Every two years or so, since 1908, vegetarians from all corners
of the planet have come together to celebrate their vision of a vegetarian
lifestyle for all people. They share ideas, experiences and each other’s
company. The latest Congress was held in Toronto, Canada, in July 2000.
Robert Fraser, President of the Vegetarian Society of Western Australia,
and his wife Gina, attended. Here are some of their recollections.
Writing these lines some eight weeks after the Congress ended, it isn’t
easy to decide what the high spot of Congress was. In reality, there
were several. Was it Howard ‘Mad Cowboy’ Lyman regaling us,
as only he can, on his feats in the witness box whilst he and TV hostess,
Oprah Winfrey, were being sued by Texas cattlemen? Or was it Professor
Colin Campbell describing the results of his massive nutrition research
project in China? Perhaps it was the endless variety of vegan food?
Or were these simply just some of many events that filled the seven
days of Congress?
In all probability, the latter is closer to the truth. Congress was
an experience that actually is difficult to express in cold words. One
really has to be there.
The official theme of the 34th World Vegetarian Congress
was Sharing the Vision. And, while this was certainly fitting, the unofficial
theme running through the conference was interconnectedness. Nearly
every speaker stressed the connections between the choices we make and
the world in which we, the animals, and our children will live in the
future. The conference was also about the interconnectedness of our
global cause, about meeting people from all over the world, exchanging
our work and ideas, and sharing a vision of a future we can create together.
In lectures and workshops ranging from optimal nutrition and preventing
heart disease, to consumerism and free speech, attendees were encouraged
to think about the choices we make in our everyday lives and their effects
on us, other animals, and our planet.
The other theme that seemed, perhaps unintentionally, to run through
the Congress was that of a vision of the future as a vegan one, rather
than a vegetarian one. It wasn’t just that all the food was vegan.
It was more that. Many speakers emphasised their conviction that the
optimal diet and lifestyle should be vegan. This attitude didn’t
suit all attendees, and the declaration that “milk is liquid meat”,
while arguably true, didn’t sit well with all those present.
As Peter McQueen, President of Toronto Vegetarian Association and one
of the two co-coordinators of the Congress, put it, registration on
Monday morning was like Old Home Day. As we trickled in and lined up
to register, Australians bumped into Americans whom they hadn’t
seen since the last Congress in 1999, Indians rubbed shoulders with
Germans, the lone delegate from Botswana was swamped with good wishes
from Japanese and Koreans and Spaniards - you get the picture.
The scene for the week was set by the opening ceremony. While less reliant
on ceremony than the 1999 Congress in Thailand, which had a legion of
notables and civic dignitaries entering in solemn procession, the MC
for the Toronto opening ceremony - vegan comedian Alan Park - began
proceedings by using his mobile phone on stage to phone the Premier
of Ontario to leave a message from the delegates. Had this actually
worked, it would have been a brilliant initiative, but he seemed unable
to reach the Premier’s voice mail. Instead, he phoned a local chicken
fast food outlet. It seemed that they were running a TV promotion at
the time utilising the services of the cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker,
to sell their food, so Alan brazenly asked a waitress on the other end
of the line whether the food served actually included minced-up woodpecker.
She didn’t seemed fazed by his request, and earnestly assured Alan
that his kids wouldn’t be eating Woody with their chicken and fries.
He kept the call going for several minutes before she began to suspect
some funny business and the call mysteriously terminated!
Several sessions during the week - and there were many of them - were
led by Howard Lyman, the famous ex fourth-generation cattleman from
Montana, who became a passionate vegan and advocate for organic farming.
