Jennifer Surrette rarely hits
a fast-food drive-thru, but the other day the 28-year-old
Halifax schoolteacher found herself rushed and in
a lunch-time lineup at Burger King.
A vegetarian for the past 10 years and a vegan
for five, Ms. Surrette, who counsels kids as young
as elementary-school age about vegetarianism, was
keen on a meatless burger as she idled behind a
pickup truck loaded with four ravenous, male construction
"I totally expected to hear 'Whopper, Whopper,
Whopper, Whopper' from their window, and I thought
I was hearing things when they all ordered veggie
burgers," she says. "It was unbelievable and wonderful.
I was sitting in my car cheering."
No longer the sole orbit of middle-aged ex-hippies,
fanatical animal-rights activists, anemic health
nuts and flaky movie stars, vegetarianism today
is embraced by a wide assortment of people. And
they are being converted younger than ever.
Lisa of The Simpsons isn't the only eight-year-old
who shuns meat. These days, hordes of university
students, teenagers and even children go vegetarian
for political, environmental and health reasons,
embracing our furry and feathered friends and slashing
their risks of nasty conditions such as heart disease,
cancer and obesity in the process, all while their
parents watch from across the dinner table.
This week, the vegetarian movement got a sanguine
shot in the arm when a cow on a farm in Grand Prairie,
Alta., was found to have the brain-wasting bovine
spongiform encephalopathy mad-cow disease.
Ms. Surrette, who gave up meat when she was "18,
young and impressionable," says the only surprise
in the news for her was that it hadn't happened
sooner. "Watching the beef markets go down and the
soy prices go up, I couldn't help but chuckle a
little," she admitted. "But it's an awful situation
for people who rely on the beef industry."
That industry, worth $30-billion annually to the
Canadian economy, is in mad-cow chaos. The cattle
trade has ground to a halt. Stock prices are in
free-fall. The United States does not want a morsel
of our meat.
Are the vegetarians the slim, smart and
smug who haven't touched the stuff in years
saying, 'We told you so?' Worse, are our own children
wagging their fingers at us, tsk-tsking our steak
These days, the vegetarians look like the clever
ones, living healthy, self-satisfied lives, out
ahead of the curve. And then there are those who
are way, way ahead of the curve such as six-year-old
Anya Goff of Toronto, who went vegetarian not long
ago after watching a bird collide with an SUV.
"I was in kindergarten, walking home with my dad,"
says Anya, as precocious and bright as Matt Groening's
yellow-skinned cartoon prodigy. "This bird was on
the road and a car came and it died. I cried a lot.
So that's why I choose to be vegetarian."
Her rejection of meat comes from the heart. "It's
cruel for animals to die," she says. "Their family
wants them there. Next thing you know, they don't
have part of their family. . . . Why do people want
to kill animals when they're almost the same as
humans? Everyone says, 'I don't know.' "
Also like Lisa Simpson, Anya is the only vegetarian
in her family eating rice, salads, pizza
with just cheese, while her parents and 10-year-old
brother continue to eat meat.
Still, her parents support her decision. Her father,
Jules, recalls the day that bird died. "She was
inconsolable," he says.
"Every time I go to the meat store, there's hanging
pigs, the bodies of dead animals," Anya says. "Very
bad. I close my eyes."
Only an estimated 4 per cent of Canadians consider
themselves vegetarians, according to the Ottawa-based
National Institute of Nutrition, with the youngest
and oldest most likely to put themselves in that
category. Around the world, roughly 19,000 people
a day turn vegetarian, though not all stick with
"At that rate, it would still take 800 years for
the whole world to go vegetarian," Ms. Surrette
sighed. "There's still such a small number of us."
Yet vegetarianism "is becoming more prevalent in
the lives of Canadians," according to Linda Robbins,
who monitors consumer food trends at the federal
government's Food Bureau. "Canadians aren't abandoning
meat, but they're eating meat less often and having
other kinds of protein sources."
