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Peruvian migrant van crash survivors speak out

Sara Harowitz

The man stood at the front of the room, facing a crowd of curious people. He appeared calm, but there was a definitive sense of sadness below the surface.

“Have any of you ever felt your life slipping away from your hands?” he told the audience in Spanish (through an English interpreter). “I have.”

His name is Abelardo Javier Alba Medina, and he is one of three survivors of the February, 2012 van crash near Stratford, Ontario that killed 10 Peruvian migrant workers and one Canadian. The crash, believed to be the worst in Ontario’s history, brought migrant workers’ rights and working conditions to the forefront of the Canadian media. And eight months later, there are still many Canadians fighting for the rights of these people.

Medina spoke at Ryerson University in Toronto on Oct. 2 for a panel event titled, “Local Food, Global Labour: Food Justice Needs Migrant Justice.” He called the crash a “very quick life-changing experience,” and explained how hard it is to be in Canada when the rest of his family is back in Peru.

“Love your family a lot,” he said. “Never stop helping your brother and sister. We are all human beings. The only thing we want is the opportunity to keep living and keep surviving; to tell our families, ‘I’m here and I won’t leave you.’”

Another survivor of the crash, Juan Jose Ariza Mejia, also spoke at the event.  He told the audience he remembered looking out the window, while most of his co-workers were sleeping after a long day’s labour—then suddenly seeing a truck coming straight towards their van. Mejia locked eyes with the driver, Christopher Fulton of London, Ont. Fulton’s face, he said, was full of fear and surprise. Fulton veered to the right; if he drove head-on into the van, it’s likely there would have been no chance of survivors. “This is the vision I will keep with me for the rest of my life.”

The room was quiet as Mejia fought back tears, continuing to describe the terror of the crash (“the screeching of brakes”), the immediate aftereffect (“I started to realize I was in pain”), and the heartbreaking aftermath (“we saw the carnage all around us in the van”). He said that his liver bled so much it affected his gall bladder, and that the pain was so intense that doctors had to use medication stronger than morphine.

It was emotional, but it was also important to hear. One of the major issues surrounding migrant workers in Canada is that of deportation. Often when they get injured on the job—if they gather up the courage to speak up to demand compensation and health care, which many don’t—they are sent back to their home country. It’s one of the things that Justicia for Migrant Workers (a presenter at the event) hopes to change. Representatives from Toronto Food Policy Council, Food Secure Canada, and United Food & Commercial Workers Union also made presentations.

A small memorial for the victims of the crash was set up to one side, a silent testament to their sacrifices and a vow to change the fate of migrant workers in the future. It’s easy, as born-and-bred Canadians, to forget about what those who come here seeking a better life have given up; they leave behind family, comfort and familiarity, even language. And as proud as we are of our country, it’s about time we stopped to think: is the Canada that we see the one that they see, too? And if not, is the Canada they see really one we want to represent our country and all it has to offer? If we claim multiculturalism as one of our nation’s strongest qualities, perhaps it’s time we made those other cultures feel a little more welcome. For Medina, Mejia (and many others like them), a crash like the one in February isn’t all that rare—in fact, accidents like this happen often. How we deal with them is perhaps most important.

“This is the biggest obstacle I’ve ever endured but I take it with dignity and with strength,” said Mejia. “Life is a constant battle. You have to fight.”

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