On September 3, the Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health appointed Matt Strauss to be its new acting medical officer of health. This appointment, though unanimously approved, raised more than a few eyebrows. Strauss’ outspoken opposition to lockdown measures have made him a folk hero among pro-COVID-19, People’s Party of Canada-types online. 

On Tuesday, CBC Hamilton’s Samantha Craggs reported that some of the board members weren’t aware of Strauss’ comments, and that they’d received “constant phone calls” from people concerned about his appointment. The board will figure out what to do, according to Craggs, who wrote, “Sounds like there’ll be a future meeting, largely in camera, with lawyers present.”

Strauss is best known for Twitter comments, though he has also written for various media. In an October 2020 article in The Spectator, a conservative publication in the United Kingdom, Strauss wrote, “As a medic, my verdict is clear: mandatory government lockdowns amount to a medical recommendation of no proven benefit, of extraordinary potential harm, that do not take personal values and individual consent into account.” 

In July 2020, MPP Randy Hillier — who was booted from the Ontario Conservatives in 2019 — posted a 58-minute video where he interviewed Strauss about how public health measures were causing more harm than good. In it, Strauss emphasizes how “only three” people, all of whom were elderly, died outside of long-term care in the Kingston area. Because of this, he claims, it isn’t reasonable to justify keeping children out of school. At one point, after admitting that he hasn’t looked into the science behind masks, Strauss asks whether or not we should be concerned about how many people will die due to wearing them.

The Ontario Liberals have called on the government to veto the appointment (which the government will not do, as he’s only the “acting” officer.) Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Kieran Moore said that if it’s the case that Strauss isn’t protecting citizens, he has the power to step in. 

All of the attention on the appointment has focused on Strauss’ anti-lockdown comments. Neither journalists nor other political parties have explored his appointment in the context of controversies that surrounded the region’s previous officer, Shanker Nesathurai, who resigned in May. 

The Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health’s appointment announcement makes it clear that Strauss was chosen as a favour to the local farming community. The announcement stressed, for example, that, “He also looks forward to deepening his understanding of the community and relocating his family to the area later this year,” and also, quoting Mayor Kristal Chopp, chair of the board of health, “‘What stood out most during the interview process was Strauss’ interest in our agriculture community, noting he had already begun to engage with local farmers, and looked forward to fostering those relationships.’”

None of this kind rhetoric was included in Nesathurai’s appointment announcement in 2018, which instead focused on his extensive qualifications and career. 

Farms in Norfolk Country hire about 4,500 seasonal agricultural workers each year, more than any other county in Ontario. Nesathurai “attracted some criticism,” according to how CBC reported it, for insisting that migrant workers isolate for two weeks upon arriving in Canada, thereby delaying their ability to work. He also forbade people from going to second homes in the two regions, eliciting a lot of anger, despite the fact that the decision was in-line with provincial government advice 

But probably the biggest controversy was that Nesathurai limited how many agricultural workers could be bunked together to avoid spreading COVID-19. This was taken as a declaration of war by local farm owners, who took Nesathurai to court to try and overturn his decision. 

Brett Schuyler from Schuyler Farms Ltd. went on a public relations campaign to show Ontarians that he’s a humane and loving farm owner. In one feature, Schuyler is photographed sitting in a row of at least five bunk beds, a sleeping arrangement that no one would likely agree to during a pandemic if they had other options. 

Jason Ryder, another farm owner, suggested that Nesathurai just didn’t understand “the reality on many farms,” as paraphrased by the Hamilton Spectator’s J.P. Antonacci, adding, “My guys are very comfortable with each other. They’re a family up here. If (Nesathurai) would’ve asked for advice, it’s simple to lay that out. He’s cut us off the team before he made a team.”

Ryder isn’t just saying that Nesathurai didn’t get farming culture. It’s not-so-thinly veiled racism intended to signal that Nesathurai is an outsider to the community. When Ryder says that agricultural workers actually like being bunked at least a dozen to a room, he’s standing up for the farm owners, mostly white bosses who control the movements and living/working conditions of mostly racialized workers. Nesathurai, whose job is to protect everyone during a pandemic, found himself at odds with these owners, and on the receiving end of racist innuendo.

The board announcing Strauss’ appointment by referencing the industry and his relocation is a foghorn telling Norfolk farmers that, don’t worry, this new guy gets you and will be better for your bottom line. And that should worry everyone who is concerned with workers’ rights. 

Juan Lopez Chaparro was one of three migrant workers to die in summer 2020 from COVID-19 in Ontario. He worked for Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers in Norfolk on a farm where nearly 200 workers caught COVID-19. Luis Gabriel Flores Flores was Chaparro’s bunkmate. He also caught COVID-19, and spoke out about lax health and safety at the farm. He was fired as a result. In November 2020, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled in his favour, a rare victory for seasonal agricultural workers in Canada. 

As the harvest season coincides with Ontaro’s fourth wave, farmers will rely on Strauss’ decisions to ensure that they can harvest their crops with as few public health interventions possible.

Since being appointed, Strauss has issued a statement responding to criticism. He says he fully supports vaccination and remains skeptical about public health measures like lockdowns. But curiously, he’s silent about mitigating COVID-19 within the agriculture industry, despite how important it will be for his tenure. 

Nesathurai did what he could to protect these workers a little bit, and received a lot of heat and harassment for his decisions. While Strauss’ comments about lockdowns should disqualify him from this role, the bigger story is how Haldimand-Norfolk’s public health board is unanimously motivated to place the happiness (and profits) of farmers above the safety and security of the workers they employ. 

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