Blog 5: Religious Refugees, Rainbow Roads, and Ravenous Appetites

A Brief History of How Vegetarian and Vegan Business and Entrepreneurship Came to Vancouver, B.C.

Last Updated on May 7, 2023
Blog 5 Religious Refugees, Rainbow Roads, and Ravenous Appetites - Ben's Vegan Vancouver - It's Bree and Ben

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When my wife, Brianne, and I visited Vancouver, B.C., for the first time in 2017, we were familiar with the city’s reputation for being home to many vegetarian restaurants (DH Vancouver Staff, 2017). Most Vancouverites we met would recommend The Acorn in Mount Pleasant because of its award-winning reputation (Saddy, 2020), or The Naam in Kitsilano for its reputation for being among the oldest vegetarian restaurants in the city and last remaining natural foods business from the 1960s (Vancouver Heritage Foundation, 2022). Despite this abundance of reputable vegetarian dining options, we neither found nor encountered any fully vegan establishments within these two neighbourhoods. Today, those two neighbourhoods are home to approximately 40 vegan businesses (Happy Cow, 2022), which makes the city among the most vegan friendly in the world (Galer-Unti, 2021).

The rapid arrival and growth of vegan businesses to these neighbourhoods give strong indication that they recently attracted a vegan community that made the areas hospitable for vegan businesses, although a review of the history of these two neighbourhoods reveal that the vegan community there is, in fact, nearly a century old. The following sections of this article will review the history of how the vegan community arrived in Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano, beginning with disenfranchised religious communities and continuing with the counterculture movement of the 1960s and on through the environmentalist and health movements that continue to this day.

Establishing Focus

The history of veganism is extensive as its philosophy is found in texts from before the Common Era all around the world (Narayanan, 2018). A myriad of books have been written about the history of plant-based eating and vegetarianism, from the 10th century poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri (Margoliouth, 1902) to Frances Moore Lappé’s famous Diet for a Small Planet, in 1975, to the many contemporary works of Dr. Melanie Joy. At the time of this writing, the literature about vegetarianism and veganism in Vancouver – let alone the rest of B.C. – is quite sparse, yet that is not to imply that the history itself does not exist. For the sake of focus, this article will first discuss vegetarianism as it was expressed by a specific cultural and ethnic minority in the province for over a century, before shifting over to the political and economic reactions to events in the 20th century that made Vancouver a berth to counterculturalists, health enthusiasts, and later entrepreneurs by the 2020s.

It is also acknowledged that Indigenous communities in B.C. have a long history of exploring and interpreting the meaning of vegan philosophy – particularly in the matter of animal personhood (Robinson, 2013). Veganism in the context of Indigeneity merits research that extends beyond the focus of this project, and attempting to do so risks making monolithic, over-generalized statements. Therefore, this article will respectfully omit that topic, although veganism in the context of Indigeneity merits exploration in future studies.

It also behooves to acknowledge that the term ‘vegan’ was not coined until 1944 by Donald Watson, who was a founder of the Vegan Society in the United Kingdom (The Vegan Society, 2022), and even then, it wasn’t added to lexicons until 1988 (The Vegan Society, 2021). Until that year, the term pure vegetarian had existed to describe vegans and their lifestyle, yet it was most often in the context that it was fervent practice of vegetarianism – i.e., a fanaticism instead of a holistic philosophy (Grant & MacKenzie-Dale, 2016). Therefore, vegetarians and vegetarianism are mentioned in the subsequent sections of this article with the knowledge that they involved the consumption of dairy and other animal products. However, vegetarianism is often discussed in the literature as a precursor to the what is recognized as veganism today (Suddath, 2008).

“Oakalla’s Woe”

One of the earliest records of vegetarianism in B.C. comes from an unlikely location: a prison. On 01 April, 1948, the Vancouver Daily Province reported that the Doukhobor inmates were proving to be a “headache to B.C. Penitentiary officials” at the Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby (New Westminster Bureau of the Vancouver Daily Province, 1948). At the time, the Prison Farm was designed to reform inmates through manual farm work and other agricultural training (BC Farm Museum, n.d.), and in that same year, the prison had its inmates tend to gardens and rear livestock across more than 64 acres (BC Farm Museum, n.d.). The Doukhobor inmates, whose creed forbids the killing of any human or animal, refrained from participating in tending to the livestock, as it would ultimately end with the murder of the animals. In response, and unexpectedly accommodating of the prison’s staff and the department of justice, the Doukhobor inmates were kept semi-employed until the spring when they would work in the gardens full-time, and all year-round they were permitted to prepare their strict vegetarian meals separately from the other inmates’ meals (New Westminster Bureau of the Vancouver Daily Province, 1948). One may say that there is irony in the fact that modern vegetarianism is mentioned as a privilege in a setting that is designed to wrest privileges away.

