The momentum created by the current civil rights movement that swept the planet this summer prompted awareness, but it didn’t end racism. Unconscious racism doesn’t go away when marches die down or hashtags dip in popularity, it is something that needs to be addressed individually. How can we be sure we aren’t subconsciously acting as oppressors rather than allies? How do we be truly anti-racist, rather than performative?
Our restaurants are a mess, and not just because they’re all suffering like they never have before, they’ve always been a mess—we just never questioned it as strongly as we are now. #MeToo woke us up, the pandemic broke our silence, and now here we are, ready for change and unsure how to start.
Charlotte Big Canoe is Anishinaabe, her family is from the Chippewa of the Georgina Island First Nation. She is a board member at The Full Plate, a hospitality nonprofit providing essential services to promote overall well-being within the industry; anti-racism training included.
What does The Full Plate do exactly?
It was started by Sarah Bailey, it’s something she wanted to do for a long time. She’s frustrated with the way hospitality staff are often left out of the conversation around precarious work, and that was really highlighted by the pandemic. It was already a need and then in March it really ramped up. She invited me to be part of it pretty early on and we’ve grown from there to seven board members. We focus on tackling any gaps in services for hospitality workers, both back and front of house.
What are the gaps that restaurant workers experience, and how do you address them?
We have a partnership with FoodShare Toronto that addresses food insecurity, providing produce boxes to hospitality workers for free. We also work with the LOST Foundation to provide counselling and peer support sessions. We put together anti-racism training programs, tailored to both front and back of house and to management. Because your interactions with people are different in all these three roles and we wanted to make sure we addressed that.
Tell me more about the anti-racism training for restaurants. How much does it cost and what has the response been so far?
Membership is free, just sign up on our website. We’ve set it up so that there are always spots available for Full Plate members, so if a restaurant reserves x number of seats for their staff there will always be a portion of seats for our members. We’ve hosted quite a few and the response has been great. Everyone is trying to participate in anti-racism and working on that in hospitality but doing it in solitude because of the pandemic, with these classes we see people who know each other, who are in their peer group, and are able to support each other in a unique way.
That’s so dead on when you say that people are trying to do this work in solitude. People are cognizant of things that maybe they weren’t before but don’t know how to move forward or ask for help. What has the sign up been like for classes, are you getting a lot of white people or are you preaching to the choir?
A little bit of both. More white guys than I was anticipating, which is great.
In Canada we seem to know more about the American Black experience of racism than we do our own Indigenous population in this country. It hasn’t been explored in our pop culture to the extent that the African-American experience has been in the U.S., and we don’t learn much about it in school. It’s only now, because of social media and BLM that we’re becoming more aware. Do you address this in the programming?
I see it happen a lot in conversations about race and anti-racism. We have to recognize that there is a reason Black people have a specific, unique experience. Indigenous people have a unique experience too. We want to give everybody equal weight.
We have this weird way of looking at Indigenous status as being like a bonus. People think that we get free schooling, or don’t pay taxes—which is really not the case. It’s more like a dog tag system to keep track of how many Indigenous people there are and it’s not set up to benefit the Indigenous population. One of the things that really became implemented through the Indian Act was the process of disenfranchisement. If you wanted to vote, you had to be disenfranchised. If you wanted to own land, get legal counsel, anything like that, you had to give up your “Indian status”. To do that you had to prove that you were living as a good white man. It implemented a process of forgetting. It erased culture and identity very effectively. My great-grandfather sold his status for land and that meant that all generations after him did not have status. There’s a part of me that wants my status, however I struggle with that because of all the ways (Indian status) was built to keep Indigenous people down.
But it makes it easier to say (Canada) is not that bad, we have this whole system for Indigenous people, they get all this stuff. And that’s really not the case.
You exist in two worlds—Indigenous activism and restaurant/foodie culture. Those used to be quite separate, is that changing?
I’m always happy when I see people paying attention to both. A couple of years ago we would have seen everything happening in Nova Scotia and not seen any response from the food hospitality industry. They often exist separately because Indigenous people are left out of the food and wine scene in Canada. We were watching businesses with a magnifying glass back in the summer to see what they were going to do after the murder of George Floyd. I think this is another moment to say “how much are you willing to put on the line to support this?” If your business is making money off this and you’re not willing to acknowledge what’s happening that becomes a problem.
But now, to see places show their support (for the Mi’kmaq) is really, really great.
How is hospitality unique in the conversation around race?
When we talk about anti-racism in hospitality it gets looked at as if it is dragged in from the outside world by guests, and that’s not the case. It already exists in the systems of a restaurant. We’re constantly consuming other people’s cultures in this business. We also work with the general public in a different way. It’s not just about ‘what do we do if a guest comes in and they’re racist?’ It’s about how we address everything else that is already happening behind the scenes.
About The Full Plate
Membership at The Full Plate is free, as are their services. The anti-racism training is paid for/sponsored by restaurant groups, not individual workers, and free seats are kept open for Full Plate members on a first come first served basis.