A recent study by the Beef Information Centre suggests
that over the past five years about 30 per cent
of Canadians have reduced the amount of meat they
And where there is a trend, there is a salivating
marketer. Virtually every grocery store, even in
small towns, now boasts a separate section of what
at one time would have been sneered at as merely
"health foods." The Ardmore Tearoom, a legendary
Halifax greasy spoon, recently added veggie burgers
to their meat-heavy menu - two waitresses there
are vegans (who shun animal byproducts of every
McDonald's, Burger King and other fast-food joints,
eager to capitalize on the trend toward a meat-free
existence, have introduced vegetarian fare to their
menus over the past year. (McDonald's this week
also hastily dumped a promotion campaign it had
just launched - using pure Alberta beef suddenly
wasn't such a selling point.)
There is even an on-line dating site strictly for
vegetarians around the world. Veggiedate.com
bursts with nearly 11,000 personal ads for people
who shun meat, including more than 2,200 Canadian
Meanwhile, in Montreal, the regulars at Les Vivres
vegan restaurant were wearing a we-told-you-so look
as they feasted on their miso-potato soup and organic-sprout-and-carrot
sandwiches one afternoon this week.
These glowing young ectomorphs see the mad-cow
outbreak as nature's way of saying, Gotcha. "It's
so obvious," says Kat Leblond, 27, who had just
downed a Veggie Lox sandwich. "Mass production in
the meat industry is so corrupt that weird things
happen, and Mother Earth gets revenge."
Les Vivres, which translates loosely as "The Essentials,"
dishes out organic vegan fare from its stripped-down
premises in the trendy Plateau Mont Royal district.
The clientele is mixed, from middle-aged heart patients
to a trio of self-avowed carnivores who were tucking
into massive sandwiches made with seitan, a meat
substitute derived from wheat gluten.
But this vegetarian shrine finds many followers
among the younger generation of social activists,
environmentalists and antiglobalization demonstrators
Co-owner Michael Makhan, 26, says that after a
Montreal street protest, it's tough to get a seat.
"Montreal is a politically charged city," he says,
"and a lot of these people are definitely not consuming
a lot of meat. After protests, we find business
For many, including Mr. Makhan himself, going veggie
is part political act, part health choice and part
act of compassion toward animals.
He grew up on hamburgers, chicken and standard
carnivore fare on a homestead in rural Nova Scotia.
A girlfriend turned him on to meatlessness when
he was 17. Eventually, he went vegan.
"The food here comes from a place that people trust,"
he says. "People here don't eat at McDonald's. People
don't trust McDonald's. How can you trust McDonald's?"
That independent cast of mind seems to be typical
of young vegetarians - for many, it is a way to
carve out their own identity, and today's parents
allow it because they don't want to squelch kids'
Kira Evenson of Toronto, now 15, was on her way
to the Canadian National Exhibition a few years
back when she saw a truck destined for an abattoir.
"It was a truck full of pigs," she said. "My dad
told me they were going to be made into meat. I
was astonished at how cruel it was."
But it was involvement in the animal-rights movement
that fuelled her passion. "I went to a vegan potluck
and they showed a video called Meet Your Meat,"
she says, munching an after-school apple. "It showed
everything that goes on in the slaughterhouse. It
was really hard to watch. Baby cows in crates. Chickens
get their beaks cut off. It really upset me."
Now, it's a full-blown way of life. She is a sponge
for facts about animal cruelty and attends animal-rights
meetings regularly. On the telephone, she reaches
for pamphlets and rattles off non-vegan offenders:
Skittles! Pop Tarts! Many wines and beers! She can
also hold forth on the watering down of Bill C-10,
the federal legislation on cruelty to animals.
But no one else in her family is vegetarian, and
at home she doesn't play the crusader. "I wanted
to be vegetarian when I was younger, but I wasn't
allowed because I couldn't cook for myself," she
says. "Now, it's not a problem at all. And I don't
bother my family about eating meat."
