Free Film Festival Brings Stories of Working Life to Four Yukon Communities

There is passion driving a new set of films about the struggles of workers in Canada and around the world.

The Canadian Labour International Film Festival (CLIFF) is showing a lineup of the films in 50 cities across Canada this year, including in four Yukon communities next week. The festival will be showing several films in Watson Lake on Nov. 21; in Dawson City and Whitehorse on Nov. 23; and in Old Crow on Nov. 29.

It’s a passion for the plight of workers that drove festival founder Frank Saptel to create the event five years ago and continues to drive him.

When CLIFF comes to town, there’s a double treat in store for its patrons: this year, Saptel will accompany the films and there’s a world premiere of Toronto director Kevin Fraser’s new documentary Living As Brothers.

Saptel, who is also the communications representative for the International Machinists Union, started the film festival five years ago to communicate the labour conditions of people from around the world.

“So here I was in 2007, finishing off my bachelor’s degree through my union… in Silver Springs, Maryland,” says Saptel. “They had a showing of a film called China Blue and it was part of the DC Labour Fest film festival, about a garment factory making denim jeans and the sorts of conditions the Chinese workers have to face and I was thinking, ‘we should have something like this in Toronto’ and wondering who I could get involved, so that they would do this.”

Then it occurred to him that he could actually get the project going.

“I started making notes on how to organize this, what the structure would be and before I knew it, it sketched out from a Toronto labour film festival to a Canadian labour film festival,” he says. “So those thirteen pages of notes that I scribbled out furiously, when I was supposed to be doing homework, wound up becoming in essence the structure, the framework for CLIFF, as it stands today.”

Saptel stresses the importance of CLIFF, for today’s workers and those of tomorrow.

“Workers’ history is just not taught in Canada,” he says. “We get a corporate view of history… If we start giving the young people in their education another point of view and we give them the complete story, they know their rights and they’re not going to be exploited.”

Kevin Fraser’s film Living As Brothers will have its world premiere at CLIFF’s Whitehorse showing. Fraser grew up in Niagara-On-the-Lake, Ontario, which each summer hosts thousands of migrant farm workers from Mexico and Jamaica, who pick the peach crop all through the growing season and then return to their homelands at season’s end.

Fraser worked alongside them through his high school years and got to know many of them. The local fruit farmers are dependent on these workers, some of whom have returned for as much as twenty years running and who spend six-to-nine months away from their families.

Living As Brothers tells their story and highlights the experiences of Jamaican worker Noel Smith, who has managed to finance his children’s education with his Canadian earnings.

“I set out first and foremost to tell the audience who these men were, to tell about their families and through their stories, we learn about the issues that they face,” he says. “Theirs is a permanently temporary existence in our society. They come here and they can be sent home at any time, for basically any reason. They’re not unionized; they’re essentially at the will of the farmer and it’s a really tough, physical job. That’s the reason why they come up, because Canadians are not interested in doing this. It’s difficult and it’s boring, picking peaches for ten hours a day, at minimum wage or less.”

Although they are covered by Canadian health care while they’re here, they are deducted Canada pension and employment insurance payments, which they seldom get the benefits of.

Fraser went to Jamaica twice and shot footage there, while living in rural areas with the workers and their families and chronicling their lives back home.

“I wanted to make sure that my perspective was as informed as possible,” he says. “You appreciate their sacrifices, when you get to understand why they leave their families for such long periods of time. You realize that their job prospects are not great.”

Living As Brothers is an intimate, heartfelt film and Fraser’s level of caring and respect for his subjects comes shining through, especially that of his friendship with main character Noel Smith, who has faced much adversity in recent years.

Fraser has just initiated a fund to help Smith, contributing out of his own pocket, because last month Smith’s own farm back home in Jamaica was wiped out when Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the island in October and this devastation comes following his contract in Canada being abruptly terminated after many years of service. Details on how to help can be found on the director’s website:

CLIFF films will be shown free of charge in four Yukon communities:

Watson Lake: Wed. Nov. 21, 7 p.m., Northern Lights Centre

Dawson City: Fri. Nov. 23, 7 p.m., Danoja Zho Cultural Centre

Whitehorse: Fri. Nov. 23, 7 p.m., MacBride Museum.

Old Crow: Thu. Nov. 29, 7 p.m., Youth Centre

For a complete listing of the film program go to

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