprise that Ontario’s Health Services Review and Appeal Committee deemed the three-man bunkhouse cap “arbitrary” and “unreasonable” in a ruling June 12 that struck it down. Ciallella suggested farmers look at the bigger picture and not simply focus on economic priorities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has required much sacrifice on the part of all citizens for the protection of the vulnerable among us,” Ciallella says. “My own churches were closed for over three months and such a move was unprecedented and necessary.”

From the standpoint of the agricultural community, the economic interest is no small issue.

Larry Davis, Norfolk, Haldimand and Brant’s representative to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says farm families are at serious risk of losing their property and livelihood because of Nesathurai’s actions. Nesathurai’s three-man cap remains in effect due to an immediate appeal of the review board’s ruling.

“This appeal will mean a delay in worker processing and that Norfolk’s farmers will lose valuable production this year and ultimately lead to many Norfolk farmers having to lose their farm and livelihood,” Davis said in correspondence with the local board of health.

“Further, some Canadians and world consumers will not have food.”