Homegrown Sugar Beets and the Racial Stratification of Labour

Jane Komori
race and capital Komori

This paper provides a history of more than a century of efforts to establish and maintain a homegrown Canadian sugar supply – a twentieth century version of what Eric Williams called the ‘war of the two sugars,’ or the global competition between sugar beet and cane. To resolve beet sugar’s so-called ‘labour problem,’ the industry has collaborated with the Canadian state to produce new classes of temporary workers, mobilizing incarcerated Japanese Canadians, migrant indigenous families, and Mexican and Caribbean workers employed through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. At the same time, the sugar industry has sought to refine itself of the racialised workers upon whom it relies by promoting the figure of the white Canadian worker. The Canadian ‘war of the two sugars’ has been fought through the stratification of the labour force along the lines of citizenship, resulting in the production of unique racial forms.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

In 1914, the British Columbia Sugar Refining Company took out a series of half- and full-page advertisements in a Vancouver regional newspaper, the Daily News Advertiser. The advertisements promoted locally refined cane sugar by warning of the dangers of sugar refined by ‘coolie’ labour in Asia. One advertisement describes how ‘Each month of this year there has arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong boatloads of coolie-refined sugar… refined by a 20c-a-day, bathless, sweaty, semi-clothed Chinaman.’[i] The advertisement contrasts Asian-refined sugar with the ‘clean, healthful, sanitary’ conditions in which ‘white workmen’ produce BC Sugar, and implores the ‘careful housewife’ to make the safer purchase to benefit the working men of her community.[ii]

At the same time, the BC Sugar Refining Company sought to acquire refineries in Southern Alberta and Manitoba to process sugar beets, supplementing its cane refinery in the Port of Vancouver. To establish itself as one of the West’s premier industries, spanning three provinces and ensuring a domestic supply of sugar, the company erected the popular and provocative figure of the coolie as the economic force against which it struggled. However, efforts to limit Asian migration did not, as Colleen Lye puts it, ‘actually keep Asians out; it merely guaranteed a disempowered class of laborers.’ [iii] These disempowered workers – ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship,’ indigenous peoples, and migrants – were to become essential to the operation of the sugar beet fields.[iv] While the BC Sugar Refining Company counterposed the coolie and the white worker, fortifying emergent associations between ‘white’ and ‘worker’ in the Western Canadian imagination over and against the maligned figure of the Chinese contract labourer, it also became increasingly involved in the mobilization of Japanese Canadian, indigenous, and migrant workers from within and beyond its borders for the cultivation and harvest of sugar beets. Today, following more than a century of employment of a series of temporary, non-citizen workers in the beet fields, discourses of Asian exclusion continue to shroud the elaborate systems of labour recruitment and racialization that are foundational to the Canadian sugar industry. Finally, the industry’s interlining of nationalist and protectionist rhetoric and policy with the exploitation of workers formally excluded from the Canadian state continues to determine the relationship between race, class, and citizenship in Western Canada.   

Sugar beet cultivation, first developed in Europe in an effort to become independent of tropical sugars and inaugurating what Eric Williams calls ‘the war of the two sugars,’ is an enduring form of ‘stoop labour.’[v] The nineteenth century war between sugar beet and cane emerged after the Haitian Revolution, when Napoléon Bonaparte sponsored the perfection of sugar beet cultivation and refining in France. Meanwhile, the British West Indian sugar monopoly collapsed and the British slave trade was abolished, such that by the 1850s, West Indian sugar competed with cane sugar from India, Cuba, and Brazil, and beet sugar from the European continent. In the late nineteenth century beet sugar had become ‘a permanent European and even an American feature in the interest of autarchy.’[vi] The cultivation of beet sugar and other crops in North America also contributed to the collapse of eighteenth century distinctions between the intensive, small-scale agriculture of the colonies of Canada and the northern United States, and the extensive, large-scale plantations of the American South and the Caribbean. The introduction of crops like sugar beets allowed for the production of a tropical crop in temperate regions, expanding the labour model of the ‘disciplined gang of the big capitalist’ of the South to the ‘mere earth-scratchers’ of the North.[vii]

In the Canadian war of two sugars of the twentieth century, which pitted domestic sugar beet production against the importation of refined cane sugar, the problem of procuring cheap workers in sufficient numbers plagued domestic sugar production, and peculiar structures of state support had to be innovated. This support has arrived not in the form of subsidies, as in other key agricultural industries, but in the process of producing and procuring temporary workers to perform the arduous seasonal work of planting, hoeing, and harvesting. From the time that the BC Sugar Refining Company began its sugar beet operations, it collaborated with provincial and federal governments to procure incarcerated Japanese Canadians, northern indigenous peoples, and seasonal migrant workers for its fields. In order to establish and expand ‘Canadian’ sugar production, the industry turned the BC Sugar Refining Company’s 1914 fears of coolie labour inside out, energetically mobilizing racialized workers from other regions of Canada and from outside of its borders for sugar beet cultivation. When examined from the perspective of labour, we find that the success of the homegrown sugar beet rests entirely on the labour of those legally and symbolically excluded from the nation. Indeed, what is most ‘Canadian’ about the sugar beet industry is the innovation and perpetuation of a racially stratified labour force. Where the industry purports to support white Canadians, it does the inverse: it employs a legion of non-Canadian workers, undermining the labour rights and quality of life of all workers in the region. Put another way, on either side of the Canadian ‘war of the two sugars’ we find the same kinds of foot soldiers: temporary, non-citizen workers bearing the punishing weight of sugar cultivation. 

