Babe, I Hate to Go is a short film about a 51-year-old Jamaican migrant worker who leaves home each year for periods of six months or more to work on an Ontario tobacco farm.
Directed by Andrew Moir, who has a personal connection to tobacco farming in the province, Babe, I Hate to Go offers a small glimpse into a program that was supposed to be “temporary,” but is today a permanent fixture.
In 1966, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) was initiated between Canada and Jamaica. SAWP was a response to a labour shortage at the time in the agricultural sector. Today, this program includes Jamaica as well as ten other Caribbean countries, and Mexico. Under this program, rural farmers have been able to import workers for up to eight months each year. Babe, I Hate to Go tells the story of one of those workers – Delroy Dunkley, a man who has worked as a labourer under SAWP for thirty years.
In the opening title sequence, we are reminded that each year, thousands of Jamaicans like Delroy, leave not only their homeland but also family to work on farms across Canada and the United States. In the film’s first few scenes, it is clear that while Delroy is the one who leaves, his family (wife, children, and mother) must also cope with being separated from him. Jamaica captured here is a far cry from the white sand beaches of Montego Bay or Negril that are so synonymous with the Caribbean island.
In his last moments with his children before departing on a flight to Canada, Delroy sings verses from “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The 1969 song is most synonymous with the American folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary but few people know that the song, written by John Denver, was originally titled, “Babe, I Hate to Go.” Hence, the title of this film is both literal and poetic.
In Canada, Delroy works at a tobacco farm in Mount Brydges, Ontario, a small town located just west of London in the municipality of Strathroy-Caradoc. Martin Smith, Delroy’s friend and co-worker who has also worked as a migrant worker for decades, appears in the scenes shot in Mount Brydges.
One of the strengths of the short film genre is its ability to capture a slice of life through simplified storytelling. Because Babe, I Hate To Go does not try to comment on long-standing historical issues with SAWP, such as deficiencies under the program, at times this film feels a bit underwhelming. For example, you’re left wondering why men like Delroy and Martin would work for so many years in Canada and still not have full citizenship rights (Martin has since married a Canadian woman and has obtained permanent residency).
In comparison, in Min Sook Lee’s 2016 film Migrant Dreams, she follows two Indonesian migrant workers in Leamington, Ontario’s greenhouses in order to shed light on their stories but also to expose the dysfunction of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. While a short film does not have time to get into some of the nuances of SAWP, the gravity of just how many Jamaican men of Delroy and Martin’s age are in a similar predicament in the system is left unspoken. Babe, I Hate To Go could have, at a minimum, exposed a few of the wider implications of a program that has helped to create a generation of migrant labourers who work in a country for decades without the ability to bring up their families or to participate in their communities beyond their labour.
Ultimately, this is really a short film about a man who must come to grips with his own mortality after receiving a cancer diagnosis in a place not his home but for which he is indebted to financially. In one of the film’s final scenes, Delroy is asked by Moir (off camera) if he thinks he will be able to keep working – as the film progresses it becomes increasingly difficult for him to weight bear after learning that his cancer has spread throughout his body. In response, Delroy asserts that whether he is in Jamaica or in Canada his reality remains the same – he would be unable to work. This is a powerful moment in the film but it is also left underexplored.
Despite these shortcomings, Babe, I Hate to Go reveals the harsh duality of migrant work. It is not just about a temporary departure, it also about what so many like Delroy leave behind – their family. There is undoubtedly enough to Delroy’s story to become fodder for a feature-length film. In so doing, brighter light could be shined on other Jamaicans who live in the shadows of temporary, migrant workers across the country.