A seasonal farm worker from Jamaica is fighting to stay in Nova Scotia for cancer treatment, saying it would be a death sentence for her to go home.
Kerian Burnett, 42, was hired by a Colchester County farm through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in April. She picked strawberries for about two months before she began experiencing severe pain. By June, the pain was so extreme that she stopped working and was ultimately diagnosed with cervical cancer in mid-September.
“I just need a chance to live again,” said Burnett, in tears, in an interview with CBC News. “I feel excessive pain … I take more than 20 painkillers per day.”
Her SAWP contract expires on Dec. 15, legally requiring her to leave Canada.
Burnett has no idea how she will pay the medical bills she’s already racked up after two surgeries, totalling about $81,000. The treatment is not covered under Nova Scotia’s Medical Services Insurance (MSI) Program because she’s a temporary worker. She did have health insurance through her work — which provides up to $100,000 worth of coverage — but she’s not sure it’s available because her employer stated in a letter that she was terminated months before her cancer diagnosis.
The insurance company hasn’t yet explained how her case will be handled, she said, and the cancer has already spread to her glands.
She said doctors have told her she still needs chemotherapy to complete her treatment and she worries that will take her past the deadline to leave Canada.
“If I have to sleep on the streets, I will, but I won’t go back,” she said. “Jamaican health care is very, very, very bad.”
She has six children, a fiancé, and two grandchildren in Jamaica.
She said she wants to live for them.
Employment terminated when she got sick
Although Burnett didn’t work for four months from June to October, her employer, Balamore Farm Ltd. near Truro, allowed her to stay in staff housing at no charge.
On Oct. 6, she received a notice of termination from Balamore Farm saying her employment ended months before, on June 21, because of her health issues. The letter says she was provided a plane ticket to go home along with other foreign workers in her group.
“We have allowed her to remain in our housing until Oct. 12, 2022, but the job required of this group of temporary foreign workers of this location is complete, and they will all be returning to [Jamaica],” reads a letter from the owner of the farm, Joe Cooper.
Burnett didn’t get on the flight home.
CBC News contacted the farm several times for comment, but did not receive a response.
Since she left the farm in mid-October, she has been finding temporary accommodation in Halifax every two weeks with the help of social workers from Victoria General Hospital in Halifax and the Association of Black Social workers.
Migrant workers fear speaking out
Many farmers in Nova Scotia rely on SAWP workers from Mexico and Caribbean countries for labour. According to the federal government, seasonal agricultural workers pay income tax in Canada.
Stacey Gomez, manager of the migrant workers’ program in No One Is Illegal – Halifax/Kjipuktuk, provides information and support to temporary workers in Nova Scotia. She said they are often put in difficult situations when a health emergency arises.
Foreign workers must have a work permit for a minimum of 12 months to qualify for the MSI program, according to the province. But the federal SAWP program only allows workers to be in Canada for a maximum of eight months.
They have limited access to private insurance and hospital visits, she said, and many fear speaking out about work conditions because they need to support their families back home.
Gomez said migrant workers often receive inferior health care.
“Sometimes a worker is injured on the job, and their employer doesn’t want to take them to the hospital, so sometimes workers will reach out to us to see if we can support,” said Gomez.
“We’ve also heard of some challenges of racism within the health-care sector where migrant workers are visiting the doctor, and they don’t have privacy, where the doctor may share information with their employer without their consent.”
In an email, Nova Scotia Health Department spokesperson Khalehla Perrault said employers who hire foreign workers have the option to offer a private health insurance plan to seasonal workers. She said the employer decides the funding of the insurance and what will be offered in the plan.
“The province is not involved in those discussions or decisions,” said Perrault, adding all patients in the province will receive needed health care. “Insurance status does not limit a person’s ability to receive treatment in Nova Scotia. However, the cost of treatment will be billed to the individual.”
Jeffrey MacDonald, a communications officer at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, did not say if Burnett will face deportation if she refuses to leave. He said the IRCC cannot comment on a hypothetical situation.
He said if a SAWP worker wants to remain in Canada due to an ongoing injury after the program ends, they can submit an application to an IRCC processing office to extend their status or change the conditions of their status.
Contribute to provincial economy but excluded
Gomez said workers who contribute to the Nova Scotia economy should be able to access free health care like any Nova Scotian.
During the provincial election last year, about 100 temporary workers shared their concerns about the system. Medical access was among the top demands, along with increasing the minimum wage to $15, receiving at least 10 paid sick days, receiving holiday pay and being able to apply for permanent resident status.
“It should be immediate that migrant farm workers have access to health care in Nova Scotia,” said Gomez.
‘I’m rejected. I’m nobody. I’m no one here’
A relative of Burnett’s in Toronto began a GoFundMe page on Sunday to raise $15,000 that will help cover medical bills, medication, food and a place to live. As of Wednesday evening, it raised over $1,300.
Burnett is begging the government of Nova Scotia to allow her to stay and help her receive treatment in the province until Dec. 15 and beyond if needed.
She said she feels she was only valued in Canada as long as she was healthy, and when adversity hit, her employers turned a blind eye.
“I’m rejected. I’m nobody. I’m no one here,” said Burnett.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.