The vegetarianism of Doukhobor inmates makes news in the Vancouver Daily Province - Ben's Vegan Vancouver - It's Bree and Ben - vegan business -vegan history
The vegetarianism of Doukhobor inmates makes news in the Vancouver Daily Province (Source: From New Westminster Bureau of the Vancouver Daily Province. (1948, April 1). ProQuest Historical Newspapers.)

The Doukhobors are a sect of Orthodox Christians who formed in Russia in the 18th century in reaction to the perceived excessive opulence, elaborate rituals, and authoritative practices of the Orthodox Church (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, 2013). They practice a less-hierarchical form of the religion – one that rejected the need for priests and idolatry in favour of personal spiritualism and minimalistic lifestyle (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, 2013). They also believe that God is inherent in all living beings – including animals – (Doukhobor Discovery Centre, 2022, col. 1653) and thus abstain from any form of violence as it would be an act of aggression against God and the Divine. Slaughtering animals is included in that definition of violence, which is why vegetarianism is embraced (Why Doukhobors Are Vegetarians, 2013). Being all of these things brought them great persecution from the Czarist government, which is why their communities began to emigrate from Russia in 1899, (Doukhobor Discovery Centre, 2022, col. 1899), and the first diaspora of 7,500 Doukhobor arrived in the plains of Canada under the pretense that they would be granted farmland and allowed to re-establish their communities under a series of homestead requirements. However, much of the provisions of the requirements, like secure land ownership, were not actualized, for the pacifist nature that made the Doukhobors refrain from swearing allegiance to the Czar also compelled them to refrain from swearing allegiance to the Crown as well (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, 2013). Not being tethered to the plains, yet still in search of the security of solitude and self-sufficiency, almost 6,000 began their next emigration from Saskatchewan and Alberta to British Columbia in 1908, where they established as many as 80 agrarian communities throughout the Kootenay-Boundary region and remain there to this day (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, 2013). While they may not have introduced the notion of vegetarianism to the region or the entire province, it may be argued that the Doukhobors’ practice of it may have inculcated the “otherness” that other groups may ascribe vegetarians. They certainly wouldn’t be the last group in B.C. to do so…

The Hippies on Rainbow Road

Vancouver in the late 1950s and early 1960s was arguably a confluence of many transitions and changing landscapes – both demographic and cultural. New multi-family homes were being constructed neighbourhood of East Vancouver, or East Van, and just a few blocks west one would be met by Studebakers and Fords lined all along Commercial Street. Here was everything one would need – bakeries, coffee shops, record stores, appliance stores, pharmacies, diners, hardware stores, and all of the other necessities and trappings of the quintessential mid-Century life in North America. Across town, the same could be said of Broadway and 4th Street in Kitsilano – both calm and populated by families who lived just a few blocks away or in those same businesses if they owned and operated them.

corner of Commerical and 1st Avenue in Vancouver, BC 1967 - Ben's Vegan Vancouver - It's Bree and Ben
The corner of Commercial and 1st Avenues in Vancouver, B.C., circa 1967 (Source: The Province Pinterest Archive).

That ambiance began to shift in 1964, when young men and women in their late teens and early twenties with long hair and Afros, dressed in fringe and other fabrics that were contrary to the synthetic, straight-laced style of their parents (Kauffman, 2018). Most of them were students at the University of British Columbia, or UBC, and they would congregate in public areas from Regional Park on UBC’s campus to Jericho Beach in Kitsilano. There they would speak about the ills of a new war brewing in Southeast Asia while signing and playing folk rock songs on a guitar (Planner, 2021). At the time, a typical adult passing by with their families may dismiss it – after all, it was the U.S.’s war, and the news of turmoil has been a constant in that region since well before those American ships were attacked in the Golf of Tonkin that summer (Burns & Novick, 2017). Demonstrations spread across Broadway, 4th Avenue, and Main Street before too long, and what was even more noticeable is that many of these young, long-haired people had accents from all over the U.S. and not just Canada, (Jezer-Morton, 2006).

anti-vietnam war demostration in Vancouver in 1968 - Ben's Vegan Vancouver - It's Bree and Ben
Anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Vancouver, B.C., in 1968 (Source: Jezer-Morton).

This was just one of the plainly visible displays of the counterculture in Vancouver. By the mid-1960s, young, liberally minded people across the U.S. and Canada were organizing against what they perceived were the ills that had befallen in the wake of the Second World War, among them being a growing military industrial complex in both the U.S. and Soviet Union that had the unchecked power of ripping the world asunder with nuclear weapons as well as the growing concerns of new industrialized processes in agriculture, known as the Green Revolution, that were changing the standard concepts of what and how people ate food across the world (Kauffman, 2018, pp. 2–10). In response to these ominous developments, many in the generation that was coming of age at this time, Baby Boomers, were seeking to combat them in various ways: combatting war with demonstrations of civil disobedience, and reconnecting with their food through what we today would consider to be organic foods: non-processed, non-chemically-treated whole foods, like grains, seeds, and legumes (Kauffman, 2018, pp. 2–12) – ingredients and processes that up to that time had been considered “health” or “fitness” foods, yet were now finding new meaning as tools of protest for the counterculture.

