The Case One Firefighter Is Making for Veganism as a Human Right

An Ontario firefighter has filed a human rights complaint after his employer, the provincial government of Ontario, failed to provide vegan food for him after sending him to battle wildfires in British Columbia.

If ever there were a case where a person’s special food needs ought to be met, it’s when the person requires calories to fuel a body that is in harm’s way protecting fellow citizens.

There are those who brush off his veganism as an unnecessary personal preference, akin to people who don’t like mushrooms on pizza. For instance, this Washington Post article about the case has somewhat of a sarcastic tone. And perhaps you’ve heard some variation of this sneering joke: “How do you know if someone you’ve just met is vegan? They’ll tell you within 5 seconds.”

Yes, for less discriminating eaters (full disclosure: I eat meat), there is a sort of unironic holier-than-thou attitude toward vegans that seems unjustified and sometimes projective.

But this case is actually really important — and not just for vegans.

Human rights have a long and storied history, appearing in all sorts of declarative documents across centuries. Often they are first put together by discriminated and oppressed groups. And only later do they attain the force of law after much effort.

A major example is the right of those who are against killing to declare themselves “conscientious objectors” and refuse conscription to combat roles in times of war. In the United States, this right stemmed from the First Amendment, which respects the rights of individuals to practice their religion, including those that forbid killing. Of course, it was easy for members of recognized Christian groups to receive this deferment — but less so for others. Famously, Muhammad Ali claimed conscientious-objector status as a practicing Muslim and was denied, being sent to prison for refusing the draft. Wrong color, wrong religion.

Arguably worse off are those whose deeply held philosophical beliefs are not rooted in a recognized organized religion. Historically, those who claimed conscientious-objector status but listed themselves as nonreligious, agnostic or atheist had a much harder time receiving deferment from combat roles. And this is a problem because it privileges the rights of members of certain religions over the rights of those who are not part of those groups. And it is only slowly beginning to change.

Ethical veganism is likewise a deeply held philosophical belief that ought to be protected like any other. The Ontario government’s dismissal of this moral worldview as a “lifestyle choice” (and the similarly belittling tone of some media coverage) is a pushback against the human rights we should all be fighting for. Not to mention it flies in the face of previous court decisions.

If the firefighter were Hindu, this wouldn’t be an issue because this has already been legislated and governments know better than to stomp on religious groups with collective political and legal power. But human rights are supposed to be for everyone — not just for those with the clout of a larger established identity group behind them.

For too long, there has been an unequal application of the right to practice personal beliefs outside of certain groups. This firefighter’s fight is important in that regard, and it could be a model for many other countries going forward. I hope and trust the Human Rights Tribunal will make the correct decision.

Photo credit: deepblue4you/Getty Images

82 comments

Olivia H
Olivia H3 days ago

tyfs

SEND
Thomas M
Thomas M14 days ago

thanks very much

SEND
Hannah A
Hannah A15 days ago

thank you for sharing

SEND
Linda W
Linda Wallace16 days ago

I support his cause.

SEND
Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H21 days ago

thanks

SEND
darcia hurst
darcia hurst23 days ago

Disappointed the author eats meat but appreciate light being brought to this issue. As a vegetarian for 29 years I have endured many attacks by flesh eaters. I will never understand why what I eat is anybodies business. The fact I am using fewer resources should be appreciated not attacked.

SEND
Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini26 days ago

Heather C
Thanks for doing the research needed to fill in the background. If it's the case that he did warn his employers in advance then of course his request should have been honoured. Interesting and sad that veganism wasn't considered a 'sincerely, freely and deeply held conviction'. Of course it is! What do they think it is, some kind of food fad? If nothing else, his official complaint will force people to educate themselves about vegan ethics. You can agree or disagree for your own dietary habits but you can't deny the sincere conviction of vegans.

I am still not convinced though that the whole squad should have had to eat vegan meals. Those who are used to eating meat feel deprived if day after day they only get plant based food (not so much 'entertainment' as habit, I'd say). They will be the ones to start feeling less than one hundred percent fit. Surely it's not too much to ask that the cooks include a vegan option, it's not that we are talking about expensive or time-consuming haute cuisine. And evidently if the firefighter says that 'some days' he was not provided with vegan food, it proves that the cooks were able to provide it if they could be bothered. So while I'm not sure he can claim his Human Rights have been violated he is certainly within his rights to complain.

SEND
Heather C
Heather C27 days ago

Annabel, (continued) I am not asking the entire squad to eat plant based meals under ordinary circumstances; I simply said that if there are only facilities to provide one meal, that meal should be one that everyone can eat. The point is to provide nutritious food for ALL first responders for the grueling and dangerous work they must do, rather than failing to feed a valued member of the squad so that the others can have the entertainment value of the meat they are used to. One malnourished firefighter is one too many. His community should be expressing their gratitude for his service, and should ensure that he has adequate nutrition to do his job safely. Considerate people such as yourself presume that the firefighter’s request would be honored because it’s the right thing to do, and that is part of the problem... folks don’t look into the matter or read the coverage (I had to read other news articles about this situation to fill in the blanks). But there are many out there who take a dismissive attitude toward vegan ethics and some of those people are decision makers who don’t have the good sense to take care of their first responders with something as simple as plant-based foods. Feed your firefighters, Ontario; they are out there protecting your lives! It’s not like this is hard.

SEND
Heather C
Heather C27 days ago

Annabel, The basis of the firefighter's complaint is that he did notify his employer ahead of time that he would need vegan food, then reminded the cooks and his supervisor several times once he was there. He was promised adequate vegan nutrition, which they then failed to provide. The government of Ontario is defending their position by claiming that he has no right to his ethics, that moral veganism is not a “sincerely, freely and deeply held” conviction, which is the criteria for protection under Ontario’s nondiscrimination law. They maintain that his vegan convictions are a “lifestyle choice” or preference, which is ungrateful bunk in my book. He worked for 10 days “in extreme heat and exhausting conditions, working hard to save people’s homes from burning” for up to 16 hours per day . He states in his complaint that “some days during my deployment to William’s Lake, I was not provided with any food that was vegan and therefore forced to go hungry. After working 16-hour days for four days with inadequate nutrition I began to feel physically ill and mentally groggy.” I am not asking the entire squad to eat plant based meals under ordinary circumstances; I simply said that if there are only facilities to provide one meal, that meal should be one that everyo

SEND
Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini27 days ago

Heather C
Of course I understand what you are saying (and I'm sorry if I misjudged you) but the fact remains that you are asking that a whole squad of valiant firefighters should eat a plant-only based meal because just ONE of them is a vegan. I don't think that's fair. I go back to my original question: did the vegan firefighter ask for a vegan meal to be provided? If he did, then the cooks should of course have provided one, but if he didn't you can't blame them for failing to do so, particularly in an emergency situation. I put this question because more than once I have found myself preparing food for, say Easter lunch, with a vegetarian dish on offer and a friend of a friend has joined the party, looked at the food and said, in a self-rigteous voice 'where's the vegan option'?. Well, it would be good manners to warn me in advance and I'll be happy to provide an extra bean salad. Sorry, I know I am trivializing what is a serious subject but as I keep saying we are talking here about a real-life situation. I am sure the cooks had no idea they were violating a firefighter's convictions, it will simply have been 'Food for ten. Get going'.

SEND