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Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario Rejects Protections for Ethical Vegans

TORONTO—In a surprising and troubling decision, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has ruled against Adam Knauff, a firefighter who sought protection against discrimination for being an ethical 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 seek review of the decision in Divisional Court.

In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission revised its policy on preventing creed-based discrimination to extend greater protections for people with non-religious belief systems.  According to the Commission, “Creed may also include non-religious belief systems that, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, worldview and way of life.” 

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 adjudicative bodies 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 by the European Court of Human Rights.

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

“We’re really disappointed with the outcome and will be seeking judicial review of the decision in the Divisional Court,” said Wade Pozionmka, lawyer for Mr. Knauff. “This case is important, not just for ethical vegans, but for the ground of creed and the protections that will be afforded to other, important belief systems that are not directly connected to religion. Ethical vegans certainly are connected to a higher order belief system and that evidence was before the Tribunal in this case.”

“Ethical veganism is a comprehensive belief system based on compassion and respect for all animals,” said lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice. “It is incredibly disappointing that the Tribunal failed to protect ethical vegans from discrimination simply because their belief system is not centred around the existence of a ‘creator’. People who want to act compassionately don’t deserve to be fired, shunned, or otherwise belittled.”

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 BC 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. The adjudicator also rejected Mr. Knauff’s claim of reprisal.

Animal Justice was a driving force behind the Commission’s updated creed policy, and regularly assists vegans who face discrimination in the workplace, hospitals, schools and daycares, and more. Animal Justice sought leave to intervene in the case to offer its expertise and legal perspective, but was denied.

Mr. Knauff was represented at the Tribunal by Wade Poziomka of Ross & McBride LLP, and Ashley Wilson of Kastner Lam LLP.


The decision is available here.

Wade Poziomka
[email protected]

Camille Labchuk
[email protected]