Wayne Roberts

It’s been just over a year since food activist and rabble.ca contributor Wayne Roberts died. He was a writer, scholar, activist, and above all, a friend. During the struggles of the past two years under a pandemic, the memory of Roberts’ dazzling brand of generosity, humour, and relentless political optimism lives on as a source of warmth and comfort.

For 25 years, Wayne Roberts lived a distinguished life as a globally recognized food activist and scholar. But he was also known as a labour historian, a union leader, a socialist and an environmentalist.

Alongside his myriad titles, he was a thought leader, writer and social media guru as well – he wrote a dozen books and published hundreds of articles, organized and spoke in communities across Canada and around the world.

Born on the leading edge of the baby boom, Roberts was part of a small group of that generation that caught a glimpse of what a better world could look like. So he devoted his life, energy, intelligence, imagination, courage and love to communicating his vision of a transformed world and constantly searched for ways to make it reality.

Roberts was born in 1944 in Scarborough, Ontario on Oakridge Drive, when it was still mainly farmland, and raised in a warm community of neighbours and friends. Both his parents believed Communism offered hope for a better world and Roberts was a genuine ‘red diaper baby,’ – undoubtedly the origin of his deep-seated and life-long commitment to social justice. Educated at York University and the University of California (Berkeley) on a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship, he received his doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1978. It was at university that he became a Trotskyist, active in the Socialist League/ Forward Group. In 1978, he became the first professor hired in the new Labour Studies program at McMaster University. From 1984 to 1987, he took on the job of assistant to Jim Clancy, the President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), at a time when that public sector union was a powerful emerging voice in Ontario’s labour movement.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Roberts became increasingly attuned to environmental issues – he was one of the people arrested at the Temagami logging protests in the summer of 1989. Soon after, he worked as a consultant for Greenpeace Canada’s campaign against nuclear power in the early 1990s. Along with Jack Layton and others, Roberts helped form – and ultimately served as the driving force – the Coalition for a Green Economy, which strove to demonstrate that good jobs and environmental protection did not have to be in opposition. These experiences inspired the book Get a Life! – a primer on green economics (written with Susan Brandum). From 1989 to 2012, Roberts wrote a weekly column for Toronto’s NOW magazine, exploring the intersection of environmentalism, green economics, politics, and social justice.

In the mid-1990s, Roberts was increasingly drawn to the emerging food movement and eventually devoted himself as an organizer, writer and voice of the movement. As manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council (2000-2010), he travelled the world promoting the concept and benefits of municipal food policy councils and what he called “people-centred food policy”. For almost three decades, Roberts served as networker-in-chief of the vast and diverse national and global food movement, championing ideas, programmes and practitioners with his distinctive and beloved brand of humour and generosity.

Living and working in progressive movements, often dominated by dour devotion to the cause, Roberts was an activist of a different stripe. For one thing he was funny – always and no matter what. He took great risks in search of a laugh from a new acquaintance, a server, or a passing stranger. Following his death many friends and colleagues recalled countless incidents of uncontrolled laughing – so much, so hard, so long. Several described almost being kicked out of restaurants – for laughing. I recall sitting around a campfire on canoe trips when the flow of jokes gave way to uncontrolled laughter. More than once, I have glanced at Roberts, laughing and grinning with a knowing look in his eye, thinking, ‘This is how the Buddha laughs.’ Is it possible the Buddha was born in Scarborough?

For Roberts, humour was its own end, but it was also a means to conversation. As dozens of friends and colleagues recalled, Roberts frequently addressed them as ‘doctor’ – a joking and yet sincere gesture of respect, an invitation to share your expertise, to start a conversation. And conversation was always the thing. Roberts loved to talk, but he was also an awesome listener. 

Humour and conversation were the keys to friendship for him and friendship was the foundation – the soil – of both personal fulfillment and social change. In a world where everyday life is dominated by the increasingly acute, multilayered problems of late capitalist society, those crises come right to our doorstep. But as Roberts stressed in Get a Life, Real food for Change, and countless articles, those crises are also opportunities. Every personal initiative, every relationship is a chance to create positive emotional space, personal and interpersonal momentum, and build a culture of equity and sustainability. So, as we have seen increasingly in our own lifetimes, every action – cooking, shopping, shoveling your neighbour’s sidewalk – every gesture of support or appeal for support has a potentially transformative element. That’s where friendship came in for Roberts. As he strove so hard to bring new dignity and beauty to the politics of personal, interpersonal, neighbourly and community praxis, he came to a profound understanding of how friendship is the hinge, the animas, foundation and frame for social action. 

As Roberts himself discovered on his life journey, friendship is the magic place where the personal and the political converge.  

Roberts leaves behind his beloved colleague, soulmate and wife Lori Stahlbrand, his adored daughters Jaime and Anika and granddaughter Dorothy. They miss him deeply, as do I, along with hundreds of friends and colleagues.

Photo of David Kraft

David Kraft

David is an activist, canoe guide, researcher and communications consultant working for not-for-profit organizations.