Ethical Vegans and Human Rights in the Workplace

By Jim Melanson

As corporate leaders, at least in Canada, we are all versed in Human Rights Code legislation for our province or territory. In 2015 there was an important update made to the Ontario Human Rights Code.

One of the protected grounds under the Ontario (and other) Human Rights Code is “creed”. Whereas the term creed has been intended to refer to religious/spiritual beliefs, the revisions to this part of the code have made the characteristics of creed to be more encompassing. For the purpose of this article, I’m only addressing creed as it applies to the social area of employment.

As reported in various media outlets earlier this year, several ethical vegan groups (including animal-rights groups) have claimed this to be a victory for their way of life.

In a National Post article by Ashley Csanady, Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane clarified that applying creed to ethical vegans was never the precise intent of the review of the definition of “creed.”[i]

“We did hear from (vegan and animal rights groups) and I have a lot of respect for their advocacy… but in framing the definition, that is not the group that we were attempting to address. That’s not to say the tribunal might not find… in a certain instance for that to qualify as a creed,” said Mandhane. “But that wasn’t where we were going.”

On the Ontario Human Rights Code website, they specifically address the issue of ethical veganism interpretation as a creed[ii]:

“Following the release of the OHRC’s new Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed, there have been much-publicized claims that the policy extends protection against discrimination on the basis of creed to cover ethical veganism. To be clear, the Policy does not say one way or the other whether ethical veganism is a creed. Indeed, it is not the OHRC’s role to determine whether or not a certain belief is a creed. Specific facts and context are needed for those kinds of determinations to be made. Ultimately, courts or a Tribunal will make those kinds of decisions.  However, our policy provides guidance to those tasked with making that determination, whether it be courts and Tribunals, or employers, service providers, landlords, or others with obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

Regardless, the barn door has been opened, and we are now waiting for the first test of this change. This test will only happen if and when the issue is brought before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

Why do I care about this? Why should we care about this? I’ve had ethical vegans in my family, I’ve had ethical vegan friends, and I currently have at least three ethical vegans in my workplace. I want to be as supportive of them as possible. As a supervisor, I also want to ensure that I comply with the law. Aside from the legalities involved, we have an ethical obligation to ensure our workplace is one that promotes inclusiveness of diversity, rather than marginalizing or stigmatizing those who are different. As leaders, we should also be proactive in understanding the factors that could contribute to members being or feeling singled out and marginalized because of their beliefs which are “different” from the norm of the workplace.

What is an ethical vegan?

In an article by Sali Owen in TheGuardian.Com, she put it this way[iii]:

“I went vegan for ethical, not dietary reasons. I do not think humans have the right to oppress or abuse other species simply because they are intellectually weaker. Toddlers are intellectually weak, but you’re unlikely to find one in a casserole. To me, human rights and animal rights go together. Humans have a responsibility to care for animals and other humans because both have the ability to suffer. Both are capable of experiencing pleasure, fear and pain. I find discrimination on the grounds of species as distasteful as discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.”

The Vegan Society defines veganism this way[iv]:

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

An ethical vegan is opposed to the consumption of products derived from animals. The opposition includes not only food but also: clothing, cleaning products, medical supplies, entertainment, furniture, apparatus, equipment, etc.

For example, ethical vegans are opposed to using or employing the use of (but not limited to):

  • Leather products
  • Butter, Cheese, Milk, etc.
  • Products containing glycerine, milk derivatives, or other animal-based sources (i.e.: Premarin, Lanolin)
  • Products tested on animals (cleaners, make-up, perfumes, etc.)
  • Circuses, Zoo’s, performances by animals, etc.

There are less obvious vegan considerations, and these would probably only be known to a vegan. Some examples would be:

  • Tropical bananas are often sprayed with an insecticide that contains shellfish.
  • Some food colourings: the food colouring carmine contains crushed beetles; the food colouring cochineal comes from the female cochineal bug.
  • Kellogg’s Frosted Wheats contains beef gelatin.
  • Red Velvet cake mix contains carmine.
  • Miso soup broth often contains fish flakes.
  • Figs often contain dead insects, like wasps. You don’t see the dead bodies as an enzyme in the fruit quickly converts the body to its constituent parts.
  • Vegetarian products, typically faux cheese, that contain rennet are not vegan as rennet comes from the lining of a calf’s stomach.
  • Yogurt often contains gelatin.
  • Anything with Omega-3 on the label (i.e., Orange Juice) is not vegan as Omega-3 comes from fish oils.

