Short Docs

I grew up on beef patties. I was shocked to find out that the Canadian government tried to rename them in 1985

Documentary ‘Patty vs. Patty’ tells the story of how Jamaican patty vendors went head-to-head with the federal government over the name of their beloved beef patty.

An absurd part of Canadian history

'While this story is ridiculous on the surface, it hit me very deeply. The Canadian government really tried to marginalize Jamaican culture by forcing us to rename our favourite snack?' Chris Strikes, director of Patty vs. Patty, explains why it was so important for him to tell this story. (L: CBC / Patty vs. Patty, R: Calvin Thomas)

By Chris Strikes, Director, Patty vs. Patty

Although I no longer eat meat, I — just like many people of Caribbean heritage in Toronto — grew up eating Jamaican beef patties. 

It didn't matter if they were from my local convenience store, Jamaican restaurants, church or a box in my mom's freezer. Not a week went by where I didn't munch on the golden, flaky, spiced (mostly mild but sometimes hot!) savoury snack. 

At church, patties were a hot commodity and the first refreshments to come out after Sunday service. Sometimes, my friends and I would sneak into the kitchen through the back entrance, just to make sure we got our "VIP" serving ahead of everyone else. 

It's not only Caribbeans who grew up on patties. Jamaican culture has had such a strong influence on Toronto culture since a wave of immigration in the 1960s and '70s that patties are a common snack, available across the city and enjoyed by people from all over the world. 

The Davidson family moved to Toronto from Jamaica and opened Kensington Patty Palace in the 1970s. (CBC / Patty vs. Patty )

So you can only imagine my complete and utter shock when I came across a social media post on Feb. 23, 2021, about the 1985 "patty wars," when the Canadian government tried to ban the beef patty. What?!

Well, to be clear: they didn't try to ban the food itself but the name "beef patty." 

Bureaucrats thought calling hamburger patties and Jamaican patties the same thing would be too confusing 

In 1985, the Meat Inspection Act classified a beef patty as what goes in a hamburger. It could contain only meat and seasoning, and it couldn't be encased in dough or a crust — so the beloved snack from the island of reggae music did not qualify. Bureaucrats thought calling hamburger patties and Jamaican beef patties the same thing would be too confusing to Canadians.

Food inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs visited patty vendors across Toronto, demanding that beef patties be renamed, and threatening hefty fines of $5,000 (an amount equivalent to more than $11,000 today) for anyone who refused to change their labels, signage, packaging and advertising. 

The vendors resisted, refusing to sell the patty under any other name. This led to an international controversy, played out in newspapers and TV news segments, culminating in a "patty summit" between patty bakers and government representatives. 

I didn't believe it at first. I had to ask my mother (one of many Jamaicans who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s) if she remembered the story. She did — but only vaguely. 

After a little more research, it became clear that this story absolutely needed to be told. 

'If they came for the patty this time, who knows what … the government would have come for next' 

Although I grew up in my mother's Jamaican household in Toronto, it wasn't until the summer of 2020 that I officially became a Jamaican citizen. It was seven months later that I learned of the patty wars. 

While this story is ridiculous on the surface, it hit me very deeply. The Canadian government really tried to marginalize Jamaican culture by forcing us to rename our favourite snack? I couldn't be too surprised, though, given Canada's history of racial and cultural marginalization, which continues today, cloaked by altruistic claims of diversity. 

It's what they now refer to as institutionalized racism."- Michael Davidson, Patty vs. Patty

It's difficult to say whether this marginalization was purposeful or not, but the intent is beside the matter. 

"It's what they now refer to as institutionalized racism," says Michael Davidson in the film. He was the manager of Kensington Patty Palace in 1985 and a figure at the centre of the patty wars.

Michael Davidson was the manager of Kensington Patty Palace in 1985. 37 years later, he shares his story in the documentary Patty vs. Patty. (CBC / Patty vs. Patty)

It was crucial for the community (both Jamaican and non-Jamaican) to resist this bureaucratic nonsense. To paraphrase something former politician Adam Vaughan brought up in my conversation with him: If they came for the patty this time, who knows what other cultural food staples and practices the government would have come for next? I think that's what caused people to really rally behind the beef patty. 

Patty vs. Patty: The documentary

I knew I had to tell this story. It seemed to have faded from Canadians' memories and needed to be revived. I had a brief internal struggle because of my current vegan lifestyle. I pondered, "Am I really going to make a film about meat?" But this story is much bigger than me — and so much bigger than food for that matter. So I put that thought aside, and dove into research and writing. 

This story is so absurd. In order to make sure that came through in Patty vs. Patty, I decided to take a satirical, comedic tone. As I did my research, I found myself laughing out loud many, many times. I would sit down with my girlfriend at the time and we'd shout out ridiculous lines from articles, act out our ideas and re-enact how conversations may have gone. We had so many OMG moments. Did this really happen? 

This story is so absurd.- Chris Strikes, Director, Patty vs. Patty

At that time, I had recently watched the documentaries Becoming Bond and Screwball. Both use actors miming the commentary as we hear the vocals of interview subjects to brilliant comedic effect. When I decided to make Patty vs. Patty, I knew I wanted to experiment with the same device. The film is based on an interview with Michael Davidson. His upbeat charisma and energetic story were a perfect fit for our actors to work with. 

While Davidson's anecdotes drive the film, archival television clips and newspaper articles provide so much value in anchoring the satire in reality and truth. So many people couldn't believe this story ever happened when I told them about it. As the saying goes, seeing is believing! 

Baker Michael Davidson was at the centre the media storm about the patty wars. He was interviewed for this 1985 Toronto Star article. (CBC / Patty vs. Patty)

The archival material also helped me imagine all the characters and cast the actors, while the actual news stories from 1985 played a huge role in writing the script. The dialogue between the food inspectors in the boardroom scene during the patty summit, for example, was based on multiple newspaper articles that quoted and summarized commentary from the real inspectors.

As you watch Patty vs. Patty, instead of snacking on popcorn, candy or a hamburger (side eye), I'm imploring you you to snack on a beef patty or two — or if beef isn't your thing, a chicken, fish, vegetarian or vegan patty — while you enjoy one of the more ridiculous stories in Canadian history.

Watch Patty vs. Patty on YouTube

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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