Like many of her peers, she is an enthusiast, not
"It's a personal thing for me," says Ali Weinstein,
17 and also in Toronto. She became a vegetarian
nearly six years ago after seeing "roasted pigs
and chicken on skewers" on a family trip to Indonesia.
"It would be great if no one in the world ate meat,
but it's not my main reason for being vegetarian.
I have found that just by being a vegetarian and
not trying to influence people, they can respect
that, and sometimes it influences them anyway."
On the other hand, Dr. Miriam Kaufman, of the adolescent
medicine clinic at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children,
warned that a small number of girls - and it's mostly
girls who adopt vegetarianism in their teens - do
it to cover up an eating disorder. "A subsection
of girls who say they're vegetarian are developing
anorexia nervosa," Dr. Kaufman says. "They see vegetarianism
as a way to eliminate a whole food group. And they
don't replace the calories and nutrients."
At Parkview Education Centre, a high school in
Bridgewater, N.S., about 10 per cent of the school's
950 students call themselves vegetarian, says retired
teacher and vegan Barry Crozier, who still leads
an animal-rights group at the school and talks to
kids about eating a balanced diet once they switch.
"Most young people become vegetarian for ethical
and environmental reasons, whereas with older folks
it's usually for health," Mr. Crozier says. "With
young people, it's hip to do. Most have a sound
grounding for why they're doing it. They've already
been affected by some other animal issue - the circus,
or fur. They move their consciousness onto the food.
"It's tough, because some parents see it as a form
of rebellion. I don't think it is, and even if it
were, would they rather have their kid on the street
corner with a needle in their arm? But once the
parents reach a comfort level with it, the rest
of the family usually ends up eating less meat."
That's what happened in Misha Buob's family. The
20-year-old from Caledon, Ont., managed to shift
his whole family to vegetarianism after becoming
one himself a couple of years ago, and eventually,
turning vegan. He was looking for his identity.
Dr. Kaufman, who estimates only about 10 per cent
of teenage vegetarians will stick with their choice,
nonetheless sees psychological benefits for kids
in carving out a set of principles for themselves.
"Being a teenager, that's a point in your life
when a lot of change is happening," Mr. Buob says.
"Vegetarianism can be something you stand for, and
that defines you. I wanted something different to
grab onto. I think that had something to do with
it. It's not important to me any more, but when
I was first making those decisions, that seemed
kind of cool. Now, it seems like the best choice
Bob Woodsworth is the owner of Naam, Vancouver's
pre-eminent and oldest vegetarian restaurant. When
it was founded in 1968, the Kitsilano restaurant
catered to long-haired hippies who ate only brown
rice and vegetables, because they were convinced
the Establishment was out to poison them.
Now, Mr. Woodsworth's customers come from all walks
of life - from local police officers, who drop in
for breakfast, to teenagers, television stars, grandmothers
and business people.
In the past 10 years, Mr. Woodsworth has noticed
an increase in the number of vegans, to about 20
per cent of his clientele. His menu offers several
vegan items, but he would never restrict himself
to that sort of "fanaticism," as he put it.
"I had a few items on the menu that had honey in
it. I didn't realize that honey was, strictly speaking,
an animal product. [Vegans] don't want any animal
products whatsoever. Don't tell them that figs have
little dead wasps in them," he jokes.
Vancouver is probably the most vegetarian-friendly
city in Canada. Some attribute it to the weather
- you don't need as much body fat in the mild climate.
Or maybe, as many often joke, all the weirdos from
the east eventually head west, and Vancouver is
as far as they can go.
Among the city's many successful vegetarian entrepreneurs,
perhaps the most famous is Yves Potvin, the original
founder of Yves Veggie Cuisine - North America's
leading supplier of packaged soy-based meat alternatives,
including the McDonald's veggie burger, soon to
hit Golden Arches outlets across the States.
