04/30/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 08/07/2015 12:59 EDT

Migrant worker crash survivor Juan Ariza closer to residency

A Peruvian migrant worker who endured a nightmare after taking a job in Canada is now close to realizing his dream, in what some legal experts are calling a significant move by the government.

Juan Jose Ariza was one of 14 men involved in a deadly car accident in southwestern Ontario in February 2012.

Eleven died in the crash. Ariza survived with severe injuries – and after undergoing extensive treatment in Canada, he is now on his way to winning the right to live here permanently.

"It's good news," said a soft-spoken Ariza, in an exclusive interview in Toronto.

He is in the city for a six-week program of intense rehabilitation, aimed at reducing his level of pain and increasing his strength.

"I feel 60 to 70 per cent," he said. "I'm still working hard to feel more strong than before."

Ariza was injured in the crash after just one day on the job.  He had come to Canada from his home on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, to work on a farm, vaccinating chickens.

He was one of 13 migrant farm workers travelling in a van that collided with a truck near Hampstead, Ont.  Ten men in the van, as well as the driver of the truck, died that night. Ariza and the other two survivors were severely injured.

Edgar Sulla Puma – the most seriously injured - was in a coma for four months after the crash and suffered permanent brain damage. He now lives in a group home in Hamilton. His brother-in-law, John Edwards, says Sulla Puma has had ongoing health issues and almost died last year after being readmitted to hospital, but is now recovering.

Javier Aldo Medina was moved to a seniors' home in London, Ont., after his initial treatment. He applied for permanent Canadian residency, but returned to Peru in December of 2012 and abandoned his application. He now does some work as a taxi driver in Peru.

Ariza suffered a fractured pelvis, broken ribs and hand and a badly damaged knee. He spent weeks in hospital before moving to the same facility as Medina.

At one point Ariza returned to Peru to be with his wife and son, uncertain he would ever be allowed to come back to Canada. Ontario's workers compensation scheme continued to pay most of his salary and was supposed to cover most of his medical expenses, but the paperwork and bureaucracy were frustrating and the level of care was lower than doctors in Ontario offered, he said.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada granted Ariza a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP) that allowed him to return to Canada for two years for rehabilitation treatment. The permit, however, was only for him – not his wife and young son, so he left his family behind again. 

All this time, Ariza has been fighting for permanent residency – permission from Canadian officials to allow him and his family to settle in Canada.

Application approved in principle

The government's recent decision to award Ariza permanent residency marks a turnaround in the case.

Now, with his application approved in principle, immigration lawyer Michael Loebach said Ariza, "is 95 per cent of the way" to his goal of being able to settle in Canada permanently.

Ariza's immigration consultant, Angelica Gonzalez, has handled the case for free. Gonzalez said she is now "very optimistic" about his future.

Not only that, Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance board stepped forward to offer to pay the costs of flying Ariza's wife and son to London for a three-week visit this summer.

The lawyer representing Ariza before the WSIB, John Bartolomeo, says he was surprised by the move.

"The treatment of Mr. Ariza by the WSIB is unprecedented and atypical. While I am grateful for the WSIB's generosity, I only wish they treated all injured workers with such compassion and understanding."

Janet McLaughlin, a professor in health studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., agrees Ariza's case is "very unusual" because he has won permanent residency.

She has studied the situation of migrant workers for more than a decade.

"There are many, many more workers out there whose cases are not as well publicized, because this was a national story involving so many deaths of workers," she said. "But every year we hear about individual workers who were killed or injured on the job who don't make national headlines, because their deaths were not part of a huge accident.

"These workers are silently suffering," McLaughlin adds. "They're not getting the national attention. Often they're not getting any attention in terms of the long term care that they need."

McLaughlin prepared a report for the WSIB last year that illustrates the problem. Farm work is dangerous, she said, and many workers do not report illness or injuries to employers because they do not know their rights and fear losing their jobs.

They are then sent home, McLaughlin said, where they can no longer get access to proper health care or, in some cases, compensation.  If they are unable to work, the entire family suffers, she said.

Since she filed her report last year, McLaughlin said she has not "seen any fundamental change." 

McLaughlin recommended measures to make workers aware of their rights and to ensure they will not be fired or punished if they raise concerns or are injured.

"If these workers are part of our economy they are contributing their taxes, they are contributing to the benefit programs. When they need it most we should be providing them that support," Mclaughlin said, calling it a "moral obligation."

Meanwhile, Ariza waits for his status to be finalized so he can bring his family to Canada permanently. It could take anywhere from a few months to a few years, according to Gonzalez.