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This Newfoundlander wants kale, not cod

Jackson McLean is the face of a new vegan food movement on this remote Canadian island that’s long been defined by fishing.

Newfoundland, a beautiful yet inhospitable rock in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, is not a place one normally associates with a burgeoning local food and vegan movements; and yet, this is happening. While visiting St. John’s this week, I sat down with Jackson McLean, the unofficial leader of the island’s vegan movement and passionate locavore. We ate lunch at the city’s only vegan restaurant, the Peaceful Loft, serving cuisine from Macau, and talked about everything from vegetable gardening to seal hunting.

© K Martinko — Surprisingly delicious fake pork and duck meat made from gluten

McLean is the assistant manager at The Seed Company by E.W. Gaze, a business that was founded in St. John’s in 1925. It’s a hub for people who are interested in learning about self-sufficiency and how to grow their own food. The company sells the same vegetable seeds they’ve offered for nearly a century and holds workshops on vegetable gardening and tapping maple trees. It plans to start foraging classes soon.

Young Newfoundlanders are fascinated by self-sufficiency, McLean says. The movement is largely driven by the millennial generation (he wondered if the term ‘hipster’ was known elsewhere, and I assured him it was) — people whose grandparents once grew and preserved their own food, but whose parents lost that knowledge. “Nobody wants to do what their parents did,” McLean said with a smile; but now the grandchildren are growing up and wanting to regain that knowledge.

Self-sufficiency is a particularly relevant conversation on this island, where there is only ever a four-day supply of food available and 90 percent of produce is imported. Being able to feed oneself, should ships and planes no longer be able to bring food over the sea, takes on great importance under these circumstances — and, as McLean sees it, veganism fits into this nicely.

“For me, veganism is a switch that a lot of people have the ability to do that makes a big difference. With issues like fair trade or child slavery, we feel kind of helpless. It’s hard to get fair trade clothing. Where do you find a fair trade toothbrush? But with veganism, you go to the supermarket. You can choose plant-based options.”

McLean has been a committed vegan for seven years, ever since he watched a video by PETA called “Meet Your Meat,” featuring horrifying undercover slaughterhouse footage. It was so disturbing that McLean has felt moved to promote veganism in his home province. Not surprisingly, it’s a hard sell in a place like Newfoundland.

Fishing is an ancient way of life here and the only way in which many communities support themselves. But as McLean pointed out, people are acutely aware of the ocean’s fragility. With the collapse of the cod fishery and the subsequent moratorium that was declared in 1992 (after cod stocks had plummeted to 1 percent of earlier levels), Newfoundlanders were forced to acknowledge the ways in which overfishing had damaged the ocean.

cod fisherman© K Martinko — Veganism would be a hard sell for someone like this cod fisherman, whom I met at Petty Harbour

Another point of contention is the seal hunt, an old Newfoundland tradition. The seal hunt has been targeted heavily by animal rights groups, including PETA, because it generates outrage easily. Baby seals are cute, blood on snow is dramatic, and what’s happening cannot be hidden behind closed doors. But many Newfoundlanders resent that the island’s hunt should be targeted when there are arguably worse issues (such as factory farming) happening on a much larger scale elsewhere in the country; they’re not chosen, though, because they don’t have the shock value. Because Newfoundlanders associate these activist groups with veganism, they are reluctant to learn more about veganism themselves.

McLean persists, nonetheless. He believes there is great potential for vegetable farms and CSA programs to expand across Newfoundland. There is plenty of unused land and McLean says almost anything can be grown with a greenhouse — as long as it can withstand the high levels of precipitation and wind. Indeed, the St. John’s farmers market, which I visited on Saturday morning, showed an impressive array of locally grown produce, and has outgrown its current facility.

St John's farmers' market© K Martinko — St John’s farmers’ market on a Saturday morning in September

McLean is very active on social media, runs a YouTube channel, and organizes the highly successful Veg Fest each summer, a trade show/motivational event for vegans in St. John’s. Local restaurants and vendors are invited to participate, even if they’re not normally vegan, and are guided through how to prepare a strictly vegan food or product for the event. He told me proudly that his Facebook group has grown to nearly 2,000 members.

He hopes, at some point soon, to organize a road trip across North America in order to meet, learn, and document the rise of veganism, and how it intersects with the local food movement — two communities that, he sadly acknowledges, tend to butt heads here in Newfoundland.

It was encouraging to see McLean’s enthusiasm for veganism in a place like Newfoundland, where he told me many people do not even know what the word means. “We’re a bit behind the times,” he chuckled at one point. “But the biggest thing for me is to make the world a better place. And sometimes you have to disrupt the norm in order to make a change.” Disrupting the norm is definitely what McLean is doing in this cod-fishing, meat-eating world, and he seems to be flourishing despite the odds.

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