He regaled his audiences with his version of the US cattlemen’s
lawsuit against him and TV host, Oprah Winfrey, and had the admiring
listeners in the palm of his hand as he addressed the realities of free
speech and the power of food disparagement laws in America today. In
April 1996, he appeared on Oprah to discuss Mad Cow Disease, food production,
and the rendering process, as part of a discussion about food safety
in the US. Pressured by television executives to mollify the cattle
industry, Oprah offered to do an hour-long segment in which experts
from the cattle business could debate Lyman on her show. However, the
cattlemen refused to appear on the show if Lyman was present, and a
short time later, some Texas cattlemen filed suit against Lyman, Oprah,
and Harpo Productions (which produces the show). The lawsuit alleged
Lyman and Oprah had violated a Texas law which forbids someone from
“knowingly making false statements” about agricultural business.
The cattlemen alleged that Oprah was responsible for the decline in
beef futures. The trial in Amarillo, Texas - smack in the middle of
cattle ranching country - eventually found Lyman not liable.
Lyman speaks like an old-time, American hot gospel preacher, and yet
at the same time is so sincere and convinced of the correctness of his
beliefs that he has influenced even hardened meat-eaters to stop and
think about what they are doing and the consequences of their actions.
He spoke at the opening session, setting the tone for the days ahead,
and was joined at the microphone by Professor T. Colin Campbell, the
director of the Cornell-China Project. This massive research project
has pointed out the link between diet and health. Nutritionist, Rae
Sikora, co-founder of the Center for Compassionate Living, also gave
her views on consumerism and how it affects us, other animals, and our
Several films were screened during the week, including The Witness.
This award-winning do*****entary (which we didn’t actually get to
see, due to congress burnout!) focuses on a hard-boiled New Yorker,
Eddie Lama, who makes radical changes in his diet and lifestyle after
a kitten opens his heart. And Tina Fox, Chief Executive of the Vegetarian
Society of the UK, presented some short advertisement films that they
had managed to get shown in UK cinemas. They weren’t at all what
one would traditionally expect of films promoting the goodness of vegetarian
food, being - how shall I put it - slightly risque. But they were well
accepted by cinema goers - and the Congress viewers loved them!
Oh yes - the food! The Congress had booked the whole dining area on
Level 27 of the city hotel with an all-round view of Toronto. Executive
Chefs, Ron Pickarski and Ken Bergeron, had been recruited to prepare
the food, but it wasn’t until the closing banquet that we actually
got to see them, receiving a standing ovation on the stage. For each
session, breakfast, lunch or dinner, the food buffet was massive, with
plenty of everything, including wholegrain and eco-cuisine muffins,
fresh fruits and pancakes with maple syrup. And that’s just breakfast!
Lunch and dinner were a mixture of cold and hot items, ranging from
French onion and potato quiche, miso vegetable soup, Chili con Seitan,
tofu and lettuce sandwiches and double corn polenta with Soysausage
Pizzaiola to Vanilla and Chocolate Soy Pudding, Peach Napoleon and lemon
cream, and Chocolate Zucchini Nanny cake (No, I don’t know what
it is, either!). All the food was vegan, with labels to indicate the
names of the dishes and the contents. Raw food options were available,
with gluten-free options at the closing banquet. Several participants
chose raw items, and it is hard to beat Dr Ruth (‘Iron Woman’)
Heidrich, filling up with platefuls of raw salad at breakfast after
early morning workouts. Personally, we missed some juices to drink with
the food as only water was provided.
The Internet caf, predictably, was well patronised, and comprised four
computers permanently logged on to the Internet, allowing people to
drop in at almost any time to check their e-mail and have a look at
goings-on on the web. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it a caf, as
no-one actually brought food or drinks into the room, but there seemed
to be no time when someone wasn’t earnestly labouring away in front
of a screen.
The book room was run by the American Vegan Society. We had never seen
so many vegan books and videos in one place at one time. Even as we
write this review in mid-October, we’ve had time to look at only
a few of the items we purchased, and haven’t had a chance to view
the videos. There were simply masses of books and videos of all descriptions.
Cookbooks, books of vegan philosophy, information of all types, kids
books, it was all there.
