Monnaie d’échange. Migrant workers living in Canada send almost four times as much to friends and family overseas as the federal government spends in official aid. According to World Bank data, remittances have surpassed foreign direct investment in some of the world’s least-developed countries, remittances which in 2015 amounted to more than $580 billion CDN.
Sarah R. Champagne is a Montreal-based reporter with Le Devoir, Michel Huneault is a Photographer-videographer based in Montreal
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Roberto Rodriguez has been gone for three decades but he is everywhere in this house in Jilotepec: in the pictures on the wall, in the ceramics and the couch, and even in his brother Silveiro’s thriving scrap metal business.
When his mom’s tortillas were not enough to feed him and his eight brothers and sisters, he decided to leave for the U.S. He was 14 years old. A few years later, in 1990, he entered Canada via the seasonal agricultural work program. Even as a second-class citizen for the 25 years since then, Roberto managed to send money to his family – enough to allow them to “go ahead,” as his mother puts it.
Pedro Garcia Aguilar and his two brothers also came to work in the fields, also to send back what they can save. Back in Mexico, their hometown landscape is shaped by migration, as Pedro’s wife Claudia explains, pointing out mud houses that are slowly being converted into concrete castles.
In our series, the trajectories of the Rodriguez and Aguilar families intertwine with those of several others. As we discovered, most migrants see taking a plane out as their only way to climb up the economic ladder.
Whether in times of war or peace, thousands of immigrants in Canada are doing the same: they send cash to their country of origin or to relatives who have had to take refuge outside their own country.
Taken together, this routine and repetitive act has become one of the most important sources of cash flow to developing countries. According to World Bank data, migrants sent to their home countries more than $580 billion CDN in 2015. At a global level, this amounts to more than three times the official development assistance, an economy that — if the 250 million migrants were to form a single country — would be among the top 25 in the world. Migrants in Canada send more money abroad per capita than any other country, since more than 20 per cent of our population was born elsewhere.
This compelling financial data came from our initial research. We knew we needed to dig into this more, but we, too, needed resources and money. We needed the precious time to investigate and digest the complexity of the remittances phenomenon; we needed the means to travel to three different countries, the time to find and interview people who benefit from this lifeline.
This is what the Travers Fellowship provided for us. Over nine months in 2016 we were able to work in Montreal, Toronto, Haiti, Turkey and Mexico. Our work has now come to an end, but the stories of these families who either give or receive financial remittances continue. And so does the current migrant crisis: just like refugees, immigrants hope there is a better place for them somewhere else. And remittances fuel the desire to break free from the cycle of poverty.
Finding migrants in Canada who support relatives abroad helped us follow the money to other countries, giving us direct access to families, tracing the stories that vividly portray our interdependent world. We shared a Sunday meal with Alex and Miriam in Port-au-Prince (Haiti); attended a wedding in Jilotepec (Mexico); had a dozen cups of tea with Feras and Fediya, both in Mersin (Turkey) and in Montreal; visited dozens of experts’ offices via Skype and in person; had fish and chips in Brant County (Ontario) with Pedro, who had never sat down for a meal with Canadians despite having worked in our fields for five years; went to a gym class for Haitian seniors in Montreal and shared Seif’s worry from his Canadian living room after the attempted coup in Turkey last July.
However, this dive into intimacy came with dilemmas and questions about our privilege. We were telling people who had not seen their families in months, and sometimes years, or who could not travel: “Well, WE are going to see them.” Next month. Next week. Tomorrow.”
This project allowed us to travel — quickly, and in reverse, paradoxically — the long hard road that the migrants had once taken with many more obstacles. Not only had we won the Travers Fellowship, but also the lottery of life: we had been born in the right country, and with the right skin colour, both of which offered such possibilities. We tried to make the most of it. We believed that the pitfalls and sacrifices that fill a migrant’s journey, which we saw and witnessed, could also inspire tolerance in our society.
By sad coincidence, the first instalment of our work — a three-part series — came out at the time of the shooting at the Quebec City mosque. The need to do work that fosters coexistence, or “vivre-ensemble,” as we say in French, drove us throughout the entire project. It had now become more acute, urgent.
But does journalism today have the resources and will to undertake such demanding stories? Can it afford not to? Thanks to the Travers Fellowship, we had one opportunity, but many more are needed.