Feeding the 'Greenest City': historicizing 'local,' labour, and the postcolonial politics of eating.

Author:Lim, Stephanie R.


Employing a feminist "post"-colonial analysis, this text reflects on the invisibility of racialized agricultural labourers, and the ways in which temporary foreign worker programs reinscribe racial hierarchies and historical functions of empire. In establishing a context for present-day exclusions, I examine emerging research on Chinese farming in what is now Vancouver, roughly from the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1885) to the end of the "exclusion era" (1947). Offering a counter-narrative to the assumption that 'local food' is inherently more ethical and sustainable, this analysis interrogates idealized notions of local food production. Highlighting continuities between historical racial hierarchies and contemporary state-sanctioned exclusions, I assert that inequalities are not coincidental by-products of the agricultural system but are central to Canadian food production. The existence of temporary foreign worker programs is the latest solution to critical "cheap" labour shortages and the permanent demand for this labour in the agricultural sector.

Keywords: local food, low wage labour, Vancouver, British Columbia, Chinese farms


Le texte ci-dessous emploie une analyse feministe, -coloniale, qui tient compte de l'invisibilite des travailleurs agricole racialises, et les facons dont les programmes de travailleurs etrangers temporaires reinscrivent les hierarchies raciales et les fonctions traditionnelles de l'empire. En etablissant une contexte qui comprend les exclusions actuelles, j'examine la recherche nouvelle au sujet d'agriculture chinois, a ce qui est presentement Vancouver, des l'achevement du chemin de fer de Canadien Pacifique (1885), jusqu'a la fin de (1947). En offrant une narrative qui contredit l'assomption que les sont intrinsequement plus equitables et plus durables, cette analyse interroge les notions idealisees en ce qui concerne la production alimentaire locale. Soulignant les continuites existantes entres les hierarchies raciales historiques et les exclusions actuelles sanctionnees par l'etat, j'affirme que les inegalites ne sont pas simplement des sous-produits concomitants du systeme agricole, mais qu'ils sont au coeur de la production alimentaire canadienne. L'elaboration de programmes de travailleurs etrangers temporaires est la solution la plus recente pour contrer la penurie critique de la main d'oeuvre et la demande permanente de ce genre de travail au secteur agricole.

Mots cles: aliments locaux, travail a bon marche, Vancouver, Colombie-Britannique, agriculture Chinois


"... No Dogs and Chinese Allowed"

Those legendary wordsframed the entrance to a park in British-ruled Hong Kong.

Perhaps that's why some Chinese eat dogs.

--Elaine Woo, "They Eat Dogs" (2010) (1)

"Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es."

--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (1826)

The Vancouver farmers market at the height of the summer harvest offers stacks of biodynamic beets, mounds of fragrant figs and champagne peaches, pink oyster mushrooms, and an heirloom rainbow of carrots. An army of well-groomed dogs hunts for fallen french fries to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as performed by a trio of schoolchildren on tinny violins, their quavering harmonies punctuated by an occasional (endearingly) sour note. But for the startlingly high price tags, the farmers' market experience is an overwhelmingly pleasant contrast to the fluorescent lights and power pop soundtracks of big box food retail.

Adrift in this bucolic haze, the visitor is faced not only with markers of plenty, but also with the slogan: "You are what you eat. Prepare to meet your maker." Who selected this passage, and were they aware of the explicit social justice message of the Book of Amos? Perhaps it was just a catchy phrase out of context. A cascade of questions follows. How does the slogans distance from its prophetic origins mirror a disjuncture between this very market and its social and historical location? Who are our "makers" and do we meet them here? Whose realities are made visible or invisible in the imperative to buy local food?

"Meeting your maker" serves as our departure point for interrogating idealized notions of local food production. What follows is part of a wider project that explores how, in a time of growing food insecurity, we might locate "good food" with respect to the lived realities of people who are more likely to be the objects (and not subjects) of public and policy discourse. This research focuses on key historical moments where exclusion is made salient through human relationships with food. The present article foregrounds neglected figures from British Columbia's agricultural realities: racialized labourers and diasporic communities. By shedding light on racial hierarchies embedded in the past and present of local agriculture, this text highlights the continuity between historical race-based exclusions and contemporary state-sanctioned exclusions apparent in agricultural work. This analysis draws attention to the ways in which "the past is constitutive of the present," how capitalism seeks out particular bodies for particular forms of labour, and the ways in which diasporas (past and present) may be viewed as contemporaneous rather than binary (Cho 11; Mitchell 2013).