Super-sensuous sugar

The BC Sugar Refining Company’s 1914 advertisement, ‘Next Time You Buy Sugar, Think of These Things,’ begins as follows: 

With adequate means of transportation, China could, if we permitted, place on our shores, within a short period, a million or more of her Coolie labourers. What this would mean to British Columbia and Canada is better imagined than experienced… Resolute against such a contingency stand our laws of immigration, protecting industries and labourers. But of what avail are these laws if we close the front door only, leaving open the back door – not actually as a means of entry to the vast hordes of these Asiatic Coolies, but as a portal through which to introduce the products of their labour?[viii]

While laws limiting Asian immigration are celebrated as ‘protecting industries and labourers’ against the ‘vast hordes’ of Asian workers, they do little to close the ‘back door’ through which the Asiatic might still dominate the Canadian economy. Without stronger trade protections, the importation of raw cane for domestic refining will be overtaken by a flood of Asian-refined sugar. This was not a new concern; it rehearsed tropes of Asian economic efficiency that had by 1914 accompanied Asian migration to North America for several decades. For instance, in the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPR), the collective power of striking Chinese railroad workers presented railroad bosses with a terrifying possibility that Manu Karuka describes as follows: ‘Instead of the triumphal procession of capital, pushing back the frontier to strike a path toward the riches of China, here was the labour of China moving eastward.’[ix] Like the CPR, the BC Sugar Refining Company argued that the western frontier had to be carefully guarded against Asian invasion by controlling the importation of both coolie labour and its products. Never mind that China’s growing trade deficits to India and Britain following the Opium Wars led to its increasing dependence on remittances from swelling numbers of contract labourers across Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas.[x] As Mike Davis puts it, ‘The so-called ‘yellow peril’ that English writers would help to popularize was thus a direct consequence of Asia’s increasing subsidization of faltering British hegemony. Emigrant Chinese plantation workers and railroad laborers, like Indian ryots, balanced England’s accounts on their bent backs.’[xi]

Elaborating on the potential of the back door portal through which the coolie traffics, in the place of his body, the products of his labour, the BC Sugar Refining Company’s advertisement continues:

Each month of this year there has arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong boatloads of coolie-refined sugar… refined by a 20c-a-day, bathless, sweaty, semi-clothed Chinaman. And this sugar is imported by certain Vancouver merchants to be sold by them in Vancouver to our public at a price equal to that which they now pay for clean sugar which is refined in Vancouver, in clean, healthful, sanitary surroundings, by white workmen who are dependent on your support of the industry which provides their livelihood…

British Columbia Granulated Sugar, in the 5-lb. packet, is put up so daintily. It is a great feature in the household economy these days, when the watchword of the careful housewife is ‘Death to the fly.’ Hermetically sealed, untouched by hand, it reaches you as it leaves the refinery – in snowy purity.[xii]

The ‘hermetically sealed’ purity of sugar produced in Vancouver is contrasted sharply with sugar refined by underpaid and uncouth ‘Chinamen.’ Indeed, the commodity refined by the white worker is stripped not only of the impurities of the sugar cane from which it is extracted, but of the refinery worker’s own touch. The white worker is figured, unlike the sweaty coolie, as so well-compensated and clean that the defining feature of his labour is its own effacement. Canadian labour, which is, in the imagination of the advertisements, definitionally white, is the only labour adequate to produce ‘clean, healthful, sanitary’ refined sugar. White Canadian labour does not linger in the commodity; it does not taint the contents of the sugar packet, with which it shares a ‘snowy purity.’ The whiteness of the domestically refined sugar in the advertisements is a metonym for the whiteness of the Canadian worker, which must be fostered and protected from the corrupting powers of the indelibly foreign coolie.

Likewise, another advertisement, ‘A Public Menace,’ applauds the immigration controls that resulted in the Komagata Maru incident of the same year, in which a steamship carrying 376 migrants from British India via Hong Kong was turned away at the Port of Vancouver, resulting in the deaths of most of the passengers.[xiii] The advertisement argues again that laws of ‘protection’ that concern immigration must be just as strong in trade by asking:

Is it reasonable, in keeping with our policy of protection, to encourage in any way the sale or consumption in Vancouver of sugar refined in Hong Kong by Asiatic coolies, towards whose exclusion our efforts are so vigorously directed, when we can obtain at no greater cost sugar equally as good, and refined by white workmen who live in and form a part of our own community?[xiv]

The advertisement criticizes legislators’ narrow focus on the Yellow Peril in the form of the migrant worker, overlooking the products of yellow labour, which hold in and of themselves the power to ruin the lives of the ‘white workmen’ who are ‘dependent on your support of the industry which provides their livelihood.’[xv]

By contrasting domestically refined and imported sugar, the advertisements present a curious twist on Karl Marx’s commodity fetish. The products of the white workman’s labour properly assume the form of the commodity by shedding the ‘peculiar social character of the labour which produces them.’[xvi] That is, they mystify us in their form by presenting ‘the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects,’ hermetically sealing off the hand of the labourer in the purified particles.[xvii] The commodity produced by the white worker of the advertisements is, in Marx’s words, ‘supra-sensuous.’ It has ‘transcended’ the labour that produced it and its own material conditions by entering into a social relation with other objects in the process of exchange.[xviii] Through the apparent substitution of the social relations between producers with a social relation between objects, ‘the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social.’[xix] However, the advertisements represent the products of the coolie’s labour as unable to shed their ‘peculiar social character.’ The ‘equally as good’ quality of the sugar, named in the second advertisement, belies the problem. The refining process strips sugar of any trace of the labour that produced it: the sucrose granules, wherever they were produced, whether by Canadians or coolies, are indistinguishable from one another. Nevertheless, the BC Sugar Refining Company attempted to differentiate the commodities of the white worker and the products of coolie labour. The advertisements confront the consumer with the super-sensuousness of the coolie labour that produces Hong Kong sugar, which would otherwise be perfectly invisible and ‘equally as good.’ The coolie’s undressed, sweaty, bathless body must be revived in the refined product by the text of the advertisement and the imagination of the reader. If the advertisements are successful, the quality of the coolie’s labour, its ‘peculiar social character,’ mars the pure whiteness of the sugar, undermining the refining process and staining yellow each crystal.[xx] At the same time, the representation of a supra-sensuous, white, Canadian sugar, freed from the ‘peculiar social character of the labour’ which produced it, is conflated with Vancouver’s refinery workers. Counterposing the bodily filth of the coolie and the sugar he produces with the ‘fine white’ sugar produced by the Canadian worker, the advertisements represent the white workman as the virtuous but vulnerable foundation of the Western Canadian economy, who stands against the dangers of cheap and dirty Asian labour and its products.

