Vegans exist in a non-vegan world. Every minute of every day, the exploitation of our non-human friends is normalized and culturally tolerated to degrees that make me feel suicidal. The callousness can be crippling as I watch how many people don’t veer their cars out of the way of the pigeons and squirrels with whom I share this city. In fact, a few months ago a man in my city tried to murder a family of raccoons with a shovel for destroying ‘his’ garden (as though human concepts of property ought to apply to non-humans). I stand in line at the grocery store and watch people unload what will become the contents of their refrigerator for the week, and I see the faces of the animals whose lives (in the form of flesh, milk, and eggs) were stolen from them. It truly is an eternal Treblinka, and it’s carried on with sickening ease.
And that’s why 10 000 tastes, 10 Billion Reasons was born. It started as a small idea. I saw that Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary was doing a North American Tour to celebrate the Sanctuary’s 25th Anniversary. What it ended up becoming was a massive publicity campaign, which involved [legally] occupying the largest pedestrian intersection in Canada. 5000 free veggie dogs (courtesy of Tofurky) were distributed to lines of enthusiastic people who braved both a bit of a wait and a bit of rain to opt for the free, vegan option instead of the lunches they’d otherwise likely have eaten. This is what Mercy for Animals calls ‘feed-ins’ and, simply put– they fricking work. Whether we like it or not (and I don’t), we live in a culture motivated by money. Our lines were FULL of people who were there for two reasons: a) to get free lunch and b) because they were at least curious about what a vegan hotdog tastes like. We also had overflowing lines for the vendor stations, which included Yoso, Daiya, Tofurky, Sol Cuisine, Natura, Sweets from the Earth, Sunrise Tofu, and Vega. One vendor actually complained that there weren’t enough actual vegans in the lines. I was a bit perplexed, as our primary motivation for this portion of the event was to fill the mouths of people who would likely never pay money for vegan food, with vegan food. Standing in line they may have thought they were getting the deal, but it’s the movement that benefits. Why?
Because while the person in line believes they’re just trying something new, expecting it to be decent, and carrying on in their merry, animal-eating way, in fact, a seed is being planted. The overwhelming response from vendors was that people who had never tried their products were blown away by the taste and asking where they could be purchased. And one thing I learned from my graduate work is that people need alternatives. So while to some, the strategy may seem a bit odd (feeding them the alternative prior to the real work which is asking them to stop participating in the exploitation of other animals), I think planting a seed this way actually works in our favour. I saw an elderly german couple eat their first veggie dogs, and remark that there was no compromise in taste. I saw two young men, one with a basketball tucked under his arm, come out of the line up with their veggie dogs, grinning like pranksters because they couldn’t believe they were about to try a veggie dog. I polled them after their first bite and I’m happy to report that one of them loved it, and the other said while he tasted a difference, he’d eat them again. Then they asked me why I was vegan, and it turned into a 10 minute conversation in which I was moved by the astonished looks they gave one another as my friend Rachel and I discussed the ethical reasons for a vegan worldview, as well as the environmental and personal health benefits. It was a conversation that I’d likely never have had the opportunity to have. And they were happening all around me. And because social justice for humans is also very important to me, I must make explicit mention of the joy I felt seeing people in the line for free food that I know were hungry. And not hungry because it was their lunch break. Hungry because they are food insecure.
In addition to the food, we had wonderful spaces for local organizations focused on animal issues, which were a flurry of activity. I am so thrilled that the amazing work of Snooters Farm Animal Sanctuary, Toronto Pig Save, Lawyers for Animal Welfare, Ark II, the Toronto Vegetarian Association, Farm Sanctuary, and Anouk’s Ark was showcased in such a high traffic area, with a reported 12 000 people having passed directly through the event.
Gene spent most of the afternoon at the Farm Sanctuary booth sharing stories with longtime supporters and new people alike. There was a certain electricity running through the crowd of animal activists (probably all the repressed urges to rush over and hug him until the end of eternity). Despite being one of the organizers, I confess on more than one occasion I scanned the horizon, saw his happy, handsome face and said “Holy shit, that’s Gene Baur over there!” as though it was pure coincidence, as opposed to the direct result of thousands of hours of work by our amazing team.
Georges Laraque, a formal NHL’er, whose own veganism was instigated after watching Earthlings (and who since then has taken out ads in newspapers and on television to promote his screenings of the film around Montreal) spent the whole day there, talking to reporters, answering questions, and doing everything he could to use his status and notoriety to help other animals. Also in the mix was Toronto Maple Leafer Mike Zigomanis, who chowed down on three veggie dogs and had nothing but good things to say about how much he’s enjoying being vegan. And did I mention there were break dancers and a steam-breathing dragon made out of artichoke hearts, cactus, kale, and dehydrated red peppers? Vegan Mealtime created an absolute piece of art for their live demo!
And that was only the afternoon part.
The evening event, which was ticketed (with the intention of fundraising for Farm Sanctuary, Snooters, We Animals and the TVA) took place in the Great Hall of the Hart House at the University of Toronto. We wanted this component to have a sort of gala feel, as many people in the vegan community don’t have those sort of formal celebrations as often as they deserve to. This featured a raffle with over $5000 in prizes which were grouped into different ‘packages’. The raffle alone brought in over $2500, a testament to the desirability of vegan art, products, businesses and services to vegans and non-vegans alike. The 1st Annual Canadian Empathy Awards were a media-friendly way to honour some of Canada’s most steadfast animal defenders. This first year, the recipients included:
- Councillor Wong-Tam and Councillor De Baeremaeker for their work to ban shark fin products in the city of Toronto.
- Lesli Bisgould for using the law to help other animals while also encouraging legislative change to better protect other animals.
- Rabble.ca for issuing their Vegan Challenge in the spring and publishing pieces on veganism and animal rights issues continually.
- Jo-Anne McArthur, the internationally celebrated photojournalist, for her documentary project ‘We Animals‘ which focuses on the lives of animals on all sevencontinents, especially those used by humans.
- Rebecca Aldworth, the Executive Director of Humane Society International (Canada) for her work on the front lines of the resistance to the seal slaughter for 13 years. In the past three years alone, her hard work has resulted in over 850 000 baby seals being spared from slaughter.
- Georges Laraque, as mentioned above, for his attention focused on animal rights and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for PETA, the deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, has been involved in hospital rebuilding efforts in Haiti, has performed in figure skating shows to challenge the stereotypes about gender and sports, and is involved with a vertical farming movement known as Terrasphere. Georges also owns two raw vegan restaurants (Crudessence) in Montreal.