Adjacent to the book room was the vegetarian exhibition, with about
20 stalls. They included a Toronto Vegetarian Association stand, selling
T-shirts, with free TVA mouse pads (the latest hot fashion accessory
for the really cool vegetarian computer user!), and one stall sold locally
made T-shirts with attention-grabbing messages on front and back; slogans
such as ‘Spock was a Vegetarian’ (that’s the late Dr
Benjamin Spock, not Mr Spock from Star Trek).
After all this activity (listening to talks from 9am to 10pm is strenuous!),
there were some social activities, such as ‘Healthy Humour, a cabaret
session in the hotel bar, but we were too exhausted to go to them. Some
early morning physical activities, such as yoga, were also available
for those so inclined, and there was even circle dancing organised by
Tina Fox after the day’s events had wound down.
It’s pointless to try to list all the speakers and their themes,
but some do stand out, such as Brenda Davis, a registered nutritionist,
addressing the topic of the optimal diet as well as the role of fats
in the vegan diet. She related a story in which her little son pleaded
for a Big Mac, because “they look so good on TV”. When she
broke the brutal truth to him, that a burger is actually made from a
piece of cow, her son declared in distain, “But Mum, humans don’t
eat cows!”. Dr Ruth Heidrich, the iron man triathlete, discussed
myths about calcium and osteoporosis, and author Rynn Berry presented
his views on how vegetarianism plays a part in the world’s religions.
The closing banquet was full table service, held in the main hall. Some
people dressed up for the event, some just came in T-shirts and shorts.
After dinner, the new International Council members had their photos
taken and the MC for the evening, local radio station presenter, Rachel
Perry, introduced several speakers, including the ubiquitous Howard
Lyman, who restated and summarised the themes discussed during the week.
Like any good speaker, Lyman likes to leave his audience with short
sharp quotes, and pointed out that, “The fat you eat is the fat
you wear”. He is full of statistics on the incredibly wasteful
practices of mass animal farming pointing out that, in the US state
of Utah, there’s a pig farm that produces more waste than humans
do in the entire city of Los Angeles (what a mind-boggling thought!)
and that the Canadian province of Alberta generates more waste than
the rest of the country.
There was also a cabaret presentation by a local arts group on the theme
of animal rights, entitled The Hundredth Monkey - a mixture of light-pop
style music, dance and lights.
What other impressions did we leave with? At every lunch and dinner
there was music, but there was usually so much noise that it was drowned
out. It’s amazing how much racket a roomful of 500 starving vegetarians
can make! The performers seemed to be mostly young people - perhaps
music students - and the music ranged from Indian drumming to piano
or guitar. The hit act was a trio of young girls who swapped places
at the piano to play anything from Scott Joplin to Mozart to Beatles
at the drop of a hat, all while smiling around at the audience.
One personal downside was that we had to miss the discussions on Friday,
due to a pre-booked outing to Niagara Falls. The party of twenty or
so was slightly compensated by delicious vegan ‘food to go’,
and we returned to the Hotel just in time to witness the end of the
wedding of the year. Peter McQueen (Canada) and Jenny Jones (UK) - who
had met at the 1999 Congress - were tying the knot. We have reason to
believe that organic rice was thrown over them on the way out!
When a thousand vegetarians spend a week shuttling between various talks,
workshops and other activities, it’s often difficult to find a
few moments to have a quiet chat. Mealtimes are often unsuitable due
simply to the perpetual hullabaloo and I found myself on many occasions
coming face-to-face, or more often back-to-back, in the lift with a
person I wanted to talk to, only to find that they were getting out
at another floor! In this way I met Dennis Bayomi, who runs the Internet
restaurant listing service VegeDine - and I didn’t see him again!
This same applied to Rabbi Noach Valley, who was chairing a discussion
on Friday which we were unable to attend.
In summary, what can we say? A success? Yes, although many grumbles
were heard about the cost of the registration and hotel rooms. Toronto
is an expensive city, no question but, bearing all that in mind, it
was an experience we wouldn’t have missed for anything!
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