Anti-Black racism in Canada’s food sector

Black food is inextricably linked to Black freedom.

September 1, 2021

5-minute read

The shared cultivation, preparation, and consumption of Black food is not only a cherished form of collective creativity, care, community, and culture for Black populations. It’s also a rich tradition that connects Black folks to their generational inheritance of resiliency. Their ancestors knew how to make something sustaining out of food scraps seen by others as substandard refuse.

The legacies of the enslavement of African people for their labour and the colonization of African lands continue to reverberate in the foods created and associated with African diasporic populations around the world, including in Canada.

Plantain, callaloo, rice, sugar cane, ackee, beans, cornmeal, and cassava are just a few examples of cooked, baked, boiled, and/or fried foods frequently found on menus in African and Caribbean eateries in contemporary Canadian cities. These, and so many other foods, tell an often un(der)told story about the ways Black populations have carried and created foods, cultures, and communities across oceans, borders, and generations.

Foods that sustained Black communities through the punishing predicaments of slavery and colonization have become present-day culinary treats and treasures. We can often find these foods featured at summer festivals and, in an increasing number of Canadian cities, at storefront and corner-store food joints. They’re enjoyed by both Black people and many of the non-Afro-descendants that make up Canada’s diverse urban centres.

Savoury, sweet, and often spicy foods from African-descendant communities are a hallmark inheritance of multiple government policies and practices that have shaped the multicultural mosaic found in Canada’s largest cities. Today, these foods are more than simply an enjoyable affirmation of culture, community, and comfort for Black people in Canada. They’re also a critical Black contribution to Canadian life, a generous sharing of tastes, smells, flavours, textures that enrich the plates, palates, and culture of all Canadians.

"The landlord and manager testified that, compared to the other businesses in the plaza, Elias didn’t attract “like-minded family-oriented customers”—but couldn’t explain what they meant by ‘like-minded’."

Indeed, the average Canadian might recognize the positive role that Black food has played in bettering Canada by enhancing cross-cultural exchange, experience, and understanding. However, a recent ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal reminds us of the persistent anti-Black barriers faced by Black food buyers, sellers, and growers and demonstrates the ongoing need to decolonize Black food and food systems in Canada.

In June, in the case of 8573123 Canada Inc. (Elias Restaurant) v. Keele Sheppard Plaza Inc. (“Elias”), Ontario’s highest court affirmed a lower court’s finding that a commercial landlord and property manager had jointly terminated the lease of a successful and popular Caribbean eatery due to anti-Black racism.

Elias Restaurant is a Toronto-based eatery that specializes in Afro-Caribbean food and primarily, though not exclusively, serves a Black customer base. The eatery is owned and operated by a Black husband and wife.

Their case began in May 2020, after they received an unexpected notice of termination of their tenancy from the landlord and property manager of the commercial plaza that housed the restaurant. The couple was especially shocked to receive this termination notice given that they’d made numerous attempts to contact the landlord and manager to express their interest in renewing their lease, in accordance with the option for renewal in their tenancy agreement. It was also an unwelcome surprise to the couple because they’d invested $150,000 to upgrade the restaurant during their seven-year tenancy.

Despite this, the landlord and manager refused to change their position and insisted on moving forward with unceremoniously terminating Elias Restaurant’s lease. This forced the restaurant owners to take the matter to court.

Both the lower court and the Court of Appeal found that the property owners’ reasons for seeking to terminate the lease were infected with unconscious anti-Black racism. For instance, the landlord and manager testified that, compared to the other businesses in the plaza, Elias didn’t attract “like-minded family-oriented customers”—but couldn’t explain what they meant by ‘like-minded’.

The landlord and manager also relied on an affidavit from a contractor they’d hired to do work on the plaza. In the affidavit, the contractor stated, among other things, that: “The customers visiting Elias Restaurant seemed to me to be quite unlike, in a negative way, the usual clientele visiting other tenants…” and “the Elias Restaurant does not attract family-oriented customers and detracts from the appeal of the Plaza for families.”

The landlord and property manager also revealed that they were aiming to replace the Elias Restaurant with another tenant because the restaurant was selling alcohol and they didn’t want a “liquor bar” in the plaza—this, even though Elias held a liquor license and its tenancy agreement explicitly recognized that alcohol would be sold there.

The Elias case is especially important and interesting in the context of Black food decolonization in Canada. It offers a revealing glimpse of the discrimination that Black food growers, sellers, and consumers face in Canadian food industries

It’s also important to note that both courts found that Elias’s owners had never missed or been late with rent (even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the restaurant only offered takeout). The judges also found that Elias’s rent was substantially higher than the amount proposed for a prospective tenant that the landlord and manager wanted to house in the Elias Restaurant space.

In a rare recognition of the subtle and insidious ways that anti-Black racism manifests in Canadian society, the judges in both courts astutely noted that, based on the evidence provided, the plaza’s landlord and property manager weren’t actually concerned about Elias Restaurant or attracting families. Rather, the court recognized, their concern centred on the kind of families that were attracted to and frequented the business—namely, Black, African, and Caribbean families. The courts pointed to the irony of calling a family-run restaurant not sufficiently family-friendly.

The courts also recognized that Elias Restaurant was being punished by the landlord and property manager for doing what it was authorized to do, including selling alcohol. They found that other businesses would likely not have been punished for doing the same thing if they were not Black businesses serving a predominantly Black clientele. For these reasons, this case might be referred to as an instance of “catering while Black.”

The Elias case is especially important and interesting in the context of Black food decolonization in Canada. It offers a revealing glimpse of the discrimination that Black food growers, sellers, and consumers face in Canadian food industries when making, marketing, and selling foods originating from and catering to African, Caribbean, and Black communities.

The courts found that Elias Restaurant was a successful Black food business whose only fault seemed to be that it catered primarily to Black patrons. As such, the case demonstrates that a shortage of Black ownership and control over land renders Black food businesses perpetually vulnerable to being shut out and shut down, regardless of their actual or potential commercial success.

In Toronto alone, the recent closures of popular restaurants like True True Diner, Aunty Lucy’s, and the now-resolved but still resonant challenges historically faced by the iconic restaurant, Real Jerk, are just a few examples of the challenges the Elias case helps highlight for Black restaurateurs.

The findings of a 2019 X University report, entitled Future Farmers: The Challenge of Food Sovereignty for Black Farmers in the Greater Toronto Area, strongly suggests that without Canadian food policies and initiatives that specifically support Black food growers, producers, and vendors to own and control the lands and properties where they grow and/or sell their foods, this legal victory of Elias Restaurant won’t necessarily translate into better realities for Black food businesses.

That said, this ruling from Ontario’s highest court should be taken as a powerful signal that Canadian courts will now be much less tolerant of anti-Black racism in Canada’s food sector. Canadian food policy actors should mindfully follow suit.

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