In the Room Where It Happens

October 2019

By Catherine Mah

With the writs issued, we are now headlong into a federal election. The fair and robust participation of many stakeholders, sectors, and voices is needed in Canada’s 43rd Parliament. It is also needed to create healthy and sustainable food systems for all. Policy participation is central to the FLEdGE Good Food Principles.

American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider, in his 1960s classic, The Semisovereign People, proposed that the ‘scope of conflict’ was central to determining political outcomes. Who is involved and who should be involved in solving societal problems? How can we make important issues and conflicts visible? In Schattschneider’s formulation, the heart of the struggle was the ongoing privatization (narrowing) and socialization (broadening) of the scope of conflict. Those who would seek to resolve issues with as little conflict as possible would attempt to narrow the scope. Democratic processes, and public involvement, can enlarge the scope of conflict.

I thought about Schattschneider shortly before 8:00 am on May 9, 2019 in the foyer of 1 Wellington Street. It was my first appearance in Senate committee, as an expert witness to the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry (AGFO).

I was excited to be presenting on a panel of accomplished colleagues and public health advocates: Elsie Azevedo Perry, Public Health Nutritionist with the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit; Dr. Heather Thomas, Public Health Dietitian, Middlesex-London Health Unit; Dr. Sharon Kirkpatrick, Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Health Systems, University of Waterloo; and Bill Jeffery, Executive Director of the Centre for Health Science and Law and publisher of the Food for Life Report. Strength in numbers.

Catherine Mah on Parliament Hill with Elsie Azevedo Perry, Dr. Heather Thomas, Dr. Sharon Kirkpatrick, and Bill Jeffery.

The main purpose of my opening statement was simple: to expand the scope of conflict for food literacy in Canada. I wanted to connect with each Senator in the room, drawing on their experiences, diverse constituencies, and their roles on the Hill, to reinforce the idea that food choices are social. 

I gave credence to the prospect of individual agency in deciding what to eat, but spent most of my speaking time in arguing for how healthy food choices require healthy public policy. Setting the policy conditions for public health and food literacy means addressing fair economic participation, robust use of science, diverse voices in policy, food in public institutions, and setting new norms for community food environments to be places where healthy eating is rewarding for eaters and food businesses alike.

That morning in May was one of the last meetings of AGFO before it adjourned for the summer, and for the session. Without a formal study, our comments will go into the Hansard record, not (yet) into the material for a formal report.

A decade ago, during the financial crisis, an earlier iteration of the Committee prepared a comprehensive report on rural poverty in Canada that acknowledged the breadth of the health, social, and economic challenges and opportunities at hand. The report went on to influence policy decisions long afterwards.

AGFO Committee will reconstitute in a new session of Parliament, after October 21. FLEdGE partnership members and blog readers: let’s make sure we get back in the room when they do.

About the Author:

Catherine L. Mah is the Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations, Associate Professor at Dalhousie University, and FLEdGE Atlantic Canada Research Node Co-lead