The Vancouver Food Policy Council And That Awkward Racist Guy


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Mr. Bill Hard-done-by-those-coloured-people Zylmans. I bet even his strawberries are racist.

Please see the VFPC response at the end of this post.

I was really excited last Thursday to go to an event about farming in Vancouver. I’m really geeky about stuff like that. I think I’ll forever be the only one of my friends who uses the hashtag #AgMoreThanEver. I’m one of the few people I know that commit their entry-level wage (I don’t even know many people with higher wages that do this) to fresh produce from the farmer’s market. I even subscribe to newsletters from the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, because you know, reading about mobile abattoirs and vegetable marketing workshops is totally relevant to a city girl like me.

The point is, I’m really passionate about farming. I want it to thrive in B.C. I care about the issues.

So when the Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) organized a panel discussion called “A Citizen’s Guide to the Agricultural Land Reserve,” I had to be there. It’s a critical point for farming right now in our province, and it all hinges on protecting farmland for future generations. It’s my job as a citizen to be informed.

So I was really excited about learning more at the panel discussion until, not even 20 minutes into the meeting, Bill Zylmans, B.C. farming bigshot, finishes his presentation to the audience with this dramatic flourish: “There’s not that many [of us] Caucasian [farmers] left.”

ALRmeeting

The room got awkward, the applause was dry, but nobody said a word. Zylmans didn’t even notice.

He later added another gem; of the 500 acres that Zylmans farms in Richmond, only 120 acres belongs to his family. “The rest,” he said, “is owned by offshore investors. Figure out what that means. [The panelist from the Ministry] can’t say that, but I can.”

So … if it’s not already obvious why these comments are problematic: how many Caucasian farmers should Bill and other white men like him need to feel comfortable? What’s wrong with having farmers reflect the ethnic diversity of the region that they live in? Are there too many coloured people? Should that make us uncomfortable?

Zylman’s offshore comment is also a little misplaced. Yes, it’s difficult for farmers to make a living if they cannot afford to have their own land, and that’s a problem. But Zylman’s comment hinted, again, at the fear of too much involvement from Foreign Coloured People.

One of the reasons why I didn’t speak up at the meeting was because I really don’t care whether or not people like Zylmans ever learn not to embarrass themselves in public with racist comments. And it’s clear from Zylmans’s attitude that he doesn’t care either. Old white guys are gonna be old white guys. There’s not much you can do for a determined racist.

It doesn’t matter how racist Bill is because what matters is how the VFPC, an established and respected leader for the farming movement in Vancouver, reacts when a speaker they invited outs himself as a bigot. It’s true that Zylmans is an important and knowledgable figure when it comes to farming. He likely has a lot of valuable insight when it comes to B.C. agriculture. But this knowledge will not help the cause when it comes with so much racist baggage.

Here I was, so excited to learn about farming, but because of the colour of my skin I suddenly didn’t feel welcome there anymore. Isn’t my support for the cause just as valuable? What if I fulfilled my dream of becoming a farmer one day, would I be Too Asian to farm in B.C.? Does Zylmans have any idea how much I’ve been advocating for local farm produce amongst my family and friends? What about celebrated food hero Arzeena Hamir, who has done so much to speak up for saving farmland in B.C.? Shouldn’t the success of her new farm in the Comox Valley be celebrated by farmers all over our province? Or is Hamir’s farm a threat to Caucasian B.C. farmers?

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You know white farmers have good reason to be afraid when the overwhelming majority of people that show up to a public farm policy meeting are white

Your movement cannot win if it fails to be inclusive. Here Zylmans was, saying the government needs to do this and the government needs to do that, and yet he didn’t consider the political support that ethnic minorities could lend to the cause!

But again, it’s okay for Zylmans to be racist. We don’t have to take him seriously. What’s not okay is if the Vancouver Food Policy Council continued to give a platform to racist speakers and to ask racist speakers to represent the cause. For the sake of the movement, the VFPC should distance themselves from Zylmans and not invite him to speak at future events.

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The Vancouver Food Policy Council response

We’ve been having email based conversation with the council over that last few days about this same issue, mainly Bill’s comments and how we can address such a situation in the future, if it arises. We’re also talking about how we can better ensure the VFPC meetings are a safe space for everyone. And we’re talking about how to incorporate anti-oppression training into our council work.

At the February meeting, we’ll make sure to include an update on our progress, and will start off the meeting by reminding all attendees and panelists that we expect them to be respectful in their comments.

The VFPC is working to plan a meeting in the upcoming months specifically discussing discrimination/oppression in the food system – perhaps highlighting some of the work being done locally.  This was our intention previous to the meeting last Wednesday and it seems even more important now that we are having this discussion within the community. Its very complicated and emotional territory to tackle and as volunteers the VFPC has its limitations as a forum to do so. However, we want and need to communicate around this issue in order to understand how to bring a just and sustainable food system forward. And so, I put the invitation to you and your readers that if there are any ideas or energy we would gladly like to hear them (http://www.vancouverfoodpolicycouncil.ca/contact-us/).

