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Jamaican widow wants 'better' treatment of Canada's seasonal agricultural workers in wake of husband's death

Suzana Stewart is seen in an undated photo with her husband Jeleel Stewart. Jeleel died in Jamaica on Jan. 24. (Submitted by Suzana Stewart - image credit)
Suzana Stewart is seen in an undated photo with her husband Jeleel Stewart. Jeleel died in Jamaica on Jan. 24. (Submitted by Suzana Stewart - image credit)

A Jamaican widow is calling for "better" treatment of farm workers in Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), following the death of her husband — years after he was injured at his workplace in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Suzana Stewart said her husband, Jeleel Stewart,  died at Spanish Town General Hospital in his homeland on Jan. 24. He was 49.

Jeleel's left hand was crushed by a forklift in a 2008 accident at Mori Nurseries — which closed down in 2015 — and up to the time of his death, he'd been in a years' long battle with Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) over compensation.

Stewart said Jeleel's health gradually deteriorated from the time of his injury. In the months before his death he suffered a stroke, developed high blood pressure, kidney and heart failure, and was always in pain, she said.

"What I would like for the farm workers is better [treatment]," Stewart told CBC Hamilton via telephone from Jamaica on Wednesday.

"I just want things to [be] just better for other farm workers up there [in Canada]. Things could have [been] dealt with better [for Jeleel] but it's just so it goes."

Compensation from WSIB stopped in 2010

Jeleel, who had returned home to Jamaica after his injury due to his inability to work, received compensation from the WSIB for two years after the accident. But the payments stopped in 2010 when the WSIB deemed him capable of working.

Under its 'deeming' policy, WSIB ends workers' compensation if it deems them fit to return to work in Ontario or their countries.

At the time of his death, Jeleel was awaiting an appeal hearing, after a tribunal ordered a review in September, 2023, into how the WSIB handles similar cases.

Jeleel Stewart has been dealing with both physical and psychological injuries ever since a forklift crushed his left, and dominant, hand.
Jeleel Stewart has been dealing with both physical and psychological injuries ever since a forklift crushed his left, and dominant, hand.

Stewart dealt with both physical and psychological injuries after a forklift crushed his left, and dominant, hand. (Submitted by Jane Andres)

David Arruda, Jeleel's case worker at community legal clinic IAVGO, said shortly after the tribunal's ruling that he didn't know how it might affect Jeleel's case but was hopeful the WSIB would review past deeming decisions.

"We are asking that they review any decision in which a foreign agricultural worker was deemed using the Ontario labour market," he told CBC Hamilton, before Jeleel's death.

"The hope would be that when the review is completed, his case will also be one of the one that was reviewed... We want to get him the benefit that he deserves, obviously, as soon as possible," said Arruda.

Hoping to move forward with appeal: case worker

On Wednesday, Arruda said that efforts are still being made to have an appeal heard.

"My thought process is that it would go ahead," he said.

"The hope is that once we do have that, we'll get a quick resolution and hopefully that resolution … that his family will get the benefits that we believe they deserve."

WSIB is counting on the fact that injured workers do not have the resources and their voices are deliberately silenced once they've been repatriated. - Jane Andres, family friend of Jeleel Stewart

Arruda said his office is now in the process of getting confirmation of Jeleel's estate and to determine if the estate would like to proceed with the appeal.

"We're working to get the case moving forward so that we can get Jeleel and his family the compensation they deserve," Arruda added.

A spokesperson for WSIB said they are unable to comment on individual claims or provide any detailed information due to privacy considerations.

But the board is "saddened to learn of Mr. Stewart's passing and our thoughts are with his family and many loved ones both in Jamaica and here in Ontario," Christine Arnott wrote in an email.

Arnott said when people come from other countries to work on Ontario farms, it is the WSIB's responsibility to be there to help if they suffer a workplace injury or illness.

She said that responsibility does not end when the person returns to their home country, especially if the injury is a life-altering one.

