A lot of Toronto vegans are pretty angry at me for a piece I wrote on the controversy over Vegandale—a group of vegan businesses that have cropped up in Parkdale.
I filed the story, called Capitalist Vegans Are Tearing Apart This Toronto Neighbourhood, after attending a forum called Parkdale Isn’t Vegandale at a community garden Saturday. Around 250 people turned out to discuss their concerns about Vegandale, which consists of several restaurants, a brewery, and a clothing store all owned by the same group: the 5700 Inc.
Although the organizers made it clear that the forum was in no way meant to be a referendum on the merits of veganism itself, many attendees said they were offended by Vegandale’s branding. Vegandale Brewery’s slogan is “morality on tap,” while Doomie’s restaurant puts up messaging like “Baby steps are for babies. Be an adult. Be vegan.” Parkdale residents also raised concerns about gentrification and capitalism, issues that the traditionally low-income, immigrant community has been struggling with more and more as of late.
Some of the vegans in attendance said they believe negative feelings towards veganism are in part behind the backlash. “I think a lot of this is driven by people feeling threatened by vegans,” said Tenzin Dheden, noting that the businesses Vegandale replaced had similar price points but garnered nowhere near the same level of controversy.
I wanted to explore that sentiment in a follow-up story, so I posted in a Facebook group for local vegans, and was almost immediately bashed for my article, and accused of being an anti-vegan sensationalist and a “garbage writer.” I won’t dwell too much on the irony of complaining about being treated poorly while simultaneously calling another person garbage. But I will say that, as unpleasant as it was, their defensiveness made sense in the context of Dheden’s point. It does seem that vegans are often dismissed with snide comments about being overly zealous, or jokes about bacon, and no one really gives a second thought to it.
Luckily, a bunch of people were still down to talk to me. So I asked them why they think vegans get hated on so frequently and whether or not the Vegandale backlash was justified.
Mathusha, 26, Markham
VICE: What do you make of the Vegandale backlash?
Matusha: I think the backlash is fair and understandable, the community is worried. This isn't the first time gentrification has come knocking on Parkdale's doors and again, just because it's a veganized version of gentrification doesn't mean it's not gentrification. So naturally, it's understandable why people are upset, and I think that's what's behind the backlash. To be honest, there's nothing vegan about driving people out of neighbourhoods and bubble-wrapping capitalism and its establishments.
What do you think the “morality on tap” signage?
I absolutely agree that the signage is obnoxious. Things like that, personally, kept me away from veganism for years until I met other intersectional POC vegans who provided me with literally a safe space (especially as a woman of colour) to explore it without judgment, having my culture shat on, or obnoxious hounding.
Can you expand a bit on the racism you’ve witnessed within veganism?
I've noticed [Facebook] posts that were insensitive (ex: "Asian people eat everything!"), and these posts generally are filled with comments supporting the post, and the one or two people who do pipe out to call it out are often shut down. They also tend to be people of colour. I've also seen way too many Holocaust and slavery comparisons, and any attempt at trying to educate 'em on why you shouldn't be using things like that to make a point was always met with heavy backlash. Again, always from white vegans. There's also a lack of compassion that seems to exist for people who are living in poverty, are battling addiction, etc. Super ableist language is also a frequently occurring thing, hence why groups like Intersectional Vegans Canada exist, to filter out the trash.
Do you feel people think it's "OK" to hate on vegans publicly?
Veganism already gets a bad rep because of how obnoxious some vegans are and their ‘morally superior’ attitudes. I've come across a ton of white supremacist-type racists within the vegan space and many who don't really actually extend their veganism to *all* living beings, which includes other humans. So yes, I think some of the *growing* backlash might be due to a ‘disdain’ for mainstream veganism, but, generally, I feel that the backlash is more largely due to gentrification.
Alec Bosse, 42, Toronto
What made you become vegan?
Alec: I watched the movie Earthlings. I felt that I could no longer contribute to that unnecessary exploitation of animals.
Is the Vegandale backlash about more than just gentrification?
I saw other signs of gentrification when I was working [in Parkdale]. The company I was working for was doing many of the things that are being requested of the Vegandale businesses now… What they were doing was offering their employes just living wages, I was getting paid $10 an hour plus tips, locally sourced goods, over 60 percent of employees were from Parkdale. When Grand Electric moved in because they wanted to get into that gentrification nobody had any issues.
Is it considered socially acceptable to hate on vegans?