The BC Sugar Refining Company’s advertisements, in the counterposing of commodities produced by coolie and white labour, adapt what Iyko Day describes as a uniquely settler colonial logic of romantic anticapitalism. Day draws on Moishe Postone’s theorization of anti-Semitism in the context of National Socialism, where Jews were made to personify abstract elements of capital, to argue that in late nineteenth and early twentieth century North America Asians served to represent abstract labour time, over and against the ‘concrete’ labour of white workers. Here, ‘the connection between the Chinese and the abstract domination of capitalism evolved through their identification with a mode of efficiency that was aligned with a perverse temporality of domestic and social reproduction. In other words, the Chinese personified the quantitative sphere of abstract labor, which threatened the concrete, qualitative sphere of white labor’s social reproduction.’[xxi] However, unlike the construction of western railroads or other industries that relied heavily on Chinese contract labour, Canadian sugar refining did not depend on Chinese workers. In the BC Sugar Refining Company’s advertisements, the threat of the coolie’s ‘perverse temporality’ is extended beyond Canada’s borders. While the ‘20c-a-day’ Chinese worker may be excluded from entry into the Canadian labour market, he may still undermine the wages of the white Canadian worker through the importation of his products. It is curious that, in the advertisements’ association of the coolie abroad with dirty sugar products sold on the Canadian market, the coolie is represented as all too concrete; his body stains his sugar so that it is no longer truly white, nor healthful or sanitary. The contrasting of super-sensuous coolie sugar and supra-sensuous white sugar extends and adapts local settler colonial romantic anticapitalism to encompass commodities as well as labour time. The white worker must be defended from a coolie whose greatest perversity is his transmutability; his ability to smuggle his cheap and dirty labour through front door of immigration and the back door portal of international trade.

On the Canadian West Coast, the representational labour of the coolie, personifying abstract and otherwise unrepresentable dimensions of capital, served as a foil for a quickly consolidating white, working class identity. To quote Colleen Lye, ‘Asian exclusionism was a modality in which white working-class identity was lived in the region.’[xxii] Indeed, in the context of the North American West Coast, where the importation of Chinese contract labour for construction of railroads and primary resource extraction industries beginning in the 1850s revived debates about slavery, freedom, and labour, the figure of the coolie became the ‘indispensable enemy for the organizing of white, predominantly Irish, working class.’[xxiii] At the same time, the identity of the white worker as the concrete pole in the romantic anticapitalist antinomy of the concrete and the abstract was coextensive with the production of a national identity. As the BC Sugar Refining Company’s advertisements would have it, ‘our community’ emerges only under the threat of Asian labour, and it becomes a white and Canadian community only when the state, capital, workers, and housewives of Vancouver align themselves against the possibility of Asian economic domination. In other words, Asian exclusionism merged and popularized concerns about wages and protections for white workers with a nationalist rhetoric that focused on the fortification of the western border.

Finally, the establishment of Asian exclusion policies in the US and Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively, transferred control of labour importation from corporations to the state. As Karuka puts it, ‘With the immigration license or permit, a forerunner of the visa, the state itself would now manage the importation, selection, and oversight of labour, a sea change that continues unabated into the present.’[xxiv] Likewise, Day shows how the establishment and maintenance of the settler colonial state relies on both the dispossession and elimination of indigenous peoples and the importation of alien labour. While distinct in significant ways, both African slaves and Asian migrants to North America were ‘excludable alien labour forces,’ and ‘their unsovereign alien status was a precondition of their exploitation.’[xxv] While African slave labour represented a ‘system of forced migration, unfree alien labour, and property,’ the subsequent importation of Chinese contract labour appended ‘provisionality, excludability, and deportability into the notion of alien-ness.’[xxvi] In sum, a state mediated system of recruitment, control, and discipline of non-citizen workers was established with the identification of three previously distinct identities: white, worker, and citizen, which emerged only against the backdrop of the coolie. In the Canadian context, the BC Sugar Refining Company’s 1914 advertisements are illustrative of the endurance and flexibility of the collocation of the white Canadian worker and the coolie. Here, the threat of the coolie extends beyond the Chinese contract labourer within Canadian borders; even his existence in his home country can undermine the society of the white Canadian worker. Undergirding this mirrored representation of the white worker at home and the coolie abroad, however, is the system of recruitment of temporary, non-citizen workers for sugar beet field work that the Canadian sugar industry devised at this time, and which continues today.

