Black History Month & Food Justice

By Abra Brynne, Executive Director

I have been writing about place-based food systems for some time now, using those terms to draw attention to myriad facets of foodsheds, watersheds, ecosystems, people, place and culture, to name a few.

I grew up in a place a few mountain chains west of here. I have lived in this region for 32 years, I feel deeply rooted here and wish to live out my days in this place. I can only imagine how much deeper that connection to the mountain, valleys, rivers, and lakes must be for the people who are indigenous to this region, the Ktunaxa, Sinixt, Syilx, and Secwepemc.

As for the rest of us, we come from away, as they say in the maritimes. There are new immigrants among us, but for most families, if we trace our family history back a few generations, it becomes clear that we came not just from “away” but from across the oceans to land on Turtle Island. My own family, as Mennonites, came to this continent fleeing religious persecution. But they still had a choice.

The vast majority of black people residing on Turtle Island are descendents of people who had no choice. The conditions on the ships for impoverished immigrants were absolute luxury compared to those endured by the millions of Africans stolen and sold into slavery. If you have never seen the diagrams depicting how to stack human black bodies like firewood or potatoes in the bowels of the ships, they are truly appalling. Many did not survive the torture of those long journeys across the Atlantic Ocean. And life off the ships, for most, was not much better.

As Canadians, we tend to cloak ourselves in myths about the lack of racism and slavery in our country, contrasting ourselves with our American counterparts. Yet “slavery existed in Canada from the 16th century until its abolition in 1834. After slavery was abolished, African Canadians still had to contend with de facto segregation in housing, schooling and employment, and exclusion from public places such as theatres and restaurants.” 1 In Canada many monuments, universities, and other public memorials, bear the names of slave owners. We do not recognize this because the history and contributions of Black People across Canada have been deliberately eradicated. The only known cemetery in Canada for Black slaves is virtually unknown in the broader public. It is located south of Montreal and bears a terrible, racist name – no bronze statue for them.

As the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent reported from its mission to our country, “Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization has had a deleterious impact on people of African descent, which must be addressed in partnership with communities. Across the country, many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. It is important to underline that the experience of African Canadians is unique because of the particular history of anti-Black racism in Canada, which is traceable to slavery and its legacy, through specific laws and practices enforcing segregation in education, residential accommodation, employment and other economic opportunities. History informs anti-Black racism and racial stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched in institutions, policies and practices, that its institutional and systemic forms are either functionally normalized or rendered invisible, especially to the dominant group.” 2

How deeply entrenched anti-Black racism is in our country is demonstrated, in part, by the fact that “the greatest determinant of household food insecurity for Black people is simply being racialized as Black, resulting in Black household being 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure than their White counterparts.” 3 (emphasis added)

When People of Colour speak of oppression and harm, all too often the response from white people is to speak of our own. This is akin to telling someone who has just broken their leg and is in urgent need of medical attention that you have a scratch on your hand and need a band aid. As white people on Turtle Island we have to truly commit to getting out of the centre, the spotlight. The world does not have to function only and always in reference to us. One way we can decentre ourselves is through education – listening, learning about history, and speaking to oppression when we see it.

At the Food Policy Council, we continue to work on our own learning and to transform our organization to better incorporate and prioritize a food justice lens that recognizes the historical and ongoing harm of systemic racism as it is manifested in food systems. Among our current actions, our Anti-Racism Working Group meets monthly and we are actively fundraising so that we can hire a dedicated Anti-Racism and Justice Coordinator. We believe that, as Reni Eddo-Lodge has stated, “Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can’t afford to stay silent.” 4


There are a host of great resources to support learning about and action against systemic racism. Here are but a few:

  1. Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada, page 4.
  2. Ibid. page 7.
  3. Dismantling Racism in Canada’s Food Systems, by Dr. Katherine Lyon, page 4.
  4. Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, page xxi.
Scroll to Top