Unfortunately, none of this proved to be enough for the American Baby Boomers as the U.S. military announced a draft lottery in 1965 – the first one in that country since 1942 (Jezer-Morton, 2006). Now faced with the prospect of being forced to fight and die in a war that had little significance to them personally, American Baby Boomers who resisted the draft – or ‘draft dodgers’, as the pop culture would come to designate them – began emigrating from the U.S. in a diaspora of their own to nearby Canada (Jezer-Morton, 2006). While it is still unclear as to exactly how many draft-dodgers there were, it is estimated that as many 40,000 individuals made the journey between 1965 and 1975 (Valiante, 2015), and with them also came their counterculture and pacifist ideologies that gravitated them to the neighbourhoods of Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano (Jezer-Morton, 2006), where like-minded Canadian already resided.

With so many hippies and draft dodgers settled in those areas, it wouldn’t take long for their ideologies to manifest and take shape in the business culture there. The most well-known and locally cherished was the vegetarian restaurant known as The Naam, which opened in 1968 on a stretch of 4th Avenue that had come to be known as Rainbow Road after the hippie culture there (Vancouver Heritage Foundation, 2022). The Naam was arguably the first vegetarian and natural foods business in the city. Although it was originally conceived by its founders as a store for groceries as well as a restaurant, it came to take on a broader meaning to the community in and around Rainbow Road. It soon became a popular community hub and  meeting place not just for locals looking for whole gains, soy, and legumes, but for those politically involved in the counterculture movement, like anti-war activists and advocates of environmental protection (S. Wilson, 2012). Even Greenpeace is known to have had meetings there, and at the time of this writing, the restaurant remains in operation as it continues its founding mission to provide healthy, whole food-based meals and nutrition to all who visit, shop, and dine there (S. Wilson, 2012). By the 1970s, health and civil disobedience were still fundamental rationales in their mission statements, although by that decade a new one was emerging in the public consciousness – one that would take vegetarianism out of the neighbourhood enclaves it so far flourished in and into the global community.

the exterior of The Naam in Kistilano, Vancouver - Ben's Vegan Vancouver - It's Bree and Ben - vegan business
The exterior of The Naam in Kitsilano.

Learning to Eat for a Small Planet

With the beginning of the 1970s came a host of new headlines that few in the U.S. and Canada had yet to encounter: human-induced environmental disasters. The Cuyahoga River Fire in Ohio in 1969 (Ohio History Connection, 2022), mercury poisoning in First Nations in Ontario in 1970 (Loriggio & Press, 2017), and a myriad of other such catastrophes revealed – for the first time in media and the public consciousness – that the activities of human civilization had devastating effects on the environment through war, urban development, and economic activity and processes as well (Kauffman, 2018, pp. 131–135). Newly published books like Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet inspired hippies and other environmental stewards to then think of how the industrialized agricultural systems that were developed since the Green Revolution were not just ruining human health, but the Earth’s many ecosystems as well. It would take another entire blog article to enumerate and discuss them, yet suffice it for this one, the reactions to these disasters and climates resulted in the observation of Earth Day around the world, starting in the U.S. in 1970 and the creation of that country’s Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, in 1972 (Kauffman, 2018, pp. 178–179). Likewise, vegetarian eateries in Vancouver began to incorporate messages of stewardship in their mission statements, and vegetarianism became an intersectional act of stewardship and health – a means to care for self, community, and planet – well into the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s (Wrenn, 2019, pp. 190–197).

The Common Reasons for Vegetarian and Vegan Business

Specific B.C. communities adopted the principles of veganism as a political means preserve the practices and values particular to their group. Later, the vegan philosophy provided the framework to confront and protect human health and environmental health. In that sense, vegan business is a reaction to the perceived ethical, social, and environmental challenges that our global community is currently confronted with – a means to still exist and function in a capitalist system that we may not like but can’t give up, yet doing the least amount of harm to anyone and anything.

The exploration of vegetarian and vegan history in these places provides great insight into the universal reasons why they appear and exist in such places, yet it is difficult to explore the meaning and experience that the business owners and managers have with the philosophy. For that, dear readers, we must explore these neighbourhoods and vegan businesses.


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Our names are Benjamin Hagerty and Brianne Nemiroff. We’re a married couple originally from California. Since we became a couple in 2009, we have always been passionate about travel, both locally and abroad. We were inspired to take a long-term trip in 2017 to explore more of Canada and the U.S. and we soon realized that this wasn’t just a lengthy trip, but a new lifestyle choice, and that we were destined to explore.


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