The ‘labour problem’ in the sugar beet industry

The Canadian sugar beet industry has struggled to secure sufficient labour since its inception.[xxvii] The first Canadian sugar refinery, established in Raymond, Alberta in 1902, closed after just 12 years due to what sugar companies and land-owning growers in the country have termed the ‘labour problem.’[xxviii] In spite of a twelve-year tax break and other incentives offered by provincial and federal governments to attract the Knight Sugar Company to build the Raymond refinery, the harsh, labour-intensive nature of sugar beet cultivation made the business untenable.[xxix] Until the 1960s, when a monogerm sugar beet variety was engineered, each beet plant had to be thinned from multiple seedlings to a single seedling, making sugar beet crops ten times more labour-intensive than grain crops.[xxx] Sugar beets also had to be weeded by hand or hoed several times during the growing season. Their harvest was no less arduous: heavy beet roots had to be pulled by hand, knocked together to shed excess soil, and ‘topped’ by removing the leaves and crown with a knife.[xxxi] This was a persistent form of ‘stoop work’ when farm mechanization had largely eliminated the need for workers to kneel, bend, and use hand-tools for the cultivation and harvest of common prairie crops.[xxxii] For these reasons, growers and sugar companies struggled to obtain willing workers, especially at a low enough cost to turn a profit.[xxxiii]

In their 1978 account of the labour struggles of sugar beet workers in Alberta in the 1930s, John Herd Thompson and Allan Seager write that,

Few whites wanted to hoe sugar beets. Japanese and Chinese labour could not be obtained in sufficient quantities without arousing community opposition to the importation of Orientals. Indians were less productive, sometimes damaged plants at the critical thinning stage and could not be counted upon to remain on the job throughout the season.[xxxiv]

In the 1920s, the sugar beet industry had been revived in Southern Alberta by the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company. Seeking to avoid the failure of the Knight Sugar Company before it, Utah-Idaho commenced operations in Raymond on the condition that growers would secure their own workers in sufficient quantity.[xxxv] This promise was made through collaborations between the federal government, local trade boards, growers, and the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Assistant Superintendent of Colonization, who proposed a plan to import immigrants of ‘non-preferred nationalities’ – mainly from Hungary and Southern Europe – and transport them directly to guaranteed farm employment.[xxxvi] This was the first effort to secure non-Canadian labourers that combined federal, provincial, and municipal government operations with those of sugar companies and growers. By 1929, 1200 such workers were employed on sugar beet farms, and production expanded for the first time since its inception.[xxxvii] Some of these workers would establish the Beet Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU), one of the only agricultural labour unions in Canadian history. Throughout the 1930s, the BWIU led strikes, attempted contract negotiations with the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Association (ASBGA), and even tried to rally growers in a joint struggle against the refinery, which, when purchased by Rogers B.C. Sugar (formerly the BC Sugar Refining Company) in 1931, dramatically reduced the price paid for beets.[xxxviii] The BWIU’s efforts were quashed when the ASBGA, together with the Provincial Department of Labour, procured ‘enough ‘scab’ labour to smash the strike before the beet crop could be damaged.’[xxxix] These workers were mainly Belgian immigrants who would, according to Rogers B.C. Sugar bosses, ‘make a very good break up in the general ethnic type.’[xl] Nonetheless, the union’s struggle survived and even made some small gains until the onset of the Second World War, when wartime demand for sugar might have offered some leverage for their bargaining efforts.

Instead, in 1942 the ASBGA and Rogers B.C. Sugar negotiated with the British Columbia Securities Commission (BCSC) to obtain incarcerated Japanese Canadians to work the fields.[xli] The BCSC was the agency tasked with removing more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians designated as ‘enemy aliens’ from within one hundred miles of the West Coast. The BCSC confined more than 4000 incarcerees to work camps rather than concentration camps. Boosting sugar beet production an estimated 65 per cent, the recruitment of incarcerated people to work the fields was the ultimate union busting tactic.[xlii] Thompson and Seager conclude their history of the BWIU with the following: ‘These indentured Japanese workers unwittingly and unwillingly drove the last nails into the coffin of attempts to unionize Alberta’s beet workers.’[xliii] While Eastern and Southern European workers had been preferable to Japanese labourers in the 1920s, their persistent efforts to unionise and to agitate growers against Rogers B.C. Sugar made incarcerated Japanese Canadians an ideal alternative, inaugurating a new solution to the industry’s ‘labour problem.’

Day points out that while prior to incarceration Japanese Canadians were figured, like the coolie before them, as threatening in their productivity in lucrative industries like fishing along the BC coast, during their incarceration their efficiency in sugar beet work was celebrated. Upon their relocation, Japanese Canadians were viewed as preferable to less desirable ‘transient’ workers in an industry that lacked not only white workers, but any workers whatsoever.[xliv] Their labour was therefore ‘resignified’ from a threat to white workers to an essential and patriotic contribution to far-flung industries in need of willing workers.[xlv] It is crucial that it was only once Japanese Canadians were relocated from the region of competitive industries and stripped of their citizenship rights that they became desirable workers for the ASBGA and Rogers B.C. Sugar, who twenty years earlier had formed partnerships across government agencies to avoid ‘the importation of Orientals’ and had warned consumers in 1914 of the evils of sugar produced by ‘Asiatic coolies.’ Designated as ‘enemy aliens,’ Japanese Canadians were under constant surveillance by the BCSC, with no recourse to legal protections, no ability to unionise, and no guarantee of compensation for their labour. Through the severe abrogation of their citizenship rights, Japanese Canadians were reconstituted from a perversely productive population associated with the creation of an ‘unnatural relative surplus-value’ to a reserve army that could be drawn upon according to the seasonal rhythms of beet sowing and harvesting. [xlvi] They could be recruited or removed in synchrony with annual fluctuations in production, and manipulated to intervene in labour organizing among other beet field workers. At a moment when the industry was mired in a struggle between the company, growers, and unionised immigrant workers, the first long-term solution to Canadian sugar’s labour problem was established: a system of collaboration with the state to procure workers legally and symbolically excluded from the nation along the lines of both citizenship and race. The sugar beet side of the Canadian ‘war of the two sugars’ gained its first major foothold in the domestic sugar market by enjoining the state to produce and mobilise non-citizen workers for its fields. In turn, new racializations of the reserve armies upon which the industry now relied emerged: Japanese Canadians became productive contributors to the war effort, serving as a model for the groups of temporary, migrant workers that would follow them.[xlvii]  

