Taraq Hadhad works the phone while mingling with delegates to the Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference. Van Dusen photo

CORNWALL – Clearly comfortable in his new homeland where he’s already a recipient of Start Up Canada’s National Newcomer Entrepreneur Award, chocolatier Taraq Hadhad cracked wise about his adopted culture at the Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference.

“Loonie, toonie, double-double,” Hadhad summed up, bringing laughter from some 200 delegates. In the few years since he and family members launched the Peace by Chocolate company in Antigonish, N.S., Hadhad has become a globe-trotting keynote speaker and media darling, promoting Canada’s humane treatment of refugees and their contributions, along with the spirit of entrepreneurship.

The company founder and CEO’s off-the-cuff presentation shared his experience of resettling in Canada and addressed topics such as inclusion in the food system, workforce development, shared economic prosperity, and even global peace efforts.

Nimble in English and loaded with charisma, Hadhad mesmerized the audience and earned a standing ovation. The conference was held at the Nav Centre in Cornwall on Nov. 13-14.

The Hadhad business was bombed out of Damascus and the family was forced to flee after marketing their prized chocolates across the Middle East for 20 years. Being a former medical student and long-time peace advocate, Tareq joined medical relief efforts in Lebanon.

Eventually, the Hadhads arrived in Canada. With support and encouragement from residents of Antigonish and people throughout Nova Scotia, they successfully resumed making gourmet candy, one “work of art” at a time. Today, the family employs 55 local workers and its products are being distributed by Sobey’s to more than 1000 outlets.

The ultimate goal is to become one of Canada’s most prominent chocolate companies. Next year, Hadhad hopes to enter the U.S. market and “hit them with peace and love.”

Conference attendees were greeted by the region’s new Conservative MP Eric Duncan, who emphasized the opportunities offered by the burgeoning local food industry. Across North America, what is defined as “local food” has represented receipts of $20 billion so far this year.

Cornwall Mayor Bernadette Clement said the conference theme “Growing Communities Together” captured the spirit of collaboration that exists in the city, surrounding counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, and the Mohawk Community of Akewesasne. Food and beverage producers throughout the region were toured on the first day of the conference.

Panellists on the second day included OMAFRA representatives, local food makers and marketers, and organizations involved in promoting local food opportunities. Louise Quenneville described the “food pharmacy” she created at Glengarry Memorial Hospital by installing a hospital garden to supply the cafeteria – the first in Ontario. Many steps have been taken to connect food to healthcare, Quenneville said, with more to come. 

The only discordant note came when Renfrew County farmer Jennifer Doelman said openly that she didn’t always feel welcome at the conference with its distinct organic undercurrent because she grows GMO corps and uses chemicals. Panellist Eric Payseur of Canadian Organic Growers countered the intent wasn’t to have an “us versus them” position. Doelman said later she wasn’t reassured by Payseur’s comment.