Rooting Right to Food in Racial Justice
Multiculturalism is central to Canada’s national identity. It is how Canadians like to distinguish themselves on the international stage. But this mythology obscures the realities of Black, Indigenous and people of color otherwise known as BIPOC who experienced ongoing colonialism and racism. These forces have led to vast social inequities, including the prevalence of food insecurity in one in every two first nations households, and nearly one in every three black households compared to one in 10 white Canadian households. In addition, migrant workers who produce food for Canadians, but who are not recognized as citizens or rights holders are among the groups that are most vulnerable to food insecurity and other social consequences of the pandemic. In today’s episode, we examine patterns of dietary inequity and struggles for food justice that challenge Canada’s multicultural facade.
Host: Audrey Tung, University of Victoria
Guest: Jade Guthrie, FoodShare
Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center
Welcome to Rights not Charity. This podcast series is about a big idea, ensuring everyone has enough food not as a charitable gift, but as a fundamental human right. My name is Audrey Tung, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Victoria. Our guest today’s jade guthrie. She’s an expert on issues of food justice and food sovereignty in both theory and practice. She’s a community food programs lead at FoodShare Toronto and a community organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers. Drawing from her background in social work, Jade applies an intersectional and anti-oppressive approach to advocacy for the right to food.
So Jade in your most recent article in the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch report, you highlighted the distinction between structural and superficial responses to hunger. And you also demonstrated that the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding and long overlooked social inequities in Canada. Can you tell us a bit about why black and indigenous communities are disproportionately vulnerable to food insecurity?
So I think first off, it’s really important to recognize that Canada’s food system as a whole is very much built on systems and structures of oppression. So things like settler colonialism and capitalism, systemic racism and structural poverty. So, it’s no mistake then that certain communities, mainly BIPOC communities are bearing the brunt of the violence of our food system. I think we often hear kind of mainstream narratives that reinforce this idea that our system is failing or it’s broken. But the fact of the matter is that it’s not failing or broken, it’s working exactly how it was built to. It was built on the backs of these folks. Canada’s economic and social structures are racist, capitalist, and colonial ones. So, our entire system as a country began on the backs of enslaved people, enslaved BIPOC folks. And today those systems continue to disproportionally impact these communities really violently. And then we see this play out in people’s lives in terms of levels to access to food. Like you mentioned, black families are more than three and a half times more likely to experience food insecurity than white families here in Canada. So we see it playing out in the number of systemic barriers people face in trying to access the food they need to thrive. We might ask questions like why is it so hard to find affordable fresh produce in mainly black and indigenous and lower-income neighborhoods? And it’s not a coincidence, but it’s a result of planning and policy processes that systematically under-resource certain communities. We also see this disproportionate impact playing out in terms of policing and food. So, why do certain grocery stores have police officers or security guards or metal detectors while others don’t? Or why is baby food locked up in certain neighborhoods? So the question comes up of how many young, black and indigenous folks first encounters with the carceral system comes out of inequitable access to food. There’s a lot of connections to be made here between policing and food insecurity that I think are really important to think about. And then, also it is super important to recognize and think about the ways in which our state’s policies have historically and continue to attempt to destroy indigenous food ways and practices and traditions. So, if you could look back in time to something like the banning of potlatch ceremony and the Indian Act, or today you could look to the struggle for traditional fishing rights on the East Coast for the Mi’kmaq fisher folk. So when we look at the ways that our state’s policies have enacted and continue to enact so much violence on these communities, it’s no surprise that the relationships that indigenous and black folks have with food are often fraught and quite violent. I think lastly, it’s also really important to recognize how these broader systems of oppression intersect too, for example, folks who work in frontline positions, which are often underpaid and quite exploded of in nature are disproportionally BIPOC folks. So we can also see the ways that structural poverty intersects with something like systemic racism to further oppress and marginalize communities, which in turn does make them more vulnerable to food insecurity. So, thinking about this notion of intersectionality is really important when we’re talking about folks experiences with the food system as well.
That’s such a good point you made about how our food systems are not necessarily broken, they’re inequitable and even destructive by design. So related to that, as an advocate for migrant food workers, could you tell about how Canada’s food system relies on the exploitation of migrant labor?
Canada’s agricultural industry relies on something called the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program or the SAWP. And this is basically a program where the Canadian government brings in temporary farm workers from other countries to work across Canada during the farming season. Workers who come through this program often come from developing countries, which in turn means they are disproportionately black, brown and indigenous folk. When you take a closer look at the SAWP, it becomes very clear that it’s rooted in systemic racism and colonialism. We see this evidenced in the structures of the program itself, it classifies these black and brown folks as good enough to exploit for labor, good enough to come here, so that we can build wealth off of their labor, but not necessarily deserving of permanent status. They’re often classified as temporary through this program. I think it’s also really clear in the ways that plantation dynamics are often reproduced on farms across the country that employ these workers. We often see white settler employers or farm owners bringing in these BIPOC workers, exploiting their labor for very little compensation and then housing them in segregated conditions. So, very much like a replication of plantation dynamics that have existed since the founding of Canada. I think it’s also important to consider the role of capitalism within this system as well. So the SAWP is very much an employer centric program that really favors the financial interests of these big multinational corporate farms over the human rights of the workers themselves. Going back to what you mentioned in introduction to this episode, the SAWP is just another example of Canada’s myth making process about itself. This program is often touted as an inclusive immigration program for the country. On the world stage, it’s really lauded as something that’s super progressive and inclusive and inviting for folks. But the fact of the matter is that it’s not true. It is a scheme that brings in billions of dollars for Canada’s agricultural industries. So, I think what becomes clear there is the way that the structures of the SAWP are linked to the ways that our government has framed food as a commodity, as something to profit off of, rather than as a basic human right. One really important thing to highlight about the SAWP is that workers who come into the country through this program are bound to their employers. So, they totally lack labor mobility and often are forced to live at the mercy of their employers. Players have the power to repatriate workers basically, to deport them, to send them back to their home countries. And so they often live in fear of this happening, which prevents them from speaking up about unsafe working conditions or about racist employers. This program structure for the SAWP affords all of the power to employers. And although some employers might provide decent working or decent living conditions, the structures are in place don’t compel them to do that. And so what we see play out time and time again, especially over the course of the pandemic is cramped bunk houses, lack of PPE, unsafe working conditions, workers being forced to work during the pandemic, during COVID. And we’ve seen many workers lose their lives on farms or get severely injured and be sent home. There’s the clear, oppressive power dynamic that’s happening here that’s only being reinforced by the structures of the program itself.