 

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Alex Tse writes when no one's looking. She believes in the true meaning of hipster and she'd like it if you became her vegan cupcake friend. Find her on the internetz @alexnotangry and http://alexnotangry.wordpress.com.

10 thoughts on “The Vancouver Food Policy Council And That Awkward Racist Guy”

  1. Hey Alex. WAY TO GO extrapolating on the comment made by Bill. Your reaction to the statement did not allow you to grasp what his point was. White people, by and large, are not the majority of new entrants into farming in BC. His statement was one asking for reflection. His white children do not have interest in farming. Why is this?
    So, please safe your rhetoric and let’s focus on the issue at hand which is the fate of the ALR.

    1. “Why is this?” Zylmans himself already explained why at the meeting – family farms aren’t being passed down because the bottom line isn’t profitable. New farmers cannot afford to farm.

      So what’s left to “reflect” on, exactly? Zylmans wasn’t interested in the overall (the black, Indian, Asian, Native, etc.) demographics in farming, he was ONLY concerned about the white demographic, which he claims is dwindling. Filipino people, by and large, are not the majority of new entrants into farming in BC. Why isn’t Zylmans concerned about that?

      So again, is it a problem if new farming entrants are not white? If not, then what are you suggesting we reflect on?

    2. What extrapolation? They were racist comments, not much extrapolation needed. And Alex seems to me precisely correct that, aside from that kind of talk being simply ethically wrong and unacceptable, it is also tactically stupid for the local farm movement in BC to tolerate them. Everyone wants good food, everyone has an interest in local production and healthy produce and food sustainability and so forth. Doesn’t matter what colour your skin is, and it’s foolish to alienate half the people who might be supporting that kind of thing.

      This kind of thing is also, to my mind, a symptom of something more unmentionable. Racists on such matters act as if they’re being transgressive, but it’s really displacement of something much more transgressive. In BC, talk of non-white foreign ownership as a problem is a way of avoiding the more basic problem: Big capital in general. It doesn’t matter if the owners are Chinese or what, the problem is that if something is owned by huge structures bossed by people who live far away, whether in Hong Kong or Toronto, then it will be operated for the profits of shareholders and CEOs, not for anyone local, and the results will generally be bad. But saying that means going against the great political correctness, the biggest myth of all, that markets and capital are magical perfect things made of unicorns and pixie dust, that can do no wrong. Less uncomfortable to resurrect racism by latching onto the fact that many of the capitalists impacting Vancouver are Asian, and just displacing the gripe from Capital to Asia.

      I see it all the time in people whining about foreign ownership of oil companies because the owners are “Communist China” (what a laugh), while they avoid noticing that owners from “Capitalist USA” and even “Free Market Calgary” are doing exactly the same shenanigans.

    1. You have a point. I do not enjoy saying those things. I would rather not be in situations where I have to accuse people of racism.

      But if old racist white guys don’t want to be called old racist white guys then maybe they shouldn’t be?

  2. @Alex – As a writer/journalist/publisher you may be more convincing if you weren’t so clearly bias in yoir reporting and actually made the effort to do a post-event interview with this man and ask him to elaborate on his comments. Perhaps he was being politically incorrect or perhaps he hates others based on their skin colour (which I doubt). Either way your mud slinging creates more division than it does to provide clarity. Still not too late to interview him yourself.

    1. I don’t claim to be a reporter or journalist – it’s called a blog, dude. If Zylmans says something bad, why should I go out of my way to interview him to make him sound less bad? Is that your idea of journalistic non-bias? I’m not his cleaning lady – he can clean up his own mess.

      If Zylmans was the one being “politically incorrect” (again, that’s a really euphemistic way of putting it), then isn’t he the one being “divisive”? And I’m “mud-slingy” and “biased” because I pointed it out? If he did’t make those comments then there wouldn’t be a problem.

      It’s pretty clear from this blog post and from the Vancouver Food Policy’s own response how it all went down. What other “clarity” are you looking for?

  3. It does matter that the farmer was racist, and it is great to point this out as a problem that gets in the way of the success of a grassroots movement. Those who are fighting to keep control over food production, food security in our community have enough to fight against without becoming a divided movement. So it is a problem if some of the farmers are racist because it means that other farmers (or activists or shoppers or community members) now are not included in the effort to achieve the same goal. Self-defeating and a waste of energy to have to sort this out.
    Not sure why most of the responses on here have an issue with an observation made about the meeting. A) it happened and b) it is a problem. How is that biased? Unless Alex is biased against racist comments?

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