Beginning in 1945, Japanese Canadians were either deported to Japan or relocated from work and concentration camps to Eastern Canada.[xlviii] Growers were eager to employ post-war European immigrants and did not seek to keep Japanese Canadians on their farms. But in a manner familiar to growers, new immigrant workers quickly moved on to less brutal farm work and urban centres, seeking higher wages and more comfortable living conditions.[xlix] Recognizing a renewed labour shortage in the industry, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), the federal agency which managed Indian reserves, residential schools, social programming, and the provision of Indian status and associated rights, approached the ASBGA to propose that growers employ indigenous peoples from reserves in northern Saskatchewan.[l] Like the partnership between the BCSC and ASBGA that facilitated the wartime ‘sugar beet projects,’ the DIA paired with the Federal-Provincial Manpower Committee and the Canada Manpower Centre to create a new ‘native migrant labour force.’[li] There are remarkable overlaps between the accounts of indigenous labourers and Japanese Canadians on these farms, from the hardship of beet field labour to lack of proper food and amenities and racist abuse by employers and local residents.[lii] In many cases, these workers lived in the same converted chicken coops, shacks, and trailers that Japanese Canadians had been forced to live in during their incarceration a decade earlier. 

Although in many ways distinct from incarcerated Japanese Canadians and the temporary foreign workers who would succeed them, indigenous peoples in Canada have historically had no citizenship rights, or significantly proscribed citizenship rights. It was not until 1960 that indigenous people were able to gain Canadian citizenship and suffrage, and until 1985 they had to renounce membership in an Indian band – and all associated rights – in order to become ‘enfrancised’ as Canadian citizens.[liii] The DIA, alongside its apportioning of Indian status, conceived of its role in managing indigenous peoples as one of educating and assimilating them to Canadian society (and perhaps still does, albeit in less explicit terms, in its present iteration as Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada). This included the proletarianization of indigenous peoples, ‘freeing’ them from their means of subsistence and throwing them into the labour market.[liv] Concurrently, the Indian reserve system, which conceptualizes reserves as ‘temporary locations within which Native people… learn to become ideal-typical European subjects,’ served to contain a reserve army to be dislocated each year according to the sugar beet season.[lv] At the height of indigenous employment on sugar beet farms in the late 1960s, 3000 indigenous workers constituted the bulk of the industry’s labour force.[lvi] As many as 95 per cent of residents from the reserves of the Island Lake First Nation, Onion Lake First Nation, Thunderchild First Nation, Witchekan First Nation, and Big River First Nation would travel over 1,000 kilometers to work the sugar beet fields for several months each season.[lvii] The DIA facilitated the mass movement of indigenous workers, who came to be known as the ‘grab-a-hoe Indians,’ in a number of ways. The agency promoted sugar beet work on reserves, both by contacting the reserve’s local Chief and Band Council and by sending agents to the reserve directly; it promoted indigenous workers to Albertan growers through informational meetings and propaganda; the DIA’s children’s aid programme apprehended children until the entirely family agreed to labour on sugar beet farms; it suspended payments from social assistance programmes, inducing them to seek wages in the sugar beet fields; and it purchased one-way bus tickets from reserves to farms, withholding return tickets until the harvest was complete each fall.[lviii]

Day argues that the postwar employment of indigenous workers, following the BCSC model of the employment of Japanese Canadian incarcerees, ‘further exemplifies the instrumentality of disposable labour populations, which embodied the condition of hyperexploitability: it was more profitable to consign these laborers to seasonal hand labor than to rely on costlier machines and chemicals.’[lix] Not all aspects of sugar beet cultivation and harvest have yet to be automated, however, and the employment of disposable labour populations persists to this day. While the sequence of employment of incarcerated Japanese Canadians, indigenous peoples, and today, migrant workers recruited through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) does index the necessity of the employment of reserve populations in the maintenance of the sugar beet crops, it also reflects historically specific moments of Canadian nationalism and the politics of citizenship and labour. When Japanese Canadian labour was resignified through their employment on sugar beet farms, they were replaced by indigenous workers, and as indigenous peoples became increasingly enfranchised, a new ‘hyperexploitable’ population replaced them. In 1965 the ASBGA’s Labour Committee approached the federal Department of Immigration to request that they support the industry in recruiting Mexican migrant labour, and just a year later, the SAWP was initiated. [lx] First importing labourers from Jamaica to horticultural crops in Ontario, the SAWP quickly expanded to provide highly proscribed work visas of six weeks to eight months to workers from Mexico and other Commonwealth Caribbean nations for employment in agricultural industries in all ten Canadian provinces.[lxi]

While as late as 2004 up to 20 per cent of workers in sugar beet fields were indigenous, most were slowly replaced throughout the 1970s and 1980s by Mexican migrant workers employed through the SAWP.[lxii] Harsha Walia describes the overarching Temporary Foreign Worker Program, of which the SAWP is the largest stream, as follows:

In Canada, migrant worker programs involve being tied to the importing employer; low wages, often below the official minimum, and long hours with no overtime pay; dangerous working conditions; crowded and unhealthy accommodation; denial of access to public healthcare and employment insurance, despite paying into the programs; and being virtually held captive by employers or contractors who seize identification documents. It is their temporary legal status that makes migrant workers extremely vulnerable to abuse; any assertion of their rights leads not only to contract termination but also deportation. Migrant workers thus represent the ‘perfect workforce’ in an era of evolving global capital-labour relations: commodified and exploitable; flexible and expendable.[lxiii]

