Veganism becoming more popular — but are people on board for ethical reasons?

By Ross Lopes

It happened six years ago, while living in London, UK on a working holiday visa. Hilary Killam, was getting over a relationship that just wasn’t working out for her anymore, and she decided to distract herself with documentaries.

One of them was Food Inc. There was a scene in particular that stood out to Killam, where a farmer stuck their hand into the side of a cow’s stomach who was still alive in order to check something in the animal’s stomach. She remembered thinking to herself, “This can’t be standard practice, this is ridiculous.”

As Killam watched more documentaries and did research about where food came from, the less comfortable she was with consuming animal products. She couldn’t consider herself a non-violent person if she continued to eat animal products. That’s when her journey into veganism began.

Before her transition, Killam referred to herself as a very unapologetic meat eater. She didn’t start off by going vegetarian either, but instead decided to go vegan overnight. Killam thought she would hate it and eventually go back to eating animal products after a month, but the opposite happened. For her, it was the best thing she ever did.

“One thing I found about veganism is, there’s this idea that it’s very restricted because you’re eliminating a bunch of food groups, but actually, before when I could eat anything, I always ate the same old thing,” she says. “But once these limits — if you will — were there, all of a sudden it forces you to be creative and I started to enjoy cooking and eating all kinds of varied and much healthier food that I never touched before.”

The cows at Farmhouse Garden Animal Home located in Uxbridge huddle around the gate waiting to be fed. Founder Mike Lanigan says he only feeds his cows fermented hay. (Photo by: Ross Lopes)

Going vegan to stop animal exploitation in the food industry (also referred to as ethical veganism) is a lifestyle that more people in Toronto are adopting. Vegan Edith Barabash, 21, says it’s very hard to go back to eating animal products once someone makes that choice to go vegan.

Barabash, a worker at Farmhouse Garden Animal Home Sanctuary in Uxbridge, Ont., started working there back when it was a ranch. The farm converted into a sanctuary after the owner, Michael Lanigan, decided he didn’t want to kill his animals any more. During her time spent at the sanctuary, Barabash’s love for animals grew; the time taught her about animals, how personable they are and how she really connected with them.

There is this trend of people going vegan for health reasons or [reasons] not necessarily about the animals.

But going through the vegan journey alone can be challenging, Killam says. One thing she did while living in the UK for two years was join a vegan meet-up group which helped with her diet transition.

She found that some people don’t understand veganism, or they don’t care about it, and that simple outings like going to eat with people can be tricky if the restaurant doesn’t have accommodations.

Killam says having friends from the meet-up group around her who have the same ideas as her about veganism is helpful.

Barabash agrees with the idea of joining the vegan community for support, since she says it can be very alienating at times if you are going through the journey alone.

When Killam returned to Toronto, she decided to continue engaging in the community, but she didn’t find any groups similar to the one she joined in London. So she started her own group called Toronto Vegan Meet-up.

“I think it’s the biggest vegan meetup group in Toronto, bringing over 2,000 members now and when we were having drink nights, we were usually getting 40-50 people [to] come [out] each month,” she says.

According to a poll conducted by Dalhousie University professor Dr. Sylvain Charlebois on March 13, 7.1 per cent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarians, and 2.3 per cent vegans. Additionally, the poll says people under 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than people who are 49 or older.

Killam has noticed a trend of youth going vegan, and says it’s getting trendier since restaurants that have nothing to do with veganism now have vegan options. And the new Canadian food guides — which haven’t changed in 10 years — are really focused on plant-based options.

“There is this trend of people going vegan for health reasons or [reasons] not necessarily about the animals,” she says.

It’s really important that when we do advocate for veganism that we make it very clear that this isn’t something that you really … experiment with.

The 5700 Inc. is a management company that manages a growing portfolio of lifestyle and entertainment brands that live online. One category in particular they work with is the vegan lifestyle. Director of Vegan Operations for the 5700 Inc. Eva Lampert says the food-guide is a good set of recommendations and in terms of health, more plant-based options is a very important change.

The link between going vegan and a diet lifestyle, however, is an issue, she says. Treating veganism like a trend heavily links it to a diet or lifestyle change, something that is temporary for people, she says.

“It’s really important that when we do advocate for veganism that we make it very clear that this isn’t something that you really … experiment with,” Lampert says. “When you’re looking at it from a moral perspective, it’s something that you choose to do and it’s not with a timeline in mind.”

The author’s sister, Brianna Lopes, enjoys her first vegan burger at Doomie’s. (Photo by: Ross Lopes)

Climate Vegan activist Ray Kowalchuck started his path to veganism after watching the public screening of “Cowspiracy,” a documentary film which explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. His wife was the first in his family to turn vegan and after exploring and engaging in the lifestyle, he found it much easier than he thought it would be.

The vegan movement, however, is the recognition that animals are not for our use and are not for our consumption, he says.

“They exist for their own purpose, and I think the Climate Vegan movement is something that the environment needs so desperately because we live in a world where all decisions are made first and foremost for the benefit of human beings.”

He relates this idea to the trend of veganism. Personal health is an excellent way to get people involved in veganism and even excited about it, but if health is the only concern and the process is treated like a diet, people tend to quit, he says.

Lampert says she wants people to live a long and healthy life, but veganism should remain about the animals and being vegan doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a healthy human being.

If you decide to make that choice to stop participating in systematic slaughter and death, and choose to live a life of non-violence, everything else will follow.

Doomie’s is a vegan restaurant that is partners with the 5700 Inc. It’s located in downtown Toronto at 1263 Queen Street West. The restaurant is narrow, with the bar on one side and a sign saying, “Mix drinks, not morals.” On the other side is a line of tables with pictures on the wall of animals dressed in human attire.

What makes Doomie’s different than other vegan restaurants is its food options. The restaurant offers the greasy, junky, fast-food options such as the Vegan Big-Mac or deep-fried macaroni and cheese balls. The food is vegan, but it probably isn’t going to make anyone thinner, healthier, or live longer. Lampert says Doomie’s does it in order to spare an animal exploitation.

“Very much in our businesses we are hoping to prove that it’s not just a certain type of person that is a vegan,” Lampert says. “If you decide to make that choice to stop participating in systematic slaughter and death, and choose to live a life of non-violence, everything else will follow.”

Right now, veganism might be trendy because it gives people a new way to better themselves, make them healthier, or feel younger, and that side of veganism appeals to people, but there’s more than one way to be vegan, she says.

Operations like Doomie’s are sharing that message, to let people be exactly who they are — not on a diet or living a different lifestyle — and living their life in a way that’s vegan, Lampert says.

“We have a really supportive community especially in the Toronto vicinity and there are a lot of groups you can be in. It can be isolating if you are the only vegan, or vegetarian that you know,” Barabash says. “It’s nice to have someone to connect to and talk to or go to a vegan restaurant with.”

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