The Seaport Farmers’ Market brings vendors from all origins together, offering an example for Halifax to follow
The stately Regal Princess glides alongside the Halifax pier. At first, the leviathan is silent and still. Soon, its passengers begin filing down the gangway. It disgorges brightly dressed Americans, elderly couples, and lifelong friends on another adventure. They enter Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market.
They join the “I Love Local” locals, Valley farmers and vintners, Bavarian butchers, and Syrian chocolatiers buying and selling inside the market at the outer end of Halifax’s waterfront. English, French, and Persian share the air with Thai, Spanish, and Arabic.
Perhaps it’s the nature of a port. It’s got the placeless, international vibe of an airport, but with none of the stress and sense of dislocation. Visitors strolling into the city on a fall afternoon pass the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, where so many of our ancestors first set foot in Canada.
In its first quarter of a millennium, Halifax has had a complicated relationship with multiculturalism. When the market opened in 1750, the city was less than a year old and already busting at its seams. The original population of poor English mixed with refugees and immigrants from France, Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland. And yet this tolerance ended at the city walls. Outside, Governor Edward Cornwallis’s soldiers and mercenaries hunted Mi’kmaq people. In Grand Parade, slave traders sold black people.
Over time, the different languages, different ideas, different foods, collided and merged to form the cultural bedrock of our city.
Fatameh Kafaei and her husband Mohammad have worked in the market since 2010. When asked what led them here, he answers simply: “We had no jobs.”
That’s one of the prime drivers of multiculturalism: humans the world over want to do business with each other. Commerce is the world’s great peacemaker.
“That is one factor,” Fatameh says. “We had an invitation from ISANS. They had a multicultural Friday market. We came here to start to just have fun and see what happens.”
Their company, Prizedco Importers, sells things like Iranian saffron, a dried fruit called barberry, and Persian crafts. Back in 2010, they imported just a few grams of saffron and a few kilograms of barberry. Now they come by the crate. Nova Scotian motifs decorate the traditional Iranian crafts.
Fatameh’s native country has been doing multiculturalism for 7,000 years.
“We have diversity culture in Iran,” she says. “Everybody is welcome in Iran. They live and they have their own businesses—especially now, in the new situation.”
Iran has made a nuclear peace with the U.S. and others, allowing the country’s people to connect more fully to the wider world.
“Nova Scotia, maybe the area is big, but the population is very limited,” Fatameh says. “In Tehran, about 16 million population. It’s big diversity over there. It’s a multicultural community.”
She and her husband have travelled extensively and seen the many ways people connect. She thinks it’s benefitted their children.
“Because they have contacted different cultures, and they learn from different cultures, so they have got more experience. It helps them a lot,” she says. “Even in your own country, if you travel to different cities, you have different experiences.”
She says Iranian farmers’ markets mostly set up in small towns so local farmers can sell food to local people. But in Halifax, multiculturalism is baked into the farmers’ market.
A few booths away, Yen Chen prepares for the lunch rush at Chenpapa, which serves up Asian dishes. She opened her first stall nearly 30 years ago when the multicultural festival invited her to bring a food booth.
“That’s not my job before but I said I don’t mind helping for multiculturalism,” she says.
She put that business on hold as she raised her children, but when the farmers’ market moved to the Seaport location, it offered her a new opportunity. She could open weekdays and work office hours. People can’t wait to tuck into her food, which satisfies bellies from all cultures. But the ingredients are all local. Grown in this soil, drinking this rain, feeding these people.
“Customers appreciate that,” Yen says. “I try don’t put the price up, because right now we don’t work for money. We’re just happy to do this job. It’s really hard to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have that.’ They’re not just customers – it’s like friends and family.”
Halifax has changed a lot since she arrived 40 years ago: she remembers when you could buy a house downtown on a regular income.
“People have not changed,” she says. “They’re still friendly.”
Julie Chaisson is executive director of the Seaport Farmers’ Market.
“You’ll see the diversity of the city when you walk in,” she says. “You’ll see the different faces, the different ethnicities. But you’ll also see the different foods. It really is a true picture of the culture of a city.”
She knows why, too. If you’ve recently arrived in a city, you might not speak the local language, or have friends and family, but you can still communicate.
“Food is a universal language. Everyone can tell their story through food,” Julie says as we chat in the sunshine outside the market. “If we think of our childhood, or some other point in our lives, there’s a food that means something to you. My mum was a baker and baked bread – that’s a big part of my story. My dad was a fisherman. If I were to tell my story, there would be that.”
And the farmers’ market makes it fairly easy to get started. You don’t need to invest in restaurant space, stock it up, buy equipment, and hire staff. You can just rent a booth and get to work.
“A farmers’ market allows them to be able to come here for a low cost and immediately start earning a living,” says Julie, who comes from the Head of St. Margaret’s Bay.
She tells me about Assam Hadhad, who fled Damascus, Syria and ended up in Antigonish, N.S. He made chocolate in Syria, so he started making chocolate in Nova Scotia. Locals were eager to help him get started and today he runs Peace By Chocolate out of a well-built shed, also selling his wares at the Seaport Farmers’ Market.
Chaisson says the farmers’ market knows well that diversity strengthens a community. They work with ISANS (Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia) to make it easier for newcomers to set up shop in the market. They host special events celebrating newcomers.
“It’s a rich part of our 266-year history,” she says. “When people come to a different place, when they move from one country to another, people bring with them their food culture.”