Windsor's Isolation and Recovery Centre for migrant workers gets $17.8M from Ottawa to stay open

·5 min read
Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Windsor-Tecumseh MP Irek Kusmierczyk on Tuesday announced new federal funding for the city's Isolation and Recovery Centre. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Windsor-Tecumseh MP Irek Kusmierczyk on Tuesday announced new federal funding for the city's Isolation and Recovery Centre. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Windsor's Isolation and Recovery Centre for agri-farm workers will continue to operate for the next year after Ottawa announced the site would receive $17.8 million in federal funding.

In a virtual news conference with other local leaders, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Windsor-Tecumseh MP Irek Kusmierczyk made the announcement for the 125-room site, which had been at risk of closing.

But one migrant worker advocacy group considers the move reactive, saying the government needs to be proactive.

The funding news comes as more migrant workers continue to arrive in Windsor-Essex as the province is in a third wave of COVID-19.

"Having this isolation and recovery centre for 12 months really provides a sense of relief and tremendous support for our local stakeholders, especially on the health-care side," Kusmierczyk told CBC News.

"Most importantly, it protects the health and safety of our community, and protects the health and safety of our temporary foreign workers, which is really critical."

All agricultural workers should be prioritized to ensure and prevent the spread of the pandemic ... but it also has to be done with self-autonomy. We can't basically be encroaching on their rights; they have to be involved in this process.

- Chris Ramsaroop, Justice for Migrant Workers organizer

The Public Health Agency of Canada is providing the funding under the Safe Voluntary Isolation Sites Program, which the city applied to in December. The centre was previously funded by Public Safety Canada.

Funding will be available starting April 1 and the Canadian Red Cross will continue to offer staffing support.

Following Tuesday's announcement, Chris Ramsaroop, organizer for advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers, said they continue to be left out of the decision-making process.

Chris Ramsaroop, organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers, says keeping the isolation and recovery site is not the key to preventing spread of COVID-19, and migrant workers need to be actively involved in decision-making.
Chris Ramsaroop, organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers, says keeping the isolation and recovery site is not the key to preventing spread of COVID-19, and migrant workers need to be actively involved in decision-making. (Jon Castell/CBC)

"Prior to the pandemic, it was incumbent on all levels of government to start to implement proactive measures," said Ramsaroop.

"It's a year into the crisis and we're still reacting. We're not engaging in infrastructural conversations, addressing the root causes with the systemic barriers workers are facing. It's not about throwing money at politicians; it's ensuring there's resources."

Ramsaroop said the government needs to seriously start looking at housing reforms, so that workers have appropriate living standards from the start.

Timeline for vaccines for migrant workers unknown

Ramsaroop reiterated that vaccines need to be prioritized for the group and administered in a way that allows workers to voluntarily make that decision, without fearing consequences if they don't get vaccinated.

"All agricultural workers should be prioritized to ensure and prevent the spread of the pandemic ... but it also has to be done with self-autonomy," said Ramsaroop. "We can't basically be encroaching on their rights; they have to be involved in this process and we have to address the hesitancy that workers are facing head on."

But the timeline for when workers will be offered the vaccine in Windsor-Essex remains unknown.

During the news conference Tuesday, Hajdu said the federal government has advised people living in congregate settings to get vaccinated in Phase 2, but that ultimately the rollout is up to the province and local health officials.

Gary McNamara, board chair for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, was also on the call, and said workers are in line to get the vaccine.

"There is now movement toward the congregate living, particularly toward our temporary foreign workers," said McNamara. "It is coming and it is part of that Phase 2 ... they are in that particular queue because it's critically important for us."

In an email to CBC News Tuesday, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) said phase 2 is expected to start in April and will include agri-farm workers depending on vaccine supply.

It said it is having conversations with the federal government to look at the best way to offer vaccines and the language and cultural supports needed for the rollout.

OMAFRA said at this time it's "exploring all options," which include airport vaccinations.

Additionally, it said it's hosting a number of webinars on the healthy and safety protocols farms and other agri-food operators need to follow.

Governments previously squabbled over IRC funding

In February, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens put pressure on Ottawa to pick up the full tab for the IRC, saying the city couldn't shoulder the cost on its own.

At the time, the different levels of government argued over who should foot the bill, with the Ottawa noting the province needed to come to the table and offer support.

Now, Hajdu said, the federal government has recognized "there was a need" and it could fill the gap to prevent the spread.

It's unclear where the IRC is located in Windsor, but when it first came to the city, it was being run out of a Holiday Inn. The hotel has since said the centre is no longer operating there.

"The federal government has been there for this community and will continue to be there for as long as it takes, and that's the message that we've received from our partners in Ottawa," said Kusmierczyk.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens put pressure on the federal government in February to continue to fully fund the isolation centre.
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens put pressure on the federal government in February to continue to fully fund the isolation centre. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Despite a vaccine rollout, said Dilkens , the city is working to ensure everyone in Windsor-Essex has a place for temporary shelter.

"We're still very much focused on ensuring we maintain the conditions necessary to safely isolate the temporary foreign workers that are in Canada, providing an important economic service to our national food supply."

Dilkens recalled how Windsor-Essex was held back from reopening with other parts of the province last summer due to a high COVID-19 case rate among agri-farm workers.

Though Dilkens said he doesn't "have all the details" on whether the site will also be used for others in the region who don't have a place to isolate, he said it would be "difficult" for the city to commit the space to any one else.