Health board boxed in on bunkhouse cap

Health board boxed in on bunkhouse cap

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health, told the Norfolk and Haldimand board of health Friday that his three-man-per-bunkhouse cap on migrant workers during their mandatory, 14-day quarantine period is critical to preventing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus through the local agricultural workforce and the wider community in general. – Monte Sonnenberg

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The Norfolk and Haldimand board of health spent nearly five hours Friday hearing about the numerous ways it is boxed in on a public health order restricting the number of migrant workers per bunkhouse to three during their mandatory, 14-day quarantine period.

On one side is Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, the counties’ medical officer of health, who is convinced the three-man cap is necessary to prevent dozens of bunkhouse outbreaks of COVID-19, as witnessed in Windsor-Essex County.

Nesathurai refuses to budge on the order. June 12, Ontario’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board struck down the three-man cap as “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.” Several hours after the decision, Nesathurai and his team at the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit launched an appeal without consulting the local board of health.

On the other side are dozens of anxious, upset farmers who say Nesathurai’s order prevents them from situating workers in a timely fashion, creating labour shortages across the two counties at a critical time of the growing season. Local growers add the order – the only one of its kind in Ontario – puts them at a disadvantage to other farmers in the rest of the province.

Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin, a member of the local board of health, attempted to distance the board from Nesathurai’s appeal when she tabled a motion Friday denying support.

“We lost,” Martin told her Norfolk council colleagues, who serve as the board of health for both counties. “I’m slightly comfortable with defeat right now. I’m not comfortable with our farming community in unrest and angst. I don’t see what we’re doing here today is supporting the agricultural industry.”

At this point, Norfolk solicitor Paula Boutis intervened and took the board in-camera. Following a lengthy discussion, board members who supported Martin’s motion going in felt differently when the meeting reconvened in open session.

Board members did not go into detail, but Waterford Coun. Kim Huffman, Simcoe Coun. Ian Rabbitts and Turkey Point Coun. Chris Van Paassen suggested that opposing Nesathurai’s appeal – which will be heard at the end of July – would put both Norfolk and Haldimand in a precarious legal position with potentially serious financial consequences.

“We’re stuck between the rock and the hard place, the cliff and the river, and I don’t know how many more places they can jam us,” Van Paassen said. “I will support the mayor’s motion.”

That motion calls on Ottawa and Queen’s Park to assume responsibility for the 14-day quarantine of migrant workers before they are allocated to their respective farms. Mayor Kristal Chopp’s motion references British Columbia where the provincial government, with good results, has vetted and quarantined all employees arriving as part of this year’s offshore worker program.

Chopp says the time is right for such a motion, given that the Trudeau government acknowledged this week shortcomings with its management of the migrant worker program, which many say is critical to the security of Canada’s food supply.

“The difference this time is the federal government has acknowledged it has failed,” Chopp said. “It’s becoming a very public issue. Maybe there’s more of an appetite at the federal level because they’ve acknowledged they’ve failed.”

A total of 204 of the 2,000 farmers in Haldimand and Norfolk employ migrant workers, housing them in 600 bunkhouses. In a normal year, Norfolk and Haldimand welcome 4,500 offshore workers.

Nesathurai says 2,407 so far have arrived.

MSonnenberg@postmedia.com

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