Canada

What happened to the Liberals' concern about hunger and food insecurity?

The Throne Speech shook hopes that the Trudeau government will take meaningful action on a fast-growing problem

Tuesday’s Speech from the Throne was intended to lay out the Trudeau government’s plan to, as the Liberals like to say in their public communications, “keep moving Canada forward.” But at least one constituency following the speech felt a distinct lack of progress by the time the Governor General wrapped up her address.

Academics, researchers and community advocates worried by swelling rates of food insecurity and the rising cost of living were watching closely, hoping the government would promise substantive moves to help the one in seven Canadians now struggling to access sufficient amounts of nutritious food. Their hopes had risen after last year’s Throne Speech, which signalled support to address surging rates of food insecurity, strengthening local food supply chains, supporting farmers in building resilience against climate change and protecting Canadian and migrant workers who play an indispensable role in the food system. 

But as the list of this year’s commitments and aspirations unfurled, disappointment set in. There was no direct mention of food insecurity; the labour shortage in the agriculture and agri-food industry; the impacts of climate change on Canada’s food supply or financial assistance for millions of employed Canadians who fall below the poverty line. 

The speech did commit for the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) monthly payment amount to be adjusted for inflation, claiming it had “already helped lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.” But research from PROOF, an interdisciplinary research group examining food insecurity in Canada, had previously found that the monthly amount for the CCB was not sufficient in bringing hundreds of thousands of households out of food insecurity, the root cause of which is poverty.

“I’m dismayed by the continued rhetoric around the CCB being an effective poverty reduction tool,” said Valerie Tarasuk, who leads the PROOF research team tracking rates of food insecurity. “There are debates surrounding how many people really got moved out of poverty as a result of this the benefit, but there’s no debate about the fact that we still have a horrific problem of food insecurity and families of children.” 

The speech also committed to “combatting hate and racism with a renewed Anti-Racism strategy”—and it is true that food insecurity is an issue that differs across racial lines. Recent research conducted by PROOF and FoodShare Toronto found that Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities are more likely to be food insecure than white Canadians. 

“When we’re thinking about how we approach solutions [to food insecurity], we not only have to think about income,” said Melana Roberts, a board member at Food Secure Canada. “We also have to think along racial equity lines and understand how an anti-racism approach is a critical piece in building healthier, more sustainable communities, which were key priorities in the Throne Speech.”

Still, without evidence-based income policy solutions, the “food insecurity crisis” is only going to get worse, Roberts said. “We’re not going to see the significant benefits in the commitments around disaggregated race-based data, commitments around an Indigenous-led approach to mental health interventions, or the benefits of investment in housing unless we also see an anti-racism and a decolonization lens across the board.”  

The Throne Speech was heavily sprinkled with calls to action—action on reconciliation, action on collective health and well-being, action on climate change, action on rising prices and action on systemic racism. But advocates have heard many of those calls before.

“Action would look like creating new political frameworks that would support regenerative food systems or agriculture,” said Dawn Morrison, founder and curator of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, who thought the speech fell short in addressing the depth of social justice issues that lie at the heart of climate action and reconciliation.

Morrison says viewing climate change through the lens of food is vital, “because drivers of climate change exist in the food system.”

“We need a new framework for thinking of the food system beyond the settler-colonial narrative of just agriculture,”  Morrison added. “Of course, agriculture feeds a lot of people. But the model of agriculture that dominates is having serious impacts on the climate and was designed to favour the top one per cent of the corporations who control the food system.”

Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada. Email tips and suggestions to nathan.sing@macleans.ca.