October 16, 2020 was World Food Day, an annual event established by the United Nations with the aim of increasing awareness of various food issues facing the global community, such as world hunger and poverty, and inspiring strategies for the betterment of the global food system and solutions for lasting change. Unlike previous World Food Days, this year we had the opportunity to reflect on the extensive and far-reaching impacts that COVID-19 has had on food systems in Canada and abroad. To celebrate this monumental World Food Day, and to highlight the impacts of COVID-19 on the Canadian food system, the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems hosted the webinar Centering Justice in Canada’s Food System. This webinar explored various challenges and inequities within the food system that have been exacerbated by COVID-19, with a particular focus on the disproportionate impacts that COVID-19 has had on BIPOC communities and migrant agricultural workers across the country.
The webinar was moderated by Alison Blay-Palmer, Director of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems and UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies. Among the webinar speakers were Gabriel Allahdua from Justice for Migrant Workers, Janet McLaughlin from the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, Melana Roberts from Food Secure Canada and the Toronto Food Policy Council, and Stephanie Morningstar from the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust. The speakers discussed how food system inequities have been exacerbated by COVID-19, as well as the impacts of the pandemic on their own work. They also suggested various strategies for collaboration among various actors and interest groups to create a just, representative, and equitable food system.
The speakers engaged in a productive and insightful conversation regarding the state of the Canadian food system. Regarding the experiences of Black Canadians amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Melana Roberts emphasized the importance of bringing forward underrepresented racialized voices that have been silenced in the food system. In highlighting these silenced voices, we may cultivate diversity within the systems of knowledge, governance, and growing that are present within the Canadian food system. In doing so, we may shift the disproportionate
impacts of various food system inequities and disparities away from vulnerable populations, and instead support community building and economic revitalization in local capacities. Stephanie Morningstar further discussed these inequities present within the food system, as experienced by Indigenous farmers and within Indigenous communities. They emphasized that Indigenous nations across the country have been robbed of their traditional foodways and denied equal access to the land, money, and infrastructure needed to thrive within the agricultural sector. Going forward, attention must be placed on repairing relationships with Indigenous nations, so as to build networks of solidarity that may allow communities to heal from disparities in land and food access.
Gabriel Allahdua and Janet McLaughlin further discussed inequities within the Canadian food system, specifically with regard to the treatment of migrant agricultural workers. Gabriel thoroughly critiqued the programs which bring migrant workers into the country, including the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. These programs allow for gross human rights abuses against migrant workers, who are alienated, exploited, and silenced by their employers and the Canadian government. He condemned these injustices experienced by migrant workers across the country, which have been enshrined into Canadian law. Janet further explored these injustices as they have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained that workers have not been adequately protected from the health and safety risks associated with the agricultural field, and have been exposed to structural restraints that render them disposable and interchangeable despite their integral role in the Canadian food system.
Following a thorough examination of various disparities across the Canadian food landscape, as experienced by BIPOC communities and migrant agricultural workers, the presenters suggested various strategies that could be employed to create an equitable and representative food system following the COVID-19 pandemic. Melana Roberts asserted that COVID-19 has enabled the global community to recognize the food system inequities which existed prior to the pandemic, and has provided an opportunity for said inequities to be addressed in a way that increases resilience. Stephanie Morningstar urged that independent BIPOC farmers must be supported in their journeys of sustainable food production. Gabriel Allahdua and Janet
McLaughlin both demanded that migrant workers be granted full status, labour rights, and protections upon arrival to Canada, and urged that the essential labour of migrant agricultural workers be recognized and valued rather than ignored.
The moment that we have found ourselves in, as Canadians and members of the global community, is unprecedented. In this moment we have the opportunity to rethink our food landscape, and to recognize who does, and who does not, have a seat at the table. We can reflect on the actors that currently govern our food system and amend relationships in a way that honours the diverse perspectives present within our country, that consider what food should be grown, where it should be grown, and how it should be shared. It is imperative that this opportunity be seized in Canada, so as to ensure the creation of an equitable food system that actively supports the health and welfare of everyone who lives here.