Vegan Firefighter Loses Groundbreaking Discrimination Case

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In a surprising and troubling decision, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has ruled against Adam Knauff, a firefighter who made global headlines for filing a legal case after he faced discrimination for being vegan. The case raised a novel issue—whether a vegan belief system counts as a “creed”, a protected ground under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Mr. Knauff plans to appeal the decision by seeking judicial review in the Divisional Court of Ontario.

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Denied Vegan Food While Fighting Forest Fires

Mr. Knauff is a veteran of Ontario’s provincial forest firefighting force, and has been vegan for over 25 years to avoid harming animals. He sued his employer after being denied appropriate food while he worked in British Columbia in 2017 to fight wildfires. Despite working long hours in physically demanding conditions, Mr. Knauff faced a severe lack of vegan food in the basecamp where he was stationed. 

Mr. Knauff was frequently served meals that contained meat or dairy products, which he cannot eat; meals that were nutritionally inadequate and contained no source of protein; and was sometimes given no food at all. He repeatedly attempted to work with management to improve the situation, but it did not improve. After expressing his frustration that he could not eat, he was sent home, disciplined, and suspended without pay for a period of time. 

In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission updated its policy on preventing creed-based discrimination to extend greater protections for people with non-religious belief systems. Previously, creed was commonly thought to include only religion. But according to the Commission’s new policy, “Creed may also include non-religious belief systems that, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, worldview and way of life.” Ethical veganism is a perfect example of such a belief system. 

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Ethical veganism is a belief system based on compassion for all animals. Ethical vegans try to avoid harming animals, and typically choose not to eat animal-based foods like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs; or wear fur and leather.  

Around the world, employers and courts are increasingly recognizing that ethical veganism is a comprehensive belief system and not a mere dietary choice. For instance, a Tribunal in the UK ruled in 2020 that ethical vegans are protected by law against discrimination. Ethical veganism is already a protected belief under the freedom of conscience provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and has been recognized as well by the European Court of Human Rights.

Animal Justice was a driving force behind the Commission’s updated creed policy.

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Tribunal Decision Surprising & Disappointing

The Tribunal accepted that creed should include non-religious belief systems, yet still rejected ethical veganism because it “does not address the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher order of existence”. 

This is surprising, as the evidence in the case showed that while ethical vegans do not have a deity, there is a connection to a higher order belief system. The decision is troubling not only for ethical vegans, but for other important belief systems that are not directly connected to religion.

The Tribunal’s decision comes as a surprise to legal scholars and experts, and is out of step with international legal developments. Animal Justice sought leave to intervene in the case to offer its expertise and legal perspective, but was denied.

Next Steps

Discrimination against people who show compassion to animals is a real and present problem in Canada. Animal Justice regularly assists vegans who face discrimination in the workplace, hospitals, schools and daycares, and more.

The fight isn’t over. Animal Justice will be there to support Mr. Knauff’s case during the judicial review process, and will keep fighting to ensure that people who want to act compassionately can’t be fired, shunned, and belittled.

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