 Ethical Veganism vs. Creed

For an ethical vegan, that self-applied label is very much a part of the definition of who they are. Veganism has an integral link to their self-definition and fulfillment. Quite often ethical vegans expand their belief from moral/philosophical grounds to their beliefs and understanding of spirituality This can include an understanding of their relationship with God, though no one considers ethical veganism to be a religion. Ethical vegans often consider themselves a part of a community of change, regardless of their participation level in outward displays of their conviction.

While the OHRC does not define creed, per se, it offers the following characteristics as being relevant when considering if a belief system is a creed under the Code. A creed[v] is a belief that is:

  • sincerely, freely and deeply held
  • integrally linked to a person’s identity, self-definition, and fulfillment
  • a particular and comprehensive, overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices
  • addresses ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence
  • has some connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief

According to the above characteristics, ethical veganism could be considered a creed. As yet, however, the application of creed to ethical veganism has not been challenged at the Tribunal level.

Although vegans do not consider their choice to be a religion, we must consider the interconnectedness between veganism and a person’s spirituality, which is covered under the terms of “creed.” To make this point, consider the words of Dr. Will Tuttle[vi], author of The World Peace Diet:

“At its core, veganism is a spiritual movement, based on the ancient wisdom teaching of the interconnectedness of all life, and founded on the compassionate yearning within all of us to bless our world and to celebrate our lives creatively and joyfully on this magnificent Earth. I give thanks to everyone who has, is, or will live this message in daily life.”

While there may be some argument as to whether or not ethical veganism is a creed, there can be no argument as to how important this is to the ethical vegan in our workplace.

So how does this affect your workplace or your agency? With a history and commitment to upholding the Human Rights Code for our members and our interactions with the public, we must consider this section of the code in terms of ethical veganism and how it applies to the workplace.

The Human Rights Code (in all jurisdictions) is a valuable piece of governance that makes the world an inclusive and tolerant place. The American politician and orator Robert Ingersoll said, “Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.” This simple statement concisely reflects the preamble of the Ontario Human Rights Code[vii]:

“And Whereas it is public policy in Ontario to recognize the dignity and worth of every person and to provide for equal rights and opportunities without discrimination that is contrary to law, and having as its aim the creation of a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that each person feels a part of the community and able to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community and the Province;”

Looking closer at the Code in relation to creed, we can find the importance of this part of the code in the OHRC Publication: Policy on preventing discrimination on creed5, the OHRC introduces the topic with this statement:

The rights to be treated equally based on creed, and to freely hold and practice creed beliefs of one’s choosing, are fundamental human rights in Ontario, protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Also protected is the right to be free from religious or creed-based pressure.

The right to be free from discrimination based on creed reflects core Canadian constitutional values and commitments to a secular, multicultural and democratic society. People who follow a creed, and people who do not, have the right to live in a society that respects pluralism and human rights and the right to follow different creeds.

When we consider the fundamental importance of the choices made by an ethical vegan, we must recognize that not respecting their lifestyle is as upsetting as our own choices not being recognized, be they: tribal art (tattoos), religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or how we self-identify our gender.

Vegan’s already have protection under the code if their vegan choice is for religious reasons. Followers of the Dharmic religions are often vegetarian, with some adherents also committed to veganism. Jain (Jainism) is a religion based on non-violence[viii]. Its adherents are either lacto-vegetarians (they still consume milk products) or are dietary vegans. The Seventh-day Adventist Church promotes a vegetarian diet[ix]. While there is no requirement for a vegetarian/vegan diet in Hinduism[x], 30% of Hindu are lacto-vegetarian[xi],[xii].

Aside from looking only at religious adherents, a study commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society[xiii] revealed that 8% of Canadians are already vegetarian or mostly vegetarian. Where 13% of BC respondents fit that profile, 8% of those from Ontario and 8% of those from Quebec also fit that profile. Only slightly muddying the waters is a 4% rate of vegetariansim and 2% rate of veganism as reported by Molly Daley in TheWhig.Com, according to the Association of Dieticians of Canada[xiv].

Be it religious or ethical reasons, vegetarianism and veganism are here and are in the workplace.

Moving forward with this discussion, our two primary concerns will be discrimination and harassment based on the code protected ground of creed.

 Discrimination in the context of ethical veganism

Due to the nature of your own industry, it might be unlikely that you would find a policy, procedure, rule, or directive that would lead to discrimination based on the protected ground of creed as it applies to ethical veganism. However, there are certain facilities issues that could raise this concern in any industry.

Here are some examples, though this list is not exhaustive. If members were required to work with the following:

  1. Workstation items that contain leather, or glycerine.
  2. Cleaning products that are tested on animals.
  3. Hosting or attending a luncheon, dinner, award, or ceremony where food is served, without the inclusion of vegetarian and vegan options. Be aware that if you provide multiple options for the omnivores but only one option for vegans, then there may still be an argument that they have been singled out rather than being treated inclusively.

