An Ontario firefighter recently filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging his human rights were violated when he was not provided sufficient vegan food while battling a fire in British Columbia.

What Happened?

The firefighter, aged 40, is based in Kenora, Ontario and has worked with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the “Ministry”) since 2008. He is often dispatched outside the province.

In July 2017, he was dispatched to northern B.C., as one of about 1,000 firefighters battling a massive forest fire. He worked 14 to 16 hours per day.

Because the area where he was working had been evacuated, he claims that the only store open was a Tim Hortons that police were helping run. He said the Ministry had long known about his dietary constraints, and he had also filled out a standard food information form for the trip.

On July 16, he says he ate salad and side dishes. The next day, there were no vegan meals, so he ate plain bagels and coffee from Tim Hortons. The following day, he was given beans, oatmeal and fruits. He complained to the supervisor who said he’d “work on it”. On July 20, the firefighter claims that the only source of protein in his dinner was a single black bean and that, over the course of the next two days, he had “inadequate dinners.” He says that he asked for personnel to buy tofu during one of their service runs. He got three blocks of tofu, gave it to the camp’s chef, but never saw it again.

In his complaint, he stated:

“After working 16-hour days for four days with inadequate nutrition I began to feel physically ill and mentally groggy. Until that point I had been trying to push through my hunger and exhaustion, sustaining myself on nuts and fruits.”

He claims that things came to a head on July 23 when he was looking forward to a big barbecue dinner, where vegan burgers would be served. However, at the event, the firefighter stated that the chef handled beef patties before touching the vegan patties with the same gloved hands.

The firefighter says he swore at the chef, who swore back. As a result, his supervisor gave him a warning. He felt that no one was taking his ethical beliefs about meat and veganism seriously.

The next night at dinner, he was served stir-fry with no protein. He was promised beans the following day. When he took his plate to his supervisor to ask him if he could see any protein on his plate, the supervisor offered him protein bars. He swore at the supervisor.

His complaint states:

“On some days during my deployment […], I was not provided with any food that was vegan or not otherwise contaminated with animal products, and therefore forced to go hungry. I know that I should not have sworn … but I was starving, exhausted, humiliated and defeated, I had reached my breaking point.”

The next day, when he picked up his lunch, he noticed that half of the food provided was not vegan. He poured it out in front of food staff and said, repeatedly, “this isn’t vegan.”

That’s when his supervisor sent him home.

The Ministry says that the firefighter was sent home and suspended for three days without pay due to his “inappropriate, insubordinate, unprofessional and aggressive behaviour.” He was also banned from fighting fires outside the province for the remainder of 2017 and all of 2018. The Ministry also alleges that he threw the non-vegan food at staff, which he denies.

The Parties’ Positions

The firefighter filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against his employer, the Ministry, over his treatment and subsequent suspension in 2017. His application to the Tribunal states:

“The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry discriminated against me and failed to accommodate my sincerely held ethical beliefs (creed) when it failed to provide me with food that accommodated my personal commitment to ethical veganism, and then disciplined me and suspended me because I attempted to assert my right to accommodation of that sincerely held ethical belief.”

The Ministry denies the firefighter’s allegations of discrimination and human rights violations. The Ministry argues that his “vegan status is a sincerely held lifestyle choice, but does not meet the legal definition of creed.” It further argues that it “supported the employee and accommodated his food restrictions as if it were a component of his health needs or part of a recognized creed.”

The Law

Section 5 of the Ontario Human Rights Code states:

Employment

(1) Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to employment without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, record of offences, marital status, family status or disability.

 Harassment in employment

(2) Every person who is an employee has a right to freedom from harassment in the workplace by the employer or agent of the employer or by another employee because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, record of offences, marital status, family status or disability.

The firefighter’s complaint is based on the grounds that his creed was not accommodated.

While the Human Rights Tribunal has expanded the definition of “creed” to include non-secular beliefs, ethical veganism has never been ruled a form of creed.

For Help

The Kitchener-Waterloo employment lawyers at Petker Campbell Postnikoff have many years of experience advising non-unionized employees and employers on a variety of workplace issues including termination and wrongful dismissal. Our team will walk you through the details of your dispute, advise you on your rights, responsibilities and obligations, and help you understand your options.  If your dispute cannot be settled through negotiation, we can represent you through mediation and the court process.

We represent clients throughout southern Ontario, including the communities of Cambridge, Guelph, Elmira, Brantford, Fergus, Elora and the surrounding area. Call 519-886-1204 or contact us online for a consultation.