"We launched a review late last year of how claims for people in the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker program are handled to ensure we are taking a fair and consistent approach that recognizes the realities of people's local markets after they return home.

"Our goal is to clarify how we adjudicate these claims and determine whether previous decisions should also be adjusted. The results of the review are expected to be released soon," Arnott said.

"This is about doing the right thing and treating people with humanity, dignity and respect. Everyone deserves a safe workplace."

Deeming policy 'dehumanizing,' says friend 

While the WSIB review continues, two Niagara women, who became friends with Jeleel when he joined the SAWP program in 2007, are also calling for changes in the wake of his death.

Jodie Godwin and Jane Andres have been assisting Jeleel's family financially for more than a decade.

"WSIB is counting on the fact that injured workers do not have the resources and their voices are deliberately silenced once they've been repatriated," Andres recently told CBC Radio's Fresh Air.

Godwin, left, Stewart and Andres during one of Godwin and Andres' trip to Jamaica in 2017.
Godwin, left, Stewart and Andres during one of Godwin and Andres' trip to Jamaica in 2017.

Jodie Godwin, left, and Jane Andres, right, became friends with Jeleel Stewart, centre, when he joined the farm workers program in 2007. (Submitted by Jane Andres)

"The 'deeming' policy itself is deliberately dehumanizing. It's an intentional design and they need to reinstate compensation for all the injured workers who were previously denied.

"When he got the letter from WSIB in 2010, we thought, 'Oh, surely this is a terrible mistake,' because they stated that you still have one good hand, therefore you could work as a cashier at a gas bar in Niagara.

"Jodie and I were appalled... we said 'look, we're going to stand by you until we get this figured out,'  thinking it would take two weeks. It's been 14 years," Andres added.

LISTEN | Jodie Godwin and Jane Andres talk to Fresh Air guest host Nicole Martin:

According to Andres, Jeleel's health was "really impacted" due to the stoppage of the payments.

"We could only afford to send so much per month. We gave sacrificially, but still it was not enough to provide the proper nutrition for Jeleel or for his family. Often the choice would be 'are the kids going to go to school this term or are we going to eat?' They had very, very difficult decisions," added Andres.

'A big man, full of joy'

Andres said "Jeleel was the kind of guy who brought everybody together."

She said "he was kind of like their cheerleader, he was their den mother," describing his relationship with the other farm workers.

"Like, there's young guys coming up who had not lived on their own before. And so he'd be cooking massive pots of rice and chicken stew and all these kinds of things to share with the guys and also to teach them how to cook."

Jodie Godwin, left, and Jane Andres have been advocating for Stewart for all these years by sending letter and placing calls to the WSIB, his former employers and anyone who will listen.
Jodie Godwin, left, and Jane Andres have been advocating for Stewart for all these years by sending letter and placing calls to the WSIB, his former employers and anyone who will listen.

Godwin, left, and Andres advocated for Jeleel for several years by sending letters and placing calls to the WSIB and others, they said. (Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC)

Meanwhile, Godwin said Jeleel had become a part of her family, and when she and Andres travelled to Jamaica, they also got a chance to meet his family.

"I remember a big man, full of joy," Godwin said.

"Everywhere he went, he was an encourager, he had deep, deep faith and such joy."

Jeleel Stewart at a gathering before he went back to Jamaica after his accident in August 2008.
Jeleel Stewart at a gathering before he went back to Jamaica after his accident in August 2008.

Jeleel Stewart at a gathering before he went back to Jamaica after his accident in August 2008. (Submitted by Jane Andres)

Stewart said her family is still reeling from Jeleel's death.

"Sunday was my birthday and believe me I was crying because if he was here he would either say, 'I'm going to get you a gift,' or, 'my wife, thank God you live to see your birthday," she said.

"My kids, sometimes they cry. Even my son that is 23, [he] cried the other day and said, 'Mommy, how [are we going to] manage?'

"It is very rough without him," Stewart added.

In addition to his wife, Jeleel leaves behind five children: Kemar, Shyan, Jamie, Ashley and Jamar.