International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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34th World Vegetarian Congress
Sharing the Vision

Toronto, Ontario, Canada • July 10-16, 2000
Hosted by the Toronto Vegetarian Association

Post-Congress Report by Robert Fraser, IVU Regional Co-ordinator for Australasia, written for the Australian Vegetarian Society

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 Congress was held in Toronto, Canada, in July 2000. Robert Fraser, Australasian Representative for the International Vegetarian Union, and his wife Gina, report on the event.

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”, whilst 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 ceremonial 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 voicemail. 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 environment.

Several films were screened during the week, including The Witness. This award-winning documentary (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 risqué. 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, only water being supplied.

The Internet café, 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 email and have a look at goings-on on the ‘Net. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it a café, 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 jerks, 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 Woman 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 (have a look at them on the website www.ivu.org) 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 the room.

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 were 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.