Adam Knauff, a firefighter in Ontario, claims his human rights were violated when his employer failed to provide him with access to vegan food. (Courtesy of Adam Knauff)

Many vegans speak forcefully of animal rights. But it’s when they discuss their own entitlements that they court conflict.

A particularly bitter conflict was kindled in the inferno that ravaged the Pacific Northwest in July 2017, the beginning of the region’s record-breaking wildfire season, which sent the residents of Williams Lake, B.C., fleeing from their homes.

In the opposite direction rushed Adam Knauff, a crew leader with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. He was one of about 1,000 firefighters dispatched to battle the blaze. The firefighter labored up to 16 hours per day for 10 days “in extreme heat and exhausting conditions, working hard to save people’s homes from burning,” he recalls of the disaster. Scientific studies now indicate that the fires were flashing-red signals of escalating climate transformation and the natural environment’s inability to sustain current patterns of human consumption.

As he exerted himself, the firefighter had little to consume. Salad and side dishes were his primary fare one day. On another, his main fuel came from plain bagels and coffee. Nuts and fruit proved insufficient to slake his hunger.

For dinner on one occasion, his only source of protein was “a single black bean,” he says.

The sustenance was not simply “inadequate,” Knauff contends. It amounted to a violation of his right to have access to food unmarked by animal products.

In a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which was announced by Knauff’s counsel on Tuesday, the 40-year-old vegan firefighter claims that his employer failed to pay heed to his dietary restrictions. The government discriminated against him, he argues, when supervisors made it impossible to abide by his vegan principles, which he said are equivalent to a “creed.”

“On some days during my deployment to William’s Lake, I was not provided with any food that was vegan or not otherwise contaminated with animal products, and therefore forced to go hungry,” he wrote in the complaint.

Rather than meeting his needs, the government ministry sent him home and suspended him for three days without pay for alleged insubordination. He was prohibited from leaving the province to fight fires through 2018.

In response, the government ministry denied discriminating against its employee, whose commitment to veganism it said represented a “lifestyle choice” rather than a “creed,” according to the Canadian Press.

Knauff’s case tests whether veganism is tantamount to a religious faith or worldview, and therefore protected under Ontario’s nondiscrimination policy, expanded in 2015 to account for nonreligious principles, “which, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, world view, and way of life.”

Hardly every viewpoint meets Ontario’s updated standards. Under the new rules, a creed must be “sincerely, freely and deeply held.” It must be “integrally linked” to a person’s identity and sense of self. A creed is at once “particular” and “overarching,” regulating an adherent’s everyday behavior. It is rooted in an “organization or community that professes a shared system of belief.” And it speaks to “ultimate questions of human existence including ideas about life, purpose, death,” as well as the existence or nonexistence of a creator figure or “different order of existence.”

Raëlism, the religion founded by a sports-car journalist in 1974 whose central tenet is belief in extraterrestrials, has qualified as a creed under Ontario’s guidelines.

So, too, argues Knauff, should the tribunal acknowledge his belief that humans err when they use animals to nourish themselves — a belief that he says governs every aspect of his life.

“I practice ethical veganism on a daily basis,” he wrote in the complaint, calling his decision not to eat meat, fish, dairy eggs or honey a “philosophy” that “goes to the very core of my identity.”

The firefighter hails from Kenora, a small city perched on the banks of the Lake of the Woods in western Ontario. He said he’s been a vegan for more than 20 years, and a vegetarian for many years before that.

“I know I can live happily and healthfully on this planet without killing fellow animals, and I want no part in hurting animals for food or any other reason,” he wrote last week on a GoFundMe page soliciting donations for his legal battle,

He has worked as a firefighter for Ontario since 2008, and he claims that the ministry was aware of his dietary constraints.

While foregrounding the protections owed to animals, vegans have grown more assertive about their own guarantees, at times provoking backlash.

Formed in 2012, the International Vegan Rights Alliance holds that international law entitles vegans “to a social order that respects their right to live according to the ethical conviction that it is morally wrong to appropriate, abuse and exploit nonhuman animals.”

“For ethical vegans, veganism is a life directing moral and philosophical belief,” claims the group, which calls itself the “first vegan rights pressure network” and is scheduled to meet in Milan for a conference at the end of May. “But we know that vegans are not properly accommodated.”

Knauff is not alone in seeking to change that. The Vegan Society, a charity based in Britain, offers guidance on “How to handle workplace discrimination.”

In parts of the United States host to large numbers of vegans, there have been efforts to codify a place for them in the social and economic ecosystem. Paul Koretz, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, introduced a proposal last December that would require large-scale venues in the city to provide at least one vegan protein option to reflect the diet’s increased popularity and to harness its environmental benefits.

The idea was condemned in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. “Of all the dumb laws proposed in the United States this year — bearing in mind that Donald Trump is our president and the Republicans controlled Congress all year — few are dumber than what Los Angeles City Council member Paul Koretz wants to push on Angelenos,” a columnist wrote.

Knauff’s stance hardly engendered a groundswell of support. As of early Wednesday, he had raised only $595 of his $10,000 goal — which he said would help hire expert witnesses to explain ethical veganism to the human rights tribunal.

But Animal Justice, a legal advocacy group based in Toronto, has taken up his cause, on Tuesday trumpeting his decision to sue his employer in what the organization called a “groundbreaking case.” He is being represented by Wade Poziomka, a noted Canadian human rights lawyer.

In the firefighter’s telling, he was made to suffer for remaining steadfast in his abstention from animal products.

“After working 16-hour days for four days with inadequate nutrition I began to feel physically ill and mentally groggy,” the firefighter wrote of the summer in 2017 in the complaint.

A supervisor promised the situation would improve. After a service run, Knauff wound up with three blocks of tofu, but the soybean curd disappeared after he turned it over to the camp’s chef.

A breaking point came at a camp barbecue, when the chef handled vegan burgers after touching beef patties, which elicited a curse from Knauff. That earned him a warning from his supervisor.

He swore again, the following day, in refusing protein bars after being served a stir-fry dinner with little nutritional content.

His protest reached a climax at lunch the day after that, when he poured out his food in front of the cooking staff, telling them, “This isn’t vegan.”

He was sent home after that outburst, and he wrote in his appeal for donations that he still worries about the effect on his reputation. “I love my job,” he attested. In the complaint, he calls the day he was sent home the worst in his decade-long career as a firefighter.

“I finally became frustrated,” he said, following 10 days of “inadequate nourishment.” He added, “I tried to assert my rights.”

Now, his assertion rests with the legal system.

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