International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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Canberra Vegetarian History
by Edgar Crook



[for a much more detailed account see Edgar's book, right. Click on the cover for details from amazon.com]

The first vegetarians to have visited the site of Canberra were probably Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin in 1913, the American-born architects had won an international competition to design the new city.

It also cannot be known for certain who was Canberra's first fully-fledged vegetarian citizen but it was most likely a public servant who came from another state who probably had adopted the diet as a believer in one of the religious groups that promote vegetarianism. For example, there have been adherents to Theosophy and The Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Australian community since the 1890s. More recently, some Canberrans became adherents to Buddhism and Hinduism which have also made mark on Canberra's vegetarian scene.

In 1984, a Vietnamese Buddhist group opened the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre in Archibald St, Lyneham and created a vegetarian restaurant next-door, known as Karuna House. Other Buddhist temples have since followed with many promoting vegetarianism amongst its religious followers and the broader community.

The two main proselyting groups, which brought vegetarianism in their wake to Canberra, were the Ananda Marga and the Hare Krishnas.

Ananda Marga is a sect which promotes yoga and meditation as well as emphasising social justice. It was founded in India in 1955, based on the teachings of its founder Shrii Anandamurti. The group began making converts in Australia in the early 1970s and by 1974 an Ananda Marga Yoga Centre was operating from Lyneham. Apart from its religious activities, Ananda Marga also promoted vegetarianism and from their premises made vegetarian foodstuffs and information freely available.

The Hare Krishna organisation did not have a permanent presence in Canberra until 1989 when a group was started by Madhudvisa Dasa.

Dasa, in line with the teachings of Srila Prabhupada, who asked Krishna followers to not allow anyone within a ten mile radius of their temples to go hungry, set up Canberra's first Food for Life program. This quickly eventuated into a free vegetarian meal for over a hundred homeless people every Wednesday. The Food for Life program still operates from the ISKON temple in Ainslie.

The Hare Krishna movement also had a vegetarian society based in the ANU operating in the late 1990s.

Today the ranks of vegetarianism in Canberra have been swelled not just by conversion but also by immigration from India and Sri Lanka. There are now a number of new, beautifully decorated temples in Canberra and at them regular vegetarian food fairs are becoming a most welcome and tasty treat for many Canberrans.

Outside of its religious vegetarian students and academics the Australian National University (ANU) was probably Canberra's other main source of ethical vegetarian influence and activity.

Students and lecturers from the ANU may well have been aware of the philosophical arguments for the compassionate diet in the 1960s and 1970s. However with the publication and mass publicity of Peter Singer's seminal work Animal Liberation in 1975, they could not have been unaware of it.

Radical and Anarchist students were setting up vegetarian communal houses and communes from the late 1960s onwards, of which many would have been vegetarian. Catering for vegetarians at the ANU from the 1970s was a food co-op where grains, pulses and other vegetarian basics could be bought cheaply in bulk. In the early 1980s, one of the many Canberra cooks who had worked in Sesame, Canberra's first vegetarian restaurant, and another former staff member from Sesame, opened and ran a vegetarian buffet in the ANU's refectory serving a range of innovative salads and hot meals. This was extremely successful and very popular, with queues of students and staff every lunchtime stating a clear preference to the traditional cafeteria style roast and chips that was previously all that was available.

The involvement of the ANU continued into the 1990s with groups such as the Computers and Vegetarianism Special Interest Group (CVSIG), which was a group of computer users, who also had an interest in vegetarianism. This group met at the ANU's Asian Bistro. To this day the ranks of the Vegetarian Society are still swelled yearly by ANU students coming to the city.

The Vegetarian Society of Australia was first founded in Melbourne in 1886, and later re-founded in Sydney in 1948 but a branch of the Society did not appear in Canberra until early 1994. It is however likely that there were members previous to that but included in the New South Wales membership.

Undoubtedly the largest gathering of vegetarians in Canberra occurred over 5 days in mid December 1976 when the Cotter Reserve hosted the first Down to Earth Confest. The event was instigated by Dr Jim Cairns, who was then a backbench MP, but had until Whitlam's dismissal been Deputy Prime Minister. Cairns rallied alternative groups, including vegetarian and vegan organisations, from around Australia to the event and sought the help of the members of Alternative Canberra, a commune in Pialligo, to organise the event. The event drew between 10-15,000 people many of which were vegetarian and all of which would have been exposed to vegetarianism during the event.

Attending this alternative festival were vegetarians from various religious groupings; Hare Krishna, Ananda Marga, the Scottish Findhorn Community and also apparently "old ladies from the vegan society" .

Although there have been vegetarian parliamentarians in all States, in federal politics there was none at the forefront of vegetarianism until Senator Andrew Bartlett came to Canberra representing Queensland for the Democrats in 1997. In his maiden speech to the house, he said, "whilst I understand the traditional, cultural and economic reasons why animals are imprisoned and killed for human consumption, I believe the time has come for us to look to move beyond that. There are too few voices for the welfare and rights of animals in our society, let alone in our parliaments. I hope I can provide a voice for them in this place."

Bartlett continues to lead the vegetarian debate, being the Democrats spokesperson on Animal Welfare, and has been personally active in other ways such as when he observed a battery hen rescue at Parkwood Eggs, in north east Belconnen in 1999.

Apart from active Vegetarian Societies, the one sure sign of a thriving vegetarian community is the number of health food shops operating. The first known health food store called Canberra Health Foods opened in Bunda Street Civic in 1963; another called Economy Health Foods in Petrie Street soon followed it in 1964

The first of four Sanitarium stores to open in Canberra was in 1967 and was also located in Civic, in Garema Place. Sanitarium also had a distribution centre in Fyshwick.

By the early 1980s there were at least ten health food shops in all the major shopping centres around Canberra. Today complementing the health food stores, there are also a number of ethnic stores and supermarkets which carry a wide range of vegetarian food options.

The first Vegetarian restaurant in Canberra was called Sesame and was operated and owned by Valerie Jones. It was located in Alinga Street, Civic before moving to Green Square in Kingston in 1981. Jones published a little recipe book in the early 1980s and contained in it are a selection of the recipes that made the restaurant so popular.

Another restaurant catering for Canberra's growing vegetarian population was the Parakeet Vegetarian Café, which opened in 1981 in Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie. In 1995 this Café became Bernadette's which is still operating today - a testimony to the popularity of good quality vegetarian food at reasonable prices.

Canberra continues to grow into a varied and cosmopolitan city and with it so does the vegetarian community. From the days when vegetarianism was considered a weird and un-Australian practice we are now approaching a time when the diet is accepted not just as a cranky health fad but the surest way to compassionate and ethical living. As the Vegetarian Society of the ACT continues to attract new members this message seems to be slowly getting through.