Walia also points out that ‘One of the cruelest ironies of capitalist globalization is the proletarianization of displaced peasants into migrant farmworkers.’[lxiv] Workers from Mexico and the Caribbean migrate to Canada for temporary work not by some unfettered choice: ‘indebted farmers and peasants, displaced from their own lands and livelihoods by capitalist trade liberalization, become bonded labourers for agribusiness.’[lxv] In 2004, workers participating in the SAWP were excluded from the protections afforded by the Employment Standards Act, after which their numbers increased exponentially: in 2010, there were 19,000 workers recruited through the SAWP; in 2018, there were 54,734.[lxvi] Workers employed through the SAWP are excluded from any possibility of gaining Canadian residency or citizenship and associated benefits and protections. This is an innovation on earlier temporary migration programmes, such as the infamous Bracero programme in the United States and the German Gastarbeiter programme, which were often viewed as ‘failures’ because the ‘temporary’ workers they imported tended to remain in the region of their employment and settle there.[lxvii] In contrast, the SAWP has been highly successful at collaborating with local governments in sending countries to import tens of thousands of workers each year and return them to their home communities within the maximum stay of eight months.[lxviii] Some workers return year after year to the same Canadian farms, but never fail to be sent home for the off season, and never lose their designation as ‘temporary.’[lxix] These workers, rather than simply filling absolute shortages in labour, are recruited to ‘fill those jobs that citizens reject.’[lxx] Recruitment of workers through the SAWP in industries like sugar beet cultivation is therefore less a result of a lack of Canadian workers altogether, but instead indicates the ‘presence of workers prepared to reject the working conditions or wages offered.’[lxxi] Because of its success in supplying labour-intensive agricultural industries with cheap workers, and the efficiency and reliability with which the programme then returns them to their home countries, the SAWP is globally recognized as an ideal model for temporary migration programmes.[lxxii] And in the sugar beet fields, SAWP workers are, like the Japanese Canadian and indigenous labourers who preceded them, a ‘perfect workforce’ for the sugar beet industry: they are a non-citizen pool of labour secured by the state for the purpose of maintaining ‘Canadian’ industrial agricultural business.

Refining Canada’s ‘foreign’ workers 

Today, Rogers BC Sugar, which merged with Lantic Sugar to form Lantic Incorporated in 2008, is one of two Canadian sugar companies (along with Redpath Sugar), and the only company that refines sugar beets. The Lantic Inc. sugar beet refinery in Taber, Alberta produces 11.5 per cent of national sugar, or 150,000 tonnes, from beets contracted from around 260 growers. The remaining sugar refined in Canada is derived from cane imported primarily from Central and South America.[lxxiii] Cane sugar refining benefits from low import tariffs on raw cane from producers in developing countries, but spokespeople for the Canadian sugar industry frequently lament the high import tariffs on refined sugar in potential export markets, especially the United States.[lxxiv] The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) severely restricts the amount of refined sugar that can be exported to the US and Mexico, with beet sugar an exception under the agreement’s ‘rule of origin’ – only sugar that is both cultivated and refined in Canada can be exported to the US, with a current quota of 10,300 tonnes.[lxxv] Therefore, roughly two thirds of Canadian beet sugar is exported to the US, with the rest joining refined cane sugar in domestic food processing and consumer markets. Beet sugar makes up a small percentage of national sugar production and would not otherwise be competitive with cane sugar or other sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, which is readily and cheaply imported from the US, especially since the ratification of NAFTA.[lxxvi] However, beet sugar’s unique access to the US market as ‘Canadian origin’ sugar, and mounting concerns about food security peddled by sugar beet producers, give the industry a peculiar sway in discussions about Canadian trade policy, food systems, and labour.

In 2021 the ASBGA’s Executive Director, Melody Garner-Skiba, made an impassioned speech to the Taber Town Council in an effort to secure a letter of support for the ASBGA’s proposal for a federal domestic sugar policy. Echoing the BC Sugar Refining Company’s fearmongering about ‘Asiatic coolies’ in its 1914 advertisements, Garner-Skiba said of the sugar beet industry: ‘We’re the sole source of 100 per cent Canadian sugar, 90 per cent of the sugar Canadians consume comes from places like Vietnam – it benefits their farmers, not ours. We want to change that.’[lxxvii] Garner-Skiba’s reference to Vietnam, and no other sugar cane producing country, is striking. From January to November 2021, imports of raw cane sugar from Vietnam made up roughly 5 per cent of total imports, with most imports  –  around 43 per cent  –  from Costa Rica.[lxxviii] The figure of the ‘bathless, sweaty, semi-clothed’ Hong Kong refinery worker shipping ‘boatloads’ of ‘coolie-refined’ sugar in the BC Sugar Refining Company’s 1914 advertisements is renovated here to represent an equally caricatured Asian producer of raw cane, wantonly dumping its products on the vulnerable ‘Canadian-grown’ sugar industry. The potent anti-Asian racism of the twentieth century West Coast is adapted to the contemporary context of NAFTA and domestic agricultural protectionism. Garner-Skiba continues,

We want to ask for a domestic sugar policy. This is a policy that exists in every major trading nation except for Canada. We are the only one that does not have one. We believe that by asking our federal government for this policy we can increase food security for Canadians. Sugar flew off the shelves over COVID – and what happens if the situation on the West Coast continues? Those boatloads of raw cane sugar are not in the port. But we can do more here and grow more at home.[lxxix]

Here, boatloads of raw cane sugar from Vietnam are, on the one hand, too overwhelming to Canadian sugar producers, who work hard as a small industry to ‘punch well above [their] weight.’[lxxx] On the other hand, the flood of Asian sugar is also liable to vanish with global supply chain disruptions and natural disasters, like the flooding that severely damaged BC’s highways in November 2021, which Garner-Skiba refers to as ‘the situation on the West Coast.’ There is at once too much foreign sugar trafficked through Vancouver, but never enough to guarantee food security in the way that sugar produced by Canadians will. Garner-Skiba and the ASBGA reason that in order to produce a more food secure country, sugar beet growers require the federal government’s support to reduce the importation of raw cane and increase the consumption of sugar beets. This will, according to Garner-Skiba, truly ‘benefit Canada’ and ‘our farmers.’[lxxxi] As in the BC Sugar Refining Company’s 1914 advertisements, domestically produced sugar promises safety and security to consumers and Canadian workers, but only if it is protected from the threat of Asian sugar. Garner-Skiba does not need to explicitly name the ‘white workman’ as the benefactor of Canadian immigration and trade policy: the contrasting of Vietnamese sugar and Canadian farmers calls up and reinforces the image of white sugar produce by white Canadians, struggling against the perversities of cheap Asian labour and its products. The Canadian ‘war of the two sugars’ persists in the opposition of foreign and domestic sugar, calling once more for border controls that keep out the coolie’s cane while bringing in the temporary migrant beet worker.