The Quebec-born chef arrived in Vancouver in the
early eighties, and began manufacturing faux turkey
slices and hot dogs. Although a meat eater himself,
Mr. Potvin realized that people were becoming more
conscious of cholesterol and fat, and saw the potential
market for healthy fast foods. Today, it would be
hard to find a street hot-dog vendor in Vancouver
that doesn't carry the Yves Famous Veggie Dog. The
former one-man operation grew to have sales of $35-million
in 2000, and he sold the company the following year.
Wayne and Lloyd Lockhart, meanwhile, run Choices,
a market chain that stocks every soy-based, meatless,
organic, wheat-free product there is, although it
sells conventional non-vegetarian foods as well.
"We're not targeting vegetarians exclusively,"
Lloyd Lockhart says. "But you could be vegetarian,
and I'm not, and we can still shop together. It's
all about providing choice."
The stores even have a nutritional consultant on
staff, who can advise you on the best way of eating
rice bread. (Toast it, he says. It tastes better.)
A typically atypical Choices customer is Jonathan
Skinner, who does not fit the stereotype of a musty,
old hippie vegan. He's a 26-year-old skateboarder
who works as a programmer for a video-game company
- where he is currently developing a vegetarian-friendly
video game called Steer Madness. He is also
the founder of Vegan Voices (www.veganvoices.org),
a youth-based, animal-welfare and vegan-support
Four years ago, Mr. Skinner was a proud meat-eating
Calgarian. "In Alberta, everybody eats beef. I had
a friend who was vegetarian and I used to tease
him about his tofu."
Then he saw a scene in a meat-processing plant
in the David Cronenberg movie eXistenz -
which otherwise has nothing to do with vegetarianism.
"The main character lost control and starting cutting
up all these little three-headed creatures. That's
when it really clicked for me. The meat you buy
in the store might all be tidy and packaged, but
at one time, it was a living, breathing being. I
couldn't touch meat again."
Mr. Skinner moved to Vancouver "mainly because
it's so much easier to be a vegetarian here. I hear
it's better in Calgary now, but then, it was really
hard to eat a healthy diet. Here, they have all
kinds of grocery stores - Choices and Capers - that
really cater to various dietary options. And even
at the corner stores, they all stock veggie burgers
and tons of different kinds of soy milk. You'd be
surprised how many types of soy milk there are.
And every type tastes different. You really have
to find one you like."
His favourite at the moment is Soy Nice Chocolate.
Vancouver vegetarians also have many options when
it comes to fine dining - from Lumière (where one
of the four 10-course tasting menus is strictly
vegetarian) to West (where a carrot-and-mascarpone
ravioli with white truffle sauce is one of the hottest-selling
specials this week).
"There's just a really strong vegetarian community
here," says Mr. Skinner, who plans socials with
the members of Vegan Voices (now 300 members strong,
mostly all under 30). The group's most important
mandate is to help young vegans stay healthy by
providing nutritional information. But the members
also get involved in various sorts of activism,
including anti-fur protests.
The group also provides support to members on its
Web site: Looking for a pair of hiking boots that
are animal-product free? Go to Mountain Equipment
Co-op, where they stock various models from Garmont's
Despite all these signs of the movement's progress,
though, Ms. Surrette (who has influenced her husband
and sister to give up meat) wonders if a single
mad cow will translate into any more vegetarians.
"It can be similar to making a New Year's resolution,"
she says. "As the media hype dies down, will they
stick with it? Vegetarianism in Europe peaked during
their mad-cow problem. Whether all those people
are still vegetarians, I don't know.
"Myself, I would be fearful for my life if I ate
animals. Absolutely. There's no need for it, and
when it presents so many health problems and environmental
atrocities, there seems to be no other solution
than vegetarian. It's funny, because meat didn't
disgust me when I started. I thought about it for
a while, even missed it. But it becomes disgusting.
It really does."