I find it so outrageous how the government is trying to pass off exploitation as inclusion through this SAWP program. And I also really liked that historical line you drew between historical plantation dynamics and the inequitable and unjust food systems we have today. So, given your work in partnering with racialized communities, I was wondering if you’d be able to speak to the difference between multiculturalism and anti-racism to give listeners an example in major Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, a variety of international food is often seen as evidence of multiculturalism. Here in Vancouver, the city’s often portrayed as a multicultural capital of international food, but during the pandemic, the city was also called North America’s capital of anti-Asian hate crimes. Now, I suspect both representations are true, because the notion of multiculturalism actually conceals and perpetuates deeper destructors of racism. Could you share your thoughts and perspectives on this?
I think this is a really interesting question, a really important one. I think that this paradox that you’re talking about speaks to the ways that Canada as a state is so deeply invested in a national myth-making process about who we are and not so many of us have thought so deeply into the idea that we are better than our neighbors south of the border or that police brutality against black and indigenous folks is something that happens in other places and not here. I think we’re so bought into this national myth about ourselves that it often covers up all of the violence that is like ongoing and perpetuated every day. Looking back in time is really important to understand where we currently are.
Wo if you were to do a critical historical analysis of our nation’s policies and laws, going back to the so-called founding of the country, it is really easy to clearly trace how deeply embedded racism and settler colonialism are in our structures and systems that shape every day of our lives here in Canada. You will find things like the Chinese head tax, the Indian Act, legislation around black loyalists property ownership, Japanese internment camps. There’s countless examples. And so I think that really illustrates the ways in which our state has been writing and enacting these incredibly violent and racist policies since the establishment of the country, which is really, really important to highlight. And yet at the same time, our country’s lawmakers and politicians have also enacted policies and legislation that serves to obscure or erase, or like cover up these clear examples of racist and colonial violence.
So things like the SAWP, like I mentioned, the Multiculturalism Act from 1988, policies like this don’t necessarily create meaningful action around building and more inclusive or tolerant society, but serve to perpetuate a narrative of Canada the good, the multicultural mosaic and place where refugees are welcomed to build new lives. And I think we’ve been engaged in these processes of telling certain stories about who Canada is as a nation for so long that it’s often difficult to disengage from those stories. And so I think it’s really important to actually think critically and question these narratives, turning them on their head and reflecting on what they’re serving to cover up or what they’re serving to erase, like multiculturalism as this blanket identity for Canada, it’s there to hide all of the violence, and all of the atrocities that are ongoing and historical. It sounds really critical. And I think it’s important to highlight that multiple things can be true at once.
My dad’s side of my family came to Canada from Jamaica as immigrants, and they came to build a new life with certain opportunities and possibilities. And so there are certain things to be thankful for, but it’s really crucial, particularly as a settler living here on stolen land to really question these national myths. How are we furthering and deepening projects of colonial violence or systemic racism by buying into these narratives? And so then in terms of when we’re looking at what is multiculturalism versus what is anti-racism, but I think multiculturalism serves to actually hide all of the racist policies and racial violence that occurs every day. And anti-racism means critically looking at those things, identifying where these sites of oppression are, and then working to dismantle those things, actually take these systems down and transform them.
Thank you Jade for subverting and challenging this myth of multiculturalism that’s sort of ingrained into Canada’s national identity. I can relate to your experience of being the children of immigrants and being conditioned to feel grateful for what I have. And I understand that I hold privileges, especially as a Chinese Canadian, and often being portrayed in a model minority in that sense. But again, this model minority myth also obscures the privileges that I hold and what it means to be a settler in this land, even if I’m a settler of color. So as a final question, how do you apply an anti-racist lens to your work with food share and also justice for migrant workers?
Anti-racism is like a big umbrella for a lot of different types of work. I think at its core, though, for me, what applying an anti-racist lens to the work that I do every day means is that we need to recognize that we can’t talk about food insecurity. We can’t talk about the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program without talking about systemic racism, without talking about settler colonialism. At its core, it’s really recognizing where those connections exist. Recognizing how these systems are embedded within these broader structures of oppression. And then what doing anti-racism work means to me is working towards dismantling those systems, and working towards identifying the sites of oppression, and being like, how do we transform this? How do we work from a space of understanding that food insecurity is directly tied into anti-black racism. I think it’s the way that I frame the work that I’m involved in and that I’m a part of, it’s just knowing that we can never have a deep politicized conversation about food insecurity or about our food system, which is what I think happens a lot of the time in the mainstream food movement, which has often been the largely white conversation. So, the framing I think is where it starts as well as then obviously the action that comes out of that in terms of actively dismantling systems and pushing against them.