Reflecting on the history of Japanese Canadian incarcerated labour in her essay, ‘sugar,’ Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon writes:

The whiteness of sugar is still equated to purity, and the natural yellow tint of raw sugar has been a challenge to overcome. The process of refining is elaborate and visceral. The stages of clarification include boiling, crushing, centrifuging, and drying with various agents including lime, cattle bones, and diatomaceous earth… leaving the essential – a crystalline powder with nothing to hide: particles without history, barely tangible but for the sensation of sweetness disappearing on the tongue.[lxxxii]

The process of refining sugar does indeed eliminate much of the ‘impurity’ that sugar beet or cane, fresh from the field, presents. The intense refining process strips the sucrose granules of all but 0.3 per cent of the plant from which it originates.[lxxxiii] It is impossible to tell whether sugar came from beet or cane, much less who produced it, once it has been refined to a ‘fine white’ grade. The sugar commodity emerges from the ‘war of the two sugars’ in the ‘snowy purity’ on which the BC Sugar Refining Company made its name more than one hundred years ago.

But, as McKinnon points out, the whiteness of sugar must be produced; it is not inherent to its materials, nor to its history. Developed in response to the oscillations of colonial power and the upheaval of abolition, the granules of the sugar beet take their place imperceptibly alongside those derived from cane only after convulsive transformations in global supplies of labour and land. When, in the late nineteenth century, the sugar beet was meant to supply a post-slavery world with ‘free sugar,’ in Canada it produced a racially stratified system of labour that segregated the ‘alien’ and ‘Indian,’ and today the ‘migrant,’ from the Canadian citizen. In order to produce ‘free sugar’ in a temperate climate, the sugar beet industry has continuously collaborated with the state to procure mobile and temporary racialised workers stripped of or denied citizenship. Nevertheless, domestic sugar production is touted as exceptionally Canadian. The sugar beet industry has, therefore, not only produced a racialised underclass of workers – it has also adapted and fortified existing ties between Canadian identity and whiteness. Using the whiteness of refined sugar as a metonym for the whiteness of the Canadian refinery worker and farmer, these workers are, like sugar in the BC Sugar Company’s 1914 advertisements, rendered ‘supra-sensuous.’ Canadian workers have been refined, like their sugar, of all impurities; ‘leaving the essential – a crystalline powder with nothing to hide: particles without history, barely tangible but for the sensation of sweetness disappearing on the tongue.’[lxxxiv] These representations of the sugar industry and the Canadian worker mystify and dehistoricise the brutal procedures by which a white Canada has been erected. While the sugar industry has worked hand in glove with the state in the name of protection of a Canadian industry and its white workers, the industry has always relied on the ever-expanding production and recruitment of racialised workers excluded from the state.   

It is only by performing the reverse process of refining, recuperating the granules of the labour process, that it might be possible to intervene in the unfurling chain of racialised labours that produce beet sugar. That is, it is only by undoing the hermetic seal on the sugar packet, by making super-sensuous the labour history that has been effaced from it, that we might begin to struggle against the forms of exploitation that have recruited the foot soldiers of the Canadian ‘war of the two sugars’: the workers, incarcerated, indigenous, and migrant, who have brought in all of those sweet harvests.


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[i] British Columbia Sugar Refining Company 1914.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Lye 2005, p. 20.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Williams 1944, p. 149.

[vi] William 1944, p. 150.

[vii] Williams 1994, p. 149.

[viii] British Columbia Sugar Refining Company 1914.

[ix] Karuka 2018, p. 18.

[x] Davis 2000, p. 301.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] British Columbia Sugar Refining Company 1914.

[xiii] Mawani 2018, p. 2.

[xiv] British Columbia Sugar Refining Company 1914. Emphasis my own.

[xv] British Columbia Sugar Refining Company 1914.

[xvi] Marx 1990, p. 165.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Marx 1990, p. 163.

[xx] One hundred years earlier, abolitionists in the antebellum United States made similar arguments about the “blood-stained,” “polluted,” and “tainted” quality of cane sugar produced by slave labour, seeking instead to promote sugar cultivated and refined by Asian “free labour,” and later sugar produced from sugar beets grown locally. See Faulkner 2007 and Kaufman 2008.

[xxi] Day 2016, p. 16.

[xxii] Lye 2005, p. 19-20.

[xxiii] Lye 2005, p. 7. For more on the debates around coolie labour, and whether it constituted a continuation of slavery following the Civil War, see Jung 2006.

[xxiv] Karuka 2018, p. 99.

[xxv] Day 2016, p. 24.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] For histories of the US American sugar beet industry, which shares some of the same issues in terms of labour shortages but derives distinct solutions for them, see Arrington 1966 and Magnuson 1918.

[xxviii] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 154. Thompson and Seager distinguish between three classes in the sugar beet industry: sugar companies, who own and operate sugar refineries, land-owning growers who sell their beets to sugar companies, and workers, who contract their labour for a season to a grower. For clarity and consistency with Thompson and Seager, the term “grower” is used here to name the propertied class of farmers who employ “workers,” the field hands who complete the thinning, weeding, and harvesting of each year’s crop. 

[xxix] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 154.

