BY Jeff Tribe
Hunger is something all too familiar to the peoples of Northern Canada. Hunger of the belly or worse – hunger of the spirit. I touched briefly on this last month, recalling my experiences in and around the Town of High Level in Northeastern Alberta four decades ago.
Today, the community located in the midst of the Dene Tha First Nation has both a foodbank and kitchen program operated through the local Native Friendship Centre, a positive development.
Yet the problem of hunger, physical and spiritual, persists and not just in Canada’s northern communities. Similar challenges exist throughout our nation including the south. In cities, it’s often due to the combination of inadequate food distribution and the excessive cost of housing. For the working poor, the choice all too often is between food and shelter and the situation is aggravated further by the existence of food deserts, areas underserved by the large grocery retailers.
However, it’s on the hunger of rural Southwestern Ontario, where a large percentage of Canada’s food production takes place, that I’d like to focus my remarks.
Here in Chatham-Kent, there are foodbanks in most of the little communities, several in Chatham along with soup kitchens, and the newer Mobile Food Market which makes weekly stops in 12 different locations.
The portrayal of Canadian food system as being resilient and an important economic driver for Canada with its export focus is at best ironic, an irony that is perhaps best exemplified when hunger occurs among members of the farming community.
About 15 years ago, I was invited to meet with a group of Thai women who were being temporarily housed in a Leamington motel as they were beginning to work at a nearby mushroom farm.
Hospitality, it would seem, is second nature to the Thai people. My wife and I, along with two worker advocates who provided translation were invited to join the workers for lunch, a meal that they had evidently taken some time to prepare.
Afterwards, I had an opportunity to learn more of the workers’ brief Canadian experience. They had been brought to Canada by a farmer through the low-skilled component of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program that had been introduced federally when a Liberal government was still in power. It was subsequently popularized by the succeeding Conservative government led by Stephen Harper and such questionable characters as Jason Kenney who at the time served as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration
The program at that time offered little in the way of worker support or protection. Participants were essentially left to their own devices and whatever integrity their employer might possess.
The group had arrived late in the summer, ostensibly for spring planting, but were not offered any immediate work apart from some nightcrawler harvesting and, from what I was told, entertaining their employer. With winter in the not-too-distant future, they had inadequate clothing and too little to eat. Worse, each of the women had paid many thousands of dollars – often borrowed – to unscrupulous labour contractors for the privilege of coming to Canada to labour within the food system only to be faced with hunger and despair.
Only through the intervention of the worker advocates and members of The Ursuline Sisters of Chatham were the women rescued from their plight. Jobs with the mushroom farm were secured and transportation arranged with frail sisters standing guard as the move was made.
Hunger is not just a concern for farm workers but for farmers themselves.
A number of years ago I interviewed the people operating a food bank in Petrolia who told me that among their patrons were farm families. In times of poor commodity pricing, income can fall to the point that putting food on the table becomes an issue, especially for families reliant only on farming as their sole source of income.
Unlike times past, when farmers combined sales of their production with a component of self-sufficiency, most of today’s farmers are specialists, focusing on production of a relatively small number of crops or a single species of livestock. When incomes fall, food security becomes an issue.
Hunger within the farming population is not just restricted to those who have embraced the modern approach to agriculture, however.
A year ago, just before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in Canada, I made a stop at a little farm I had been to before hoping to purchase some butter or milk. The woman of the household was there, a thin person with young children and a tired, drawn demeanor. With a look of admonishment, she replied, “The people are hungry!”
Without even the benefit of even paper and ink, I remember those words well and, upon reflection, what may have been their intended message: you think you know so much about the food system but in fact you know very little.
Early spring has traditionally been the hungry time, a time when winter stores have been depleted and new growth still lies ahead. Asking for butter or milk was a most foolish request. ◊