 Harassment in the context of ethical veganism

“Hey, Tom, did you know the Vegetarian is an Indian word for a lousy hunter?”

“It ain’t dinner unless something died for it.”

“You can eat your rabbit food if you want, but I love my meat.”

“If two vegans are arguing, is it still called a beef?”

Ask any vegetarian/vegan and they will have heard these and a thousand other unwelcome jabs at their lifestyle. Luckily, most vegans have a good sense of humour. Or do they? What I’ve found with my friends is that they don’t enjoy these comments, but they know silence is much better at disarming a bully than a punch is. Aside from the jokes, being constantly asked to explain or validate their choice also becomes vexing and tiresome very quickly. Bear in mind that even if a person has not clearly objected to harassing behaviour, do not assume they have agreed to this behaviour.

Is any of this harassment? It most certainly is. The definition of harassment in the Ontario Human Rights Code[xv] is:

“Means a course of comments or actions that are known, or ought reasonably to be known, to be unwelcome. It can involve words or actions that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning or unwelcome, based on a ground of discrimination identified by this Policy.  Harassment during employment can happen based on any of the grounds of discrimination.”

It is important to note that this very same definition goes on to say that:

“Personal harassment, such as workplace bullying, which is not based on a Code ground, is also covered under this Policy.”

People who make the choice to live the principles of ethical veganism know that they face an uneducated world that will make their journey, at times, difficult. That does not make it okay to turn a blind eye to their challenges, especially when we have the obligation to do something, be that obligation ethical or legislated.

Here are some examples of how harassment in the workplace against vegetarians/vegans can occur:

  • Derogatory or offensive comments, jokes, etc. directed towards vegetarian and vegan lifestyles or dietary choices. It is important to note that offenses against vegetarianism are the same as offenses against vegans because all vegans are vegetarians.
  • Lecturing a person on concerns of the healthiness of their dietary choices.
  • People defending their rights to eat meat and use products from animals, when the subject was not brought up to begin with. Many vegans will tell you that sometimes, their mere presence at meal time can make some people uncomfortable and feel the need to defend themselves when the vegan hasn’t even brought up the topic.


As with all grounds of the code, and regardless of whether or not ethical veganism is interpreted to be covered by Creed, we have the obligation to ensure that the workplace provides an environment that is tolerant and inclusive of our member’s heartfelt beliefs and choices. Even if you have a member that is a vegetarian or dietary-vegan, then they are still entitled to protection from bullying in the workplace, which is simply another form of harassment.

Without any yardstick at present, the true test and measure of this revision to the code will have to wait until challenged at the tribunal level. Until then, we can take few steps to ensure that this does not become an issue in the workplace and that our vegetarian, dietary vegan, and ethical vegan members feel included, rather than ostracized.

  • Review all current workstations to determine if there is any equipment comprised of leather, glycerine, or other animal products.
  • Review all future purchases/acquisitions with the same critical eye to content.
  • Establish a policy that all events where food is provided must provide vegan alternatives.
  • Treat harassment over a person’s dietary choices the same as any other kind of harassment/bullying in the workplace.

[i] Csanady, A. (2016, February 5). Is being a vegan a human right? Advocates claim protection under new Ontario policy, but that wasn’t the point. Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[ii] In response to claims that ethical veganism is now a creed. (2016, February 25). Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[iii] Owen, S. (2012, February 1). So, what is an ethical vegan? Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[iv] Definition of Veganism. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[v] Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed [PDF]. (2015, September 17). Ontario Human Rights Commission. on preventing discrimination based on creed_accessible_0.pdf

[vi] Tuttle, W., Dr. (2011, April 2). Spiritual People Moving Towards Veganism? Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[vii] Human Rights Code, § R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER H.19-Preamble (Ontario.Ca e-Laws 2015).

[viii] Ahimsa (non-violence). (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[ix] Welcome to Seventh-day Adventist Diet. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[x] Khandelwal, M. (2002), Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City (The Anthropology of Contemporary Issues), Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, p.38-39

[xi] Schmidt, A. & Fieldhouse, P. (2007). The World Religions Cookbook. p.99, Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

[xii] Sorajjakool, S., Carr, M. & Nam, J. (2009), World Religions for Healthcare Professionals, Routledge, NY, page 43, Quote: “Most Hindus are lacto-vegetarians and avoid animal products, except milk, in the diet”.

[xiii] Pippus, A. (2015, June 1). Almost 12 Million Canadians Now Vegetarian Or Trying To Eat Less Meat. Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[xiv] Daley, M. (2013, April 6). To vegan or not to vegan? Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

[xv] Appendix A: Definitions. (n.d.). Retrieved June 04, 2016, from


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