I arrived to northern Ontario not knowing a single person I would meet. This wouldn’t be the first time in my dissertation study of tree planters that I was to introduce myself to a room full of strangers, telling them that I’m an anthropologist and that I come in peace. And, in fact, this time was pretty easy. The first time was in a cheap hotel in Monterrey, Mexico, surrounded by 150 Mexican guest workers waiting for a H2B visa en route to the United States. That was difficult given the fact my Spanish was still weak and the rumor had already started I was a government agent. The second time was slightly easier, introducing myself at 11 PM in a hay barn to a group of American planters who were enjoying the little leisure time they had. It was still hard – it’s never easy telling someone you are there to observe them – but at least there was no language barrier.
So this June I found myself in Heart, Ontario, on a school bus with 45 Canadian planters, most of whom were college kids on summer break. I quieted down the school bus and explained that I was a PhD student from the US who studies tree planting and that I would spend a week with them to learn more about how and why they do the job. Saying I was a student is key. It puts people at ease more than almost any other line. Most people warmed up to me quickly, and some even approached me, asking if I could interview them on camera. That said, I did encounter one problem, itself a familiar one that happened when spending time with American planters too: people who assumed I was an undercover cop or a narcotics officer. I am loathe to claim a connection with Sadaam Hussein but we can agree on one thing: it is really hard to prove something that doesn’t exist.
The work of research in Canada went well. I left with a better understanding of tree planting and new Canadian friends. In the United States, Latin American workers, both imported guest workers and undocumented immigrants who permanently reside in America, have mostly replaced the native workforce that planted trees in the 70s and 80s. These workers plant out of necessity. It is a difficult job. Each person plants thousands of saplings a day, and these immigrant workers typically sleep in motel rooms a long drive from the worksite. There are some Americans who do this work, mostly white Americans in their 20s and 30s, who enjoy the lifestyle and freedom that migrant work affords them. But in Canada, the native workforce doesn’t plan on making a lifestyle out of it. Most people choose the work cause it’s a way to make money during the summer when they’re not in school, as well as a rite of passage where they work hard, party hard, and leave knowing they can do this difficult labor.
I understand the appeal for the Canadian workers. The crew I was with would come to spend almost 7 weeks in the wilderness, away from cell reception and surrounded by flies and mosquitoes. It reminded me of summer camp, except replace boating and wood shop with arduous agricultural work. This meant it also had the same sense of camaraderie and liminality. I left happy (and grateful!) to have had this research experience, as well as tempted myself to return one year as a worker and not a researcher.
One last note of interest: I was featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s radio and tv stations, as part of a piece done by a French-speaking journalist. You can see me at 33 seconds into this piece: http://ici.radio-canada.ca/widgets/mediaconsole/medianet/7112686