I do see that it is considered at this time socially acceptable to dismiss and make light of the ethical movement that is veganism. I see it happen regularly. It’s easy to pass judgment when individuals are looking at veganism as a dietary choice and not recognizing it as a social justice movement. These aren’t personal choices when there’s a victim. People didn’t like it when they were told that women were not treated equal. People didn’t like it when there was more awareness around slavery. People didn’t like it when there was more awareness around homophobia. If we applied the same logic and excuses that are used against veganism against those movements today think about how out of place it would be.
Darren Chang, 28, Toronto
Is it true that people are hard on vegans?
Darren: Yes, I do feel it's true that people are hard on vegans and that it has been made socially acceptable to hate on vegans. However, I think it's important to not conflate all the "hate" for vegans as the same.
There are many who simply hate vegans when they feel that veganism challenges their worldviews and habits on the basis of ethics and morality, and they try to shutdown veganism out of defensiveness, instead of opening their hearts and minds to the possibility of living compassionately and nonviolently with other animals. Many intersectional vegan ecofeminists have also pointed out that the disdain for veganism's empathy for other animals also has deep roots in misogyny, white supremacy, ableism, etc., because to feel love and care for other animals who are considered less capable and intelligent than humans through living veg lifestyles common in many non-white, non-western cultures, is considered a form of weakness and inferiority.
What’s the other kind of “hate”?
I wouldn't consider it to be hate, but rather rightful critique of the mainstream capitalist vegan movement that is dominated by upper middle class, mostly white people, who have shown very little understanding or concern about issues related to food justice, poverty, systemic racism, etc. White veganism has a tendency to erase the existence of many POC vegans, and vegan organizations that are doing good work addressing social justice issues beyond speciesism or the domination of nonhuman animals, connecting animal-related issues to other forms of oppression as well. Food Empowerment Project, a nonprofit vegan food justice advocacy group based in California, is a great example of a POC-led organization doing this kind of work by supporting migrant farm workers and fighting for accessibility to healthy food in dispossessed and impoverished communities.
Paige, 36, Parkdale
What do you make of Vegandale?
Paige: I don’t make much of the name, it’s just marketing, obviously the city would never actually change the neighbourhood name. I certainly don’t call my neighborhood that. However, if you are asking how I feel about finally having options of places to eat and shop in my neighbourhood, I feel great about that.
What do you think is behind the backlash?
I think people are frustrated with the state of our city in general. I think when people are frustrated they lash out at the easy target, the one they can quickly rally support for. It’s hard to action change about big things like luxury condos, and a Metro [grocery store] moving into the neighborhood. I also think if you own a restaurant in the area and you serve primarily meat dishes, you might not be excited about this kind of attention on your doorstep. Obviously, plant-based diets are a trend right now. I would probably be a little irritated if I owned a meat-based restaurant in the area and I had to hear people talking about vegan food everywhere.
Do you understand why people think the signage, i.e. ‘morality on tap,’ is obnoxious, or do you feel it's completely appropriate?
No one likes to read that they are doing something other people might think is wrong. It’s a bar though, not a community centre. It’s not something most people would take seriously. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek marketing. Is it obnoxious? Sure, but most memorable advertising is.
Do you feel people think it's OK to hate on vegans publicly?
It’s more socially acceptable than it should be, but there are obviously worse things people could be hating on like race, gender, sexual orientation… although the reasoning (or lack of it) behind hating those groups and vegans is similar. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone who hates vegans also hates some other minority, people like that aren’t reasonable.
Jason To, 31, Toronto
What do you think is behind the controversy with Vegandale?
Jason: I think Vegandale is a problem, I think it does contribute to gentrification. I think there is in some people’s cases some hypocrisy and double standards. I think if people are living in their swanky condo in Parkdale, they love going to Parts and Labour, they complain about the neighbourhood specifically in stigmatizing ways, I think there’s some hypocrisy there and some inconsistency.
Do vegans get unfairly hated on?
I don’t think vegans are a so-called oppressed group but I do think people love to hate on vegans. As a whole comment, I think there are some obnoxious vegans, that is not helpful. I think sometimes it comes from guilt from let’s say being a self-proclaimed animal lover and not willing to go vegan. When there’s moments to catch vegans in actual or perceived hypocrisy it’s a great ‘aha’ moment.
Caitlin Brubacher, 35, Toronto
Why are people so hard on vegans?
Caitlin: The real question is, can we as a culture embrace veganism as a legitimate social justice movement without getting defensive? If we acknowledge the individual experiences of animals, the vast impact that animal agriculture has on climate, and the impact climate change has on vulnerable communities, we can understand the need to speak up as a grounded political move. If they don't believe in it as a social justice movement, if they think of it as a lifestyle or religion being pushed on them rather than a legitimate call to action, they feel defensive.
Interviews have been condensed for clarity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.