On Losing Safe Spaces

When you’re a vegan, or even a vegetarian, sometimes you never quite get used to being surrounded by things that represent animal cruelty. Nothing actually changes in the world; it’s just that when you have that moment when everything crystallizes and you realize that you need to remove yourself from being part of the dominant exploitive system, all of your perceptions change, and everything is seen in a new light.

Things that seemed normal and even pleasant as a child (McDonald’s, for example) are suddenly stripped bare, and revealed as the house of horrors for animals that they truly are. Things that previously conjured up fond memories become tarnished by our newfound realizations.

When I saw this almond/cow milk blend, I lost trust in the brand that makes it.
When I saw this almond/cow milk blend, I lost trust in the brand that makes it.

Vegans develop varying degrees of coping skills, and indeed, some may not even be bothered at all by the behind the scenes reality of the food on most people’s plates, and the constant reminders that most of the rest of the world are not living as we are. Usually dietary vegans manage just fine, if they’re in it just for personal health, and the rest of us find a way to maintain our professionalism. Eating out or with others it can be anxiety-inducing, especially when you’re worried about ending up with a stray piece of meat on your place or beef broth in your soup.

One coping mechanism that I’ve seen a lot is reaching out to a community of like-minded individuals. I have moderated a very active Ottawa-based Facebook group for vegetarians and vegans for six years, so have seen it firsthand time and time again.

As part of that, we also identify and embrace what I’ll call “safe spaces.” Spaces where we know we are going to be taken care of; where we feel like our values are understood and perhaps even exalted. We feel good about certain businesses because they seem to represent our own beliefs, and let us feel- if only for a few minutes – that we’re “normal.”

When those safe spaces are made unsafe, it can be unsettling in a way that non-vegans often cannot understand. That is, unless they are part of their own movement that has its own safe spaces. There are other values-based subcultures or groups that could relate to this.

An Ottawa business that has long been considered a safe space for many vegetarians and vegans recently announced that it will now be selling “products” that run contrary to the values of that community. I’m sure it has solid business reasons for doing so, and  it merely joins a list of similar businesses that are already doing the same. It’s not committing an offence any worse than what the other businesses are doing. I’m sad about it, personally, and it definitely changes how I feel about that businesses. I probably won’t boycott it or badmouth it, but my feelings towards it have changed.

The difference between this business and its competitors is that this business was a “safe space.” They were seen as standing for something. Many in the vegan community shopped there despite it being less convenient, because they felt that it was not like its competitors. The new changes- described by the company as “exciting”, which itself is like a stab to the hearts of those who were previous evangelists- moves it into the category of “comme les autres.”

unsafe 3
This is here just because it looks nice.

That’s an expression that I first heard back in late 2012 when the iconic Commensal announced on its Facebook page that after 30 years of operating as a vegetarian restaurant chain, it would now serve chicken and fish and become “flexitarian.” They then changed their Facebook cover photo to be one of their new meat dishes.

The outrage was immediate and unrelenting. Hundreds of people flooded their Facebook page, brimming with hurt and anger over not just the decision, but also the flippant way it was communicated and rationalized. You are “comme les autres,” they said, in response to Commensal’s poorly thought out public relations approach. I watched the whole thing go down over several weeks, fascinated and horrified, unable to turn away.

There were many who praised Commensal, and scornfully told vegans to get over themselves. You can still get vegetarian and vegan food there, they said, what’s your problem?  Why do you want to deprive of us our meat?  It showed a fundamental lack of understanding of safe spaces. When you’re a vegan in an omnivores world, as each of us is, there are few of restaurants where you can relax and truly feel like you don’t have to ask a million questions about every dish. Omnivores can go wherever they want, whenever they want, and they will be catered to, so it’s beyond frustrating when they minimize, or even exalt in our loss of a safe space

Incidentally, Commensal has closed at least three of its restaurants since its flexitarian re-branding; it successfully alienated its base. It may not have even been the majority of its customers, but the customers it upset were the ones who loved them passionately and evangelized about them… because they thought that Commensal stood for the same things they did.

Why do we react this way to some businesses, and not others who are doing the same thing? It comes down to how we feel about those businesses. If a business has built its clientele and reputation on being in simpatico with a certain belief or group, when they abandon that element they will experience the ire of that group’s discontent far more profoundly than if they had never stood for anything in the first place. It becomes a betrayal of trust, and those businesses are seen as now being like all of the other businesses that we need to watch our back at. It isn’t always particularly rationale, but it is real.

So why are people okay with eating a vegan option at an omnivorous restaurant, but may choose to boycott Commensal which is perhaps more vegan than the omnivorous restaurant? It’s because the former never made any claims, but with the latter it feels as though we’ve been let down, or abandoned.

Vegan cheez platter from Cafe My House!
Vegan cheez platter from Cafe My House!

I do think we are able to understand if a business isn’t able to live up to our ideals, as long as we feel respected by it. Café My House has recently gone entirely vegan (safe space!), having spent several years transitioning from a mixed menu restaurant. We accept its former use of meat because its trajectory went in the right direction, and because the owner has always been steadfast in her goal of transitioning to a vegan space. Plus, she’s vegan, so we know we can trust that we’ll never find a piece of chicken on our tempeh cheezburger.

In Ottawa, Auntie Loo’s and ZenKitchen are two of our vegan safe spaces, and if either strayed from its vegan ideals there would no doubt be tremendous backlash, especially if the move appeared to be without due consideration of and respect for their bases. Those being the customers who tell everyone about them, are willing to travel distances to patronize them, and who feel connected to them.

Neither business has an exclusively vegan customer base, but they’re smart enough to know that hell hath no fury like a vegan scorned.



One thought on “On Losing Safe Spaces

  1. Speaking of losing safe spaces…. Would you mind posting this link in your NCVA fb group? I’ve applied to join but afraid I might not be approved in time for the posting to help. http://www.gofundme.com/9io1xo If everyone who loves ZenKitchen can donate even a little, hopefully as a group we can help a lot.


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