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Deeply-rooted friendships become treasures to cherish

Over decades of time, great friendships have been able to develop between seasonal workers and locals.
Jane Andres took this photo of local Ron Peters and farmworker Elijah Steele, with a photo Andres had taken of Steele, known by his friends as Prophet.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program started in the mid 1960s, and ushered in a new era of prosperity to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Tender fruit farms flourished, farms expanded, and local businesses thrived, thanks to the men and women from the Caribbean who provided a reliable labour force.

Elijah Steele was one of the men who made the difficult decision to leave his family and young children to work on a Niagara farm close to three decades ago. 

After his first long day of travel, the crew was taken to buy groceries at MB Foods in Virgil and set up an account at the Niagara Credit Union next door . He marvelled at the lush orchards laden with cherries, apricots, and little green peaches on the drive along the way. 

The next day they began to harvest the cherries, a fruit he had never tasted in Jamaica.

A few weeks later he ventured out on a bicycle to explore on his own. He discovered he was only a short distance from the mighty Niagara River, one of the few areas in Canada where tender fruit could be grown.

He noticed a neighbour, Ron Peters, moving a pile of firewood in his yard and offered to help. He received a friendly welcome and was invited back after the chore was completed. 

Ron was happy to share his knowledge of repairing chainsaws and equipment repair on subsequent visits, a valuable skill that Steele was eager to put to use upon his return home.

The flow of conversation was mutually beneficial with each one learning about each other’s experience as fathers of young families, gardening and work life.

Elijah, or Prophet as he was known on the farm, was grateful to be called back to the same farm the following year. He feels fortunate to have had a great relationship with his employer, Walter Gaio, ever since.

He began attending the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project (CWOP) church services run by Grace United Church. The annual cricket match was in its early stages back in the ’90s. The first year he played and helped out the Vineland team which was short on players. Helmut Boldt, a volunteer with the outreach project noticed Prophet’s aptitude for the game and invited him to coach the NOTL team. With the exception of two years, Prophet has led the team to victory every year since!

Taking part in the outreach church services and cricket team provided Prophet with the opportunity to make lasting friendships. He has wonderful memories of former town councillor Robert Howse and his wife Nancy, who made him feel especially welcome at the church services in the early years. The personal and practical support he received from Forrest Miller and his mom Carol, Phil Bergen, Adam Hawley, and many others over the years initiated friendships that are still going strong.

His good friend Ron Peters was also a faithful member of the Niagara Clippers fan club, cheering Prophet and the cricket team on to victory every year.

One evening last week I had the opportunity to spend some time with Prophet, Ron, and his wife Rita on their back deck. The mutual delight of their friendship was obvious, and it didn’t take long before the jokes were flying.

 Ron and Rita shared some of their early recollections of their friendship and how it was such a great opportunity to learn about each other’s culture and family life. 

They began planning their holidays to include Jamaica and a visit with Prophet’s family. On their first visit Prophet treated them to a traditional Jamaican meal of ackee and saltfish and the fresh fruit juices that are the pride of the countryside. Playing the tour guide he would drive them down winding roads to showcase the hidden gems most tourists would be unaware of.

Ron would try to pack an extra suitcase loaded with drill bits, saw blades, and tools which never failed to attract the curiosity and suspicion of security guards on their travels.

 As the evening on Ron’s deck progressed he invited me to view the ‘wall of fame’ in his workshop, where he proudly displayed photos and news clippings of the cricket team over the years, a trip back in time.

At the end of evening Prophet and I handed him one more framed picture to hang. It was a photo I had taken three years ago during the infamous COVID summer of 2020. It was taken on a spontaneous visit that we both remember well.

It was August, and I had just dropped off necessities to a farm nearby. The sky was ominous with dark clouds scudding by, whipped up by strong winds. The sun was setting with brilliant flashes emanating from behind the low-hanging clouds. Driving down Concession 1, I happened to spot Prophet standing in the field beside the driveway. I slowed down and he waved me in. It was a dramatic scene befitting a genuine prophet (or at least how I imagined one!). 

The sun flashed out directly behind him, his face illuminated by its reflection in a puddle on the tractor flat-bed trailer.

I pulled out my phone and managed to get a lucky shot with the sun breaking through behind him, his figure outlined in a thin silver line.

Prophet had never seen the photo until the night we visited the Peters and was moved at the memory.

When we handed the framed photo to Ron his face broke out in a grin. 

“Why, he looks like an angel!” he exclaimed. "But you spelled his name wrong. I always thought it was more like Profit!” he joked. “Always working hard to support his family.” 

Prophet nodded in agreement. 

It was an inspiring evening of reminiscing and remembering how a simple neighbourly act led to an enduring 27-year friendship. 

On the drive home Prophet and I talked about the treasured friendships that have taken root, bearing good fruit in our community over the years. 

He reminded me of a Jamaican proverb: “A good friend is better than pocket money.”

Well said, Prophet. You have many friends here who would agree!