Min Sook Lee and Lisa Valencia-Svensson | Hillman Foundation

2017 Canadian Hillman Prize Winner

Min Sook Lee and Lisa Valencia-Svensson

Director, Writer: Min Sook Lee
Producers: Min Sook Lee & Lisa Valencia-Svensson
Executive Producers: Rose Gutierrez & Jane Jankovic
Broadcast premiere: Sept. 14, 2016, on TVO 

Migrant Dreams tells the story of workers who came to Ontario to work in greenhouses as part of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The film focuses mainly on a group of women from Indonesia who work packing vegetables in the southwestern Ontario town of Leamington.

The women have been recruited by agents who illegally charge them thousands of dollars in fees. Unable to afford the levy, they use their Canadian wages to repay their debt and cover their rent on company-controlled housing, with little left over to send home. More than 100,000 migrants toil for low wages in this country, many with legitimate complaints about the conditions in which they live and work.

Migrant Dreams

In 2005, TVO supported and aired El Contrato, Lee’s first look at this subject through the eyes of Mexican workers in Leamington greenhouses. That groundbreaking film resulted in changes to legislation. The fact that more than a decade later these workers still face dire conditions, is a blemish on Canada’s reputation and is the stated reason TVO commissioned and broadcast Migrant Dreams. Alongside, TVO produced a panel discussion on The Agenda With Steve Paikin, their flagship current affairs program, and related articles on TVO.org. TVO continues to stream the program online to ensure it is available to a wide audience.

Subsequent to the film’s release, a broad coalition of civic partners from sectors as diverse as academia, the arts, the labour movement, food justice movements and immigrant and refugee rights organizations have mobilized to advocate for change and progressive reforms in support of migrant worker rights.

In early December 2016, the federal government announced a repeal of the notorious “4-in-4-out” rule that kicked out migrant workers after four years. “In many ways, the four-year rule put a great deal of uncertainty and instability on both temporary workers and employers,” conceded then-Immigration Minister John McCallum.

In January 2017, the deportation order against activist Gina Bahiwal, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers was revoked. Bahiwal has been central to many campaigns and faced deportation as a result of the “4-in-4-out” rule.

Umi Kulsum, one of the workers featured in the documentary, was able to see justice in the criminal court system. She was a primary witness in a police investigation against the recruiter who charged fees as high as $7,000 for greenhouse jobs in Leamington. The recruiter pleaded guilty to theft and was ordered to repay Kulsum.

Dwipa, another central participant in the film, filed a civil claims suit against his employer based on charges of unpaid overtime, unlawful deductions and the collection of recruitment fees. Dwipa filed the suit with six other workers from Bali who were recruited by the same private agent. The employer settled out of court, and Dwipa and the other Balinese workers were able to receive compensation. This victory marked the first time in Ontario’s history that migrant workers were able to fight wage theft and illegal recruitment fees through the civil court system.

It is deplorable that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which exploits “disposable” workers with precarious residency status and untenable living and working conditions, has expanded and replaced the open and tolerant immigration policies Canada has been known for around the world.

Migrant Dreams forms a basis for the vital conversation that must take place across the country about Canada’s immigration policies and the rights of people who come to this country with hopes and dreams of prosperity. 

Min Sook Lee has directed numerous critically-acclaimed social documentaries, including: My Toxic Baby, Donald Brittain Gemini winner Tiger Spirit, Hot Docs Best Canadian Feature winner Hogtown, Gemini nominated El Contrato, Badge of Pride and Canadian Screen Award winner The Real Inglorious Bastards. Min Sook is also an Assistant Professor at OCAD University where she teaches Art and Social Change. Min Sook is a recipient of the Cesar E. Chavez Black Eagle Award for El Contrato’s impact on the rights of migrant workers, and Canada’s oldest labour arts festival, Mayworks, has named the Min Sook Lee Labour Arts Award in her honour. More recently, in 2016 she was awarded the Alanis Obomsawin Award for Commitment to Community and Resistance.

Lisa Valencia-Svensson is an award-winning documentary film producer based in Toronto. Her first feature length documentary Herman’s House won an Emmy for Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming and was broadcast on the PBS documentary series POVMigrant Dreams is her second feature. She has associate produced several films, including Emmy-nominated The World Before Her, which have broadcast internationally and have screened and won awards at festivals including TIFF, Tribeca, and Hot Docs. She recently joined the producing team for Untitled Jennifer Laude Documentary.  Her passion is for film projects which explore issues of inequality and social justice, and which encourage audiences to view their world through a constructively critical and creatively unique lens.