Systemic racism in Canadian food system labour markets


A full Canadian accounting is lacking (the US has a wider assessment of system racism in their food system, see Kelly et al., 2021), but food system BIPOC workers (including farmers) have experienced racism, perhaps more acutely in rural and agricultural communities with predominantly white populations than more diverse urban ones (for some personal stories, see Simes, 2020). Racism (and sexism) is also widespread in the food service industry according to accounts of many food service workers (MacRae works extensively with chefs who report on these circumstances, see also Goal 9). Restaurants Canada at least indirectly acknowledges the problem with its commitment to anti-racist work, perhaps inspired by the observations of many BIPOC chefs about the state of their industry (Liu, 2020). Major Canadian supermarket chains have also been putting more resources into diversity and equity initiatives in hiring and to some extent supply chains, but results to date are labelled lacklustre and still significantly behind efforts in the US (Stefanac, 2022). Some analysts believe there has been no progress on reducing systemic racism in Canadian labour markets (Block et al., 2019). Unemployment, underemployment, wage and asset gaps are higher for racialized than non-racialized Canadians. During the pandemic, Statistics Canada reports that 1 in 3 visible minority families have been struggling financially compared to only 1 in 5 non-visible minority familieis (Arora, 2021). Although these analyses do not usually identify the food system specific dimensions, given that 1 job in 7 is connected to the food system, these phenomena would be occurring in the sector, particularly in food service which has been deeply affected by lost sales and positions.

Throughout Canadian history, farmers and workers have been dispossessed and disfavoured. Morrison (2020) set out how the dispossession of indigenous peoples was executed through federal and provincial legislation, including the Indian Act (1876), Gradual Enfranchisement Act (1869), Gradual Civilization Act (1857), and BC Land Act (1874) (see also Carter, 1990, 2016; and Daschuk, 2013). Treaties for which indigenous people were to receive financial and material support for farming were deliberately not respected to undermine indigenous farming (cf. on Treaty 7 Southern Alberta, McQuaig, 2021). Programs at various points in Canadian history provided land for white people but not BIPOC (Walker, 2008). Indigenous farmers were also historically restricted in their ability to use machinery and market their crops on the Prairies (Kepkiewicz and Rotz, 2018). The Okanagan region had a deliberate strategy of attracting wealthier white British  settlers for orcharding, in contrast to the labourers in the early settler periods who were Aboriginal, Japanese and Chinese. Indentured labourers from China were imported in late WWI, but they were restricted from land ownership (Hjalmarson et al. 2015).

Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and other Temporary Foreign Worker programs are primarily comprised of people of colour, primarily from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica.  Representing over half of Canada's agricultural workers, the programs have been widely criticized for substandard living and working conditions and restrictions on mobility, made more acutely visible by COVID-19 ((Hennebry & Preibisch, 2010; Justicia for Migrant Workers, 2006; Preibisch, 2007; UFCW, 2011; UFCW & Canadian Agricultural Workers Alliance, 2014; Faraday, 2016; Clause, 2020; Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, 2020).

The food trucking industry has been quite affected by COVID, including significant retirements among older white drivers, leaving a more racialized fleet of drivers more vulnerable to the virus, with more shifts and hours due to driver shortages (Bascarmurty, 2021).

Precarious employment in the food system, though not specifically well studied, has significant levels of racialized workers, especially women, relative to more stable employment.  Many studies of employment precarity highlight people working in food service and retail.  Structural barriers to stable employment typically include: non-recognition of foreign credentials, information gaps, linguistic barriers, limited professional networks, the employer demand for Canadian experience, and direct discrimination.  Ontario has announced it will change regulations for recent immigrants (many of whom are people of colour) to forego requirements for Canadian experience in certain professions and trades  in the hope that this will speed up entry to the Ontario labour force (Ibbitson, 2021).  Whether affected professional bodies will fully comply with these new rules remains to be seen.

Although the alternative food movement in theory attempts to redress these inequities, there is evidence in both Canada and the US that racism persists (Allen, 2008; Alkon and Agyeman, 2011; Gibb and Wittman, 2013) and Guthman (2008) has called for more work to better understand how  people of colour are still excluded from the spaces of alternative food provisioning.