In situating the agricultural realities and aspirations of Vancouver's local food movement, I investigate the obscured history of Chinese food production in what is now Vancouver, British Columbia. I begin by establishing a contemporary context for these reflections as they flow from a concern for transnational labourers and the intersecting, systemic oppressions which are mapped onto migrant worker bodies. As this exploration hinges on racial categories, I situate these blurry taxonomies ("white" and "Chinese") in the geographically--and historically--specific context of British Columbia, roughly from the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 to the end of the "exclusion era" in 1947. (2) An overview of Chinese truck farms and produce peddling during this period fleshes out an historical and juridical setting so that we may engage in a focused, illustrated analysis of racialized food producers as "post"-colonial (3) subjects. In this, I draw from Renisa Mawani's examination of the colonial contact zone (2009), Lily Cho's analysis of the Chinese diaspora(s) in Canada as linked to postcolonialism (2010), and Avtar Brah's writing on transnational labour and late twentieth century capitalism (1994). Finally, I draw out the ways in which the colonial past is constitutive of the agricultural present, sketching a brief portrait of racialized agricultural labour in contemporary context and indicating a site for deeper exploration. (4) I apply lessons from Ien Ang's "I'm a Feminist But ..." (1995) to suggest a way forward to transforming the future of food systems out of deep concern for the systemic, entrenched, and racialized injustices faced by food producers past and present.

"... Perhaps the body holds a genetic memory of hunger, lack and privation stamped into its neurons--"

--Evelyn Lau, "A Grain of Rice" (2012) (5)

With a population of 2.3 million (2011) The Metro Vancouver region is the third largest urban area in Canada. It is situated between the cold coastal waters of the Georgia Straight and the lush agricultural fields of the Fraser Valley, a location that offers unique access to fresh, diverse, and locally harvested foods. A global movement around local and sustainable food systems has taken root in this fertile region. Increasing popular interest in local food is reflected in municipal policy milestones such as the formation of the Vancouver Food Policy Council in 2004 and the publication of Vancouver's first food charter in 2007. "Local food" took centre stage in 2011 when city staff unveiled an ambitious campaign to become the world's Greenest City by 2020. The Greenest City Action Goals summarize a reorientation of municipal policy around environmental issues, including the goal to "become a leader in urban food systems" (City of Vancouver 15). In 2013 the city released its first food strategy (Vancouver Food Strategy, henceforward "VFS") which includes a baseline analysis of Vancouver's food system: "Citizen interest in community gardens, farmers markets, urban farms, beekeeping, backyard hens and other community food projects has never been higher" (23); food is set to become "a centrepiece of Vancouver's green economy" (41,46).

Not far beneath the surface of this growing momentum is a longing for cozy, close-knit communities and seasonal, locally produced and wholesome foods. Farmers' markets are seen as "vibrant community gathering places" and the Vancouver Food Strategy describes a growing general awareness of the importance of local systems:

whether it's having a local food market within walking or cycling distance or enjoying the opportunity to grow our own food, getting to know our local growers, having access to affordable, nutritious and culturally diverse food, participating in community composting programs, or taking part in community food celebrations (VFS 15,9).

Residents are encouraged to participate in local food production through the revival of such endangered arts as home canning, hobby beekeeping, and chicken husbandry (VFS 89; 51). Support for local food production fosters regional resilience and aims to decrease reliance on resource-intensive imported foods and industrial agriculture. It is also linked to nostalgia for imagined agricultural abundance. Former Vancouver City Councillor Peter Ladner writes:

Bringing more fresh food production closer to home is an unparalleled win-win-win move. When urban agriculture flourishes, our children are healthier and smarter about what they eat, fewer people are hungry, more local jobs are created, local economies are stronger, more neighourhoods are greener and...

To continue reading