The Veg-Movement & Lifestyle that’s Sweeping the Region
What makes the veg-movement so strong in Niagara? What is it about this region that is inspiring so many people to take on a plant based, compassionate lifestyle?
Are you new to the idea of Veganism? Wondering what it’s all about? Click here!
Flashback to 2011.
That’s the year when Niagara VegFest first began to take shape. There was already a vegan presence in St. Catharines. Niagara Action for Animals (NAFA) has a long history of activism going back to at least the 1980s, leading the Marineland protests alongside other action in Niagara. The Critical Animal Studies program at Brock University has been around for over a decade. Around 2011, the sense of a veg-community in Niagara was also bolstered by NAFA’s vegan potlucks, as well as the Conscious Eating Niagara potlucks that were very active around that period.
Niagara VegFest founders, Laurie Morrison and Keri Cronin, were among the vegan enthusiasts in the area. By 2011, they started to have a sense that Niagara was becoming ripe for a “vegfest”-type event. The fact that Niagara is one of Canada’s premiere growing regions made it an obvious choice for a festival and the idea took root.
The beginnings of the festival were humble, and the expectation was that the event would start out small and then grow over time. A small organizing committee began planning the first Niagara VegFest on a “shoe-string” budget. Our first event was a single-day event that took place on June 2nd 2012 at the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre in downtown St. Catharines. The 1st event featured 30 vendors, 5 speakers, and a film screening.
What came next was a thrilling shock to everyone in attendance. Who could have anticipated that crowds — no, the MOB – of veggie lovers waiting to get through the doors that first year??? Even before the doors opened, people were chomping at the bit to squeeze into our modest venue. From the instant that we let in the first guests, the venue was overrun by excited locals, neighbours, and out-of-town guests. We were astounded when nearly 1,300 attendees squeezed into our first festival that day. None of us were really ready for the turn out. The vendors sold out of everything within in just a few hours and everyone just kept looking at each other in gleeful awe. How could we have anticipated the flood of enthusiasm for a veggie lifestyle in Niagara?! It was incredible!
We learned a lot that first festival, and in subsequent years VegFest has grown to a 5,000 person festival. People attend from across the Niagara region, and we also attract a number of out-of-town guests from across Ontario, upstate New York, and Michigan. We’ve even had a family travel all the way from Edmonton, Alberta specifically for Niagara VegFest!
Since 2013, Niagara VegFest has been held in Market Square and we are committed to keeping Niagara VegFest in downtown St. Catharines. The event has become a signature festival of the Niagara Region. We are grateful for the support we have received from the City of St. Catharines for Niagara VegFest, and the continued support of the community.
What’s even more wonderful is that Niagara VegFest is part of a growing “VegFest” movement taking place across Europe and North America. These events celebrate the many benefits of a healthy, compassionate, plant-based lifestyle while, at the same time, providing a space where people can learn more about the environmental, health, ethical, and social justice issues related to the food they eat.
The landscape for Niagara VegFest has changed since it began in 2012. At that time it was only one of two fully vegan festivals in Ontario and one of three in all of Canada. Since then, the vegan movement has been gaining momentum everywhere. The long-established Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival has followed suit and is now a 100% vegan festival and the trend is spreading. Other Ontario communities like Guelph and London have since organized their own VegFests. We welcome these new festivals and have worked closely with those organizations, offering mentorship and direction as the new festivals take shape.
For Niagara VegFest organizers, however, the arrival of these new festivals means that we need to continue to innovate and be creative in ensure that our festival incorporates experiences that are unique to Niagara VegFest.
One of the unique attractions of the Niagara Region is our growing conditions. We have been working to develop partnerships with local wineries and craft breweries to incorporate local wine and beer in to festival programming, including our Vegan Wine Tour that launched in 2015.
Fast forward to 2016.
St. Catharines enjoys an abundance of vegan businesses. We all know that the way to most people’s hearts is through food, and our downtown is lucky enough to include Rise Above Restaurant, the incredibly popular Beechwood Doughnuts, and now Rescue Dogs. There are also many other veggie friendly businesses in the area.
Preparations are well under way for the 5th annual Niagara VegFest on June 5th, 2016. We are looking at what’s worked in previous years, what can be tweaked, and where we want to go next. We are excited to consider the future possibilities of linking our programming with the new Performing Arts Centre and the new downtown location of Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts. It’s invigorating to be part of this dynamic and changing landscape in downtown St. Catharines.
We are so proud of the consciousness that’s continuing to grow in Niagara. A central aspect of Niagara VegFest is the way in which a diverse groups of local businesses, organizations, and individuals come together under one roof. We are excited to bring these forward-thinking people together to share ideas and to facilitate opportunities to showcase the innovative initiatives that are happening right here in our own backyard. Whether you are vegetarian, vegan, or just curious, Niagara VegFest welcomes you.