Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

The Transnational Making of Ontario Tobacco Labour, 1925-1990

Document type Thesis
Author Dunsworth, Edward Ira
Degree Ph.D., History
Publisher University of Toronto; Toronto
Date 2019
Pages 373 pages


This dissertation explores the transformations in tobacco farm labour in Ontario from approximately 1925 to 1990, advancing a significant reinterpretation of the histories of agricultural labour and guestworker programs in Canada. Contrary to portrayals of Canadian agriculture as permanently plagued by labour shortage, this case study demonstrates the heterogeneity of the sector, which included not only labour-starved growers but also farmers like those in tobacco whose high profits enabled them to attract a diverse range of harvest workers each year. Indeed, for much of the 20th century, Ontario’s tobacco sector, located primarily in Norfolk County and the surrounding areas, was the premier destination for seasonal farmworkers in Canada. In the sector’s early decades, tobacco workers enjoyed significant freedom of movement, unusual opportunities for social mobility, and a vibrant culture of worker organization and resistance. However, the opportunities in Ontario tobacco were never equally available to all prospective workers, and incorporation into the sector was always marked by patterns of inclusion and exclusion. For those workers who could gain access to the tobacco labour market, the benefits of working in tobacco steadily declined over the 20th century. By the 1980s, the sector no longer offered opportunities for social mobility and the possibilities of worker organization were greatly constrained. Guestworkers from the Caribbean and Mexico found their labour and geographic mobility much more tightly restricted than any previous or contemporary groups of tobacco workers. These transformations were complex and the result of many contingent factors (in both Canada and migrant-sending countries), including: political economic trends; ideologies of race and gender; the actions of employers, local communities, and workers themselves; and the efforts of multiple levels of the state to exert greater control over tobacco farm labour. The thesis pays particular attention to the transnational dynamics of labour migration systems, guestworker program structures, and worker resistance. By historicizing farm labour in a single crop and single region over approximately seven decades, the dissertation demonstrates that farm labour is not by definition a station of poverty and extreme exploitation, but instead is made so by historical processes.