A vegan activist holds up a protest sign during a demonstration in Montréal. The movement is unflinching in its efforts to change how people look at consuming food. (Shutterstock)

As vegan activism grows, politicians aim to protect agri-business, restaurateurs

The vegan movement — as diverse as it is — is increasingly active and vocal, as several events have shown recently.

Last month, a dozen activists entered the Joe Beef restaurant in Montréal as customers dined to denounce meat consumption and animal exploitation. A few days later, the city’s Restaurant Manitoba had glue put in its locks as did the bar Vin Mon Lapin. A note left behind denounced their association with a slaughterhouse project in Granby outside Montréal. No one has taken responsibility for these last actions.

Last December, a group of activists also entered a farm in the Montérégie area in southwestern Québec to raise awareness about the living conditions of pigs raised for human consumption. This action by vegan activists received extensive media coverage.

The provincial government in Québec has responded by setting up a task force made up of representatives of the departments of Justice, Public Safety and Agriculture. Québec Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, André Lamontagne, said the task force will look at legislation in other jurisdictions, particularly Alberta and Ontario, to ensure protests occur in a “respectful manner … to help our farmers, our restaurateurs.”

A young woman holds a sign during a march in Montréal that supported closing slaughterhouses. (Marie-Ève Fraser), Author provided

As a PhD student in political science, my field of expertise is social movements, and more particularly, movements for animal rights in France and Québec, which is the subject of my master’s thesis.

In our climate emergency era, the vegan movement is fed partly by ideas to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But veganism is first and foremost about animal rights. Other and more central issues that feed the movement is the respect of fundamental animal rights and a refusal to normalize the consumption of animal products. Therefore, veganism can embody multiple networks and different types of actions, personal and collective.

But what is the connection between collective action and the personal, such as a personal decision to go vegan? Turning a traditional meat pie recipe into a vegan dish is not the same thing as going into a farm or a restaurant to protest the living conditions of animals for slaughter.

A brief history of veganism

Veganism is much more than a way of eating and dressing. Vegans do not consume products or services derived from what they consider to be animal exploitation. Vegans consider it unjust to harm sentient beings for the pleasure of eating a hamburger or sitting on a leather couch.

Non-human animals possess the “neurological substrates of consciousness,” says the manifesto of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, signed by neuroscientists in June 2012. The declaration concludes that non-human animals have a consciousness similar to that of humans.

The term vegan appeared in 1944 in the United Kingdom. Two members of the English Vegetarian Society noted that the milk and egg industry was closely linked to the meat industry and that, consequently, vegetarianism, which excludes only the consumption of animal flesh, is only a transitional solution towards a diet free of animal cruelty.

They founded the Vegan Society, which in 1949 defined veganism as “the principle of emancipation of animals from human exploitation.” The current definition proposed by the Vegan Society, which is still active, is “a way of life that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

A protest by vegan activists in New York City. (Shutterstock)

A diversity of actions

The multiplicity of voices and actions from diverse social spheres makes veganism a true citizens’ movement.

Not all vegans define themselves as animal rights activists, however, conscientious objection and the coexistence of collective and individual action is a fundamental characteristic of the vegan movement.

Another characteristic lies in the profound diversity of its actions, but also in the activist strategies and groups that make it up. While some are oriented toward direct action, others are interested in changing dietary behaviour and popularizing veganism.

Some groups promote street activism, while others choose more institutional avenues such as creating petitions or working with municipalities.

In addition, and particularly in Québec, the academic world is at the cutting edge of work in animal ethics. Some of these philosophers are committed activists, such as Christiane Bailey, Frédéric Côté-Boudreau, Martin Gibert or Valéry Giroux. In the animal protection community, people like Élise Desaulniers, executive director of the Montréal SPCA, are involved in the cause.

That said, the question of the effectiveness of actions is an important debate among activists. Some then point out the need for political action for animal rights rather than the spread of the vegan lifestyle and prefer to speak of an anti-speciesist movement or an animal liberation movement. There is also debate as to whether a social movement should attract public support.

The public debate

Indeed, at a time when the supply of vegan products is increasing, activists sometimes fear the reduction of veganism to a depoliticized way of life that has been taken over by the food industry.

An animal rights demonstration in Mexico City. The vegan movement is global in scope. (Shutterstock)

Whatever one thinks of the actions taken, one thing is clear: the issues raised by the vegan and anti-speciesist movements are now part of the public debate. In this sense, these two movements are not limited to the organizations that carry them and the ideologies that run through them. They are, in fact, questioning our entire society.

Their multiple actions — sometimes co-ordinated, sometimes spontaneous — question the ethical and environmental consequences of our treatment of farm animals.

In 2017, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 70 billion land animals will be slaughtered worldwide for their meat, not counting fish, marine mammals and crustaceans.

Social movements shape society

Most of the changes in values that our world has experienced are the result of protest actions. Whether we think of the hard-won right to strike for unions, the civil rights of Blacks in the United States or women’s rights, social movements shape society, as sociologist Alain Touraine put it.

Indeed, the vegan and anti-speciesist movements seem well placed to produce, in the long run, a more just society for animals.

In the immediate term, we can expect significant changes in the way we consume and milk our animals.

This article was originally published in French

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