[xxx] Biancardi and Tamada 2019, p. 9. In contrast to multigerm beet seeds, from which three to five seedlings grow from each seed, monogerm varieties have been bred to produce a single seedling from each seed, eliminating the need for thinning.

[xxxi] Robertson 1968, p. 127.

[xxxii] The bed preparation and seeding of crops like potatoes, corn, canola, and wheat was largely mechanised with the innovation of motorised tractors and tractor implements in the 1910s and 1920s. Harvesting for most prairie field crops was mechanised throughout the 1930s and 40s. See Edan et al 2009 for a full discussion of historic and contemporary efforts to mechanise and automate agricultural industries.

[xxxiii] Arrington 1966, p. 23.

[xxxiv] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 156.

[xxxv] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 157.

[xxxvi] Hedges 1939, p. 350.

[xxxvii] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 159.

[xxxviii] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 159-161.

[xxxix] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 168.

[xl] Quoted in Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 168.

[xli] Like in the United States, in Canada Japanese immigrants and their descendants were removed from their homes and held in concentration camps from 1942 until 1945, regardless of their citizenship status. Most incarcerated Japanese Canadians were either naturalised citizens or were born in the country. For an overview of Japanese American incarcerated labour on US American sugar beet farms, see Louis Fiset’s “Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II.”

[xlii] McKinnon 2008, p. 134.

[xliii] Thompson and Seager 1978, p. 172-3.

[xliv] Day 2016, p. 140.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Day 2016, p. 141.

[xlvii] It is worth noting that this was not a necessary solution to the sugar beet industry’s labour problem. In his argument against climatic explanations for the enslavement of Africans in West Indian plantations, Eric Williams (1944) cites the case of Australian sugar cultivation, where the state chose to subsidise the industry to pay sufficient wages to attract white workers: “When the industry began to develop, Australia had a choice of two alternatives: black labor or white labor. The commonwealth began its sugar cultivation in the usual way with imported black labor from the Pacific islands. Increasing demands, however, were made for a white Australia policy, and in the twentieth century non-white immigration was prohibited. It is irrelevant to consider here that as a result the cost of production of Australian sugar is prohibitive, that the industry is artificial and survives only behind the Chinese wall of Australian autarchy. Australia was willing to pay a high price in order to remain a white man's country. Our sole concern here with the question is that this price was paid from the pockets of the Australian consumer and not in the physical degeneration of the Australian worker” (22).

[xlviii] Having had all of their confiscated property sold during their incarceration, many Japanese Canadians never had the means to return to their former homes, or simply had nothing to return to. The forced sale of Japanese Canadian property created a particular problem for the BCSC and other federal agencies involved in managing incarceration. With the closure of the camps in 1945, they were confronted with a population of more than 21,000 people without any means of supporting themselves. Jordan Stanger-Ross argues that the deportation programme, which targeted both citizens and non-citizens, was devised to rid the state of this dislocated and dispossessed population, whose rights to reside in Canada, coextensive with citizenship, had been terminated. See Stanger-Ross 2020.

[xlix] Fujiwara 2012, p. 81.

[l] Laliberte and Satzewich 1999, p. 78.

[li] Laliberte and Satzewich 1999, p. 72 – 79.

[lii] In a recent interview with The CBC, Rebecca Bone, an indigenous woman who worked on the sugar beet farms as a child stated that “We worked until our hands were blistered, our skin was burnt and we were always very hungry” (Carreiro 2017). The oral histories of Japanese Canadians who worked on the sugar beet projects also detail the brutality of sugar beet labour. For example, in a 1991 interview Tamako Miki states that after working “I hurt from my legs to my waist… There were steps to my house, but my body hurt, so I had to lean on the pillars to go up, my body hurt, it hurt, and I had to be patient. I lost about 15 kilograms” (translation my own). For one of the most famous Japanese Canadian accounts of life on the sugar beet farms, see also Kogawa 1981.      

[liii] Kesler et al 2009. The process of “enfranchisement” was often performed involuntarily. For example, if an indigenous person obtained a university or professional degree, joined the military, or if an indigenous woman married a non-indigenous man, they forfeited their “Indian status” in exchange for Canadian citizenship.

[liv] Laliberte and Satzewich 1999, p. 66.

[lv] Laliberte and Satzewich 1999, p. 67.

[lvi] Laliberte 2020.

[lvii] Ibid.

[lviii] Laliberte and Satzewich 1999, p. 80. Laliberte 2020. Carreiro 2017.

[lix] Day 2016, p. 142.

[lx] Laliberte 2006, p. 319.

[lxi] McLaughlin 2012, p. 112. Weiler et al 2017, p. 50. See also Basok 2007. 

[lxii] Laliberte 2006, p. 319.

[lxiii] Walia 2010, p. 72.

[lxiv] Walia 2021, p. 131.

[lxv] Walia 2021, p. 7.

[lxvi] Walia 2010, p. 75; Government of Canada 2020.

[lxvii] Hennebry and Preibisch 2010, p. e20.

[lxviii] Ibid. McLaughlin 2012, p. 111.

[lxix] Walia 2010, p. 74.

[lxx] Hennebry and Preibisch 2010, p. e22.

[lxxi] Hennebry and Preibisch 2010, p. e22. See also McLaughlin 2012, p. 109.

[lxxii] McLaughlin 2012, p. 113.

[lxxiii] Canadian Sugar Institute 2022.

[lxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxv] Glen 2018.

[lxxvi] Barlow et al 2017, p. E881.

[lxxvii] Quoted in Stronski 2021.

[lxxviii] Statistic Canada 2021.

[lxxix] Quoted in Stronski 2021.

[lxxx] Ibid.

[lxxxi] Ibid. 

[lxxxii] McKinnon 2018, p. 136.

[lxxxiii] Dillen et al. 2013, p. 132.

[lxxxiv] McKinnon 2018, p. 136.