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At the Veg Food Fest, the Lisa Grill Compassion for Animals Award was presented to Mary-Chris Staples for the many aspects of animal rights activism in Toronto that she leads and participates in. We asked her a few questions to get to know her better.
What motivates you as an animal activist?
The absolute injustice of animal exploitation. When I first got involved seven years ago, I was mortified that I had been participating in this exploitation all my life. I was mortified that the world I live in not only accepts this nightmare but also teaches us that because we are “at the top of the food chain”, we are allowed to do whatever we want with animals. I learned to trust my own instincts and, sadly, to lose respect for many human leaders who continue to promote speciesism.
A lot of animal activists burn out after time. How do you keep such a positive attitude and avoid burnout?
Funny you should ask about burnout…I am actually going through my first real bout of it. This past year has been extremely tough for me personally. Three years ago, I returned to Toronto after having lived in Vancouver for 20 years to help care for my elderly parents. My father passed away in January. My mum has dementia. I have two rescue dogs; one is nearly 15 and dealing with many issues [while] the other one is younger but has recently developed some life-threatening issues. For seven years I have pushed through everything in my life and not missed a beat when it comes to fighting for animals. No matter how exhausted I am, I am filled with energy once I hit the streets, speak up for animals and work with other activists. My brain never stops working, thinking of what to do next or what to do better, and every post I see on Facebook compels me to do more—but it has taken a toll.
I have felt it necessary to think about shifting my focus and style, at least for the next little while. I need to focus on the dogs and my mum, and let myself grieve the loss of my dad. Some of my wonderful colleagues have offered to continue Toronto Slaughterhouses Exposed at St. Clair and Keele while I deal with other things. I will also work on organizing other projects from home (like the monthly Adopt-a- School chalking and outreach campaign) but will leave myself free to not be physically present for the next little while. It would have broken my heart to abandon the Toronto Slaughterhouses Exposed campaign – [so] thanks to these amazing people, I am able to take care of
myself. When you are an animal rights activist, you can never fully take a break from it because you know how desperate things are. It’s critical to have good animal rights friends to help support you as you care for yourself.
What do you think is the most effective way to inspire positive change in society?
I believe all kinds of approaches are necessary to raise awareness of animal justice, and I participate in and support all kinds. For my personality, however, outreach is my favourite. The Internet has allowed us to reach millions of people around the world, but I still think it’s important to reach the living people right in front of me. For me, outreach is about more than passing out leaflets or holding signs; it’s about connecting with people in a personal way. Maybe it’s a fraction of a second, looking into their eyes as you hold a sign or handing them a leaflet. Maybe it’s a smile or a wave. Sometimes it’s a long conversation. Even in marches and protests, it’s important to connect with the public who are watching. I try to make eye contact with as many people as possible to let them know, human being to human being, that the situation is desperate. I try to appeal to them to think for themselves and maybe even join us. If we are chanting, I look them in the eye and gently encourage them to hear the words. I find that the responses I get—just by making eye contact—are positive. These give me hope that our message is being received.
What made you go vegan?
I became vegan because of a PETA leaflet! I was living comfortably unaware until an image of a baby piglet having his teeth violently pulled out changed my world. Like most people, I knew animals were being killed for our food but I completely trusted that human beings were doing this perfectly humanely and out of necessity. I simply hadn’t looked into it myself. I was busy worrying about all the usual things in life: work, home, entertainment, family, vacations, etc. Realizing how blind I had been, and how everything I believed about the goodness of human beings had been a lie, sent me into a depression. I became vegan and an activist overnight, but it took a long time to figure out how to see all of my non-vegan relationships in a new way. It was hard to accept that those I had always felt so connected to did not share this most important value.
What can you tell us about your regular outreach for animals at the corner of Keele and St Clair? How do people respond when they learn there’s a slaughterhouse in the neighbourhood?
I started Chicken Vigils at Hallmark Chicken Slaughterhouse in Vancouver, inspired by the Toronto Pig/Cow/Chicken vigils. Hallmark was located right down the street from the high school where I taught. It was on a busy street, so we were able to expose the slaughterhouse to the unaware public. We would bear witness every day and share photos and videos on line, and, for me, the reaction of the public learning about this horrible place was inspiring.
When I returned to Toronto, the only animal rights activities I could find were the vigils. I went to a few but found that since the slaughterhouses were located out of public view, it was frustrating to know that thousands of people just around the corner were completely unaware of what was going on. That’s when I decided to start Toronto Slaughterhouses Exposed. I wanted the public to “bear witness” to the nightmare through images of animals we see every week on transport trucks. It would be harder for people to avoid thinking about this injustice once they learned it was happening just around the corner. And if they did manage to forget about it, I would be there every week to remind them!
I started out with a few home-made signs and stood out there by myself. Right from the start, I knew it was making a difference. Everyone read the signs. How did I know? I looked at them. I appealed to them to care. I knew people were learning something they didn't know. I was there every Tuesday morning from 7:30-9:30 am. I wanted to hit the rush hour hoping that these images and messages would be the first thing on the minds
of morning commuters. (I purposely didn’t choose Monday morning because I wanted to try and reach commuters in a good frame of mind). A few people started to join me but many mornings I was alone. Many members of the public commented that they saw me from the bus every day, right through the winter, and admired my dedication. Nearly everyone was shocked to learn that there were three slaughterhouses just around the corner. Many knew that there used to be stockyards there but didn’t know that St. Helen’s, Ryding-Regency, and Maple Leaf still existed. Nearly everyone was upset to hear about these slaughterhouses. Many said they were profoundly affected when they learned how close these slaughterhouses were. My goal was to get every person that passes through this intersection thinking about the animals suffering and find it harder to brush off.
Just as important as reaching the public, however, was letting the slaughterhouse know that their days of anonymity were over. Every time a transport truck full of animals came by, I would make sure they saw me, knowing that word would get back to the slaughterhouses, farmers, and trucking companies that the public was being exposed to the truth. Things started to change in 2015 when I made street signs that pointed to the slaughterhouses and then had more signs made up. With the help of the Toronto March to Close All Slaughterhouses, I organized a Saturday outreach event where 60 people came out and took over the intersection! After that, a very dedicated group of activists began to join me regularly. Since then, we have held monthly Saturday events as well as Tuesday morning events. We hold our signs and deliver leaflets through car windows and to pedestrians. The leaflet includes maps to the slaughterhouses. Last year, the Save Movement came on board and gave us funding; we officially became the Save Outreach Squad, doing Toronto Slaughterhouses Exposed as well as dozens of other outreach activities around the city (concerts, sporting events, rib-fests, holiday outreaches, high school outreach, etc.).
It has now been more than three years and we have reached tens of thousands of people. More and more we are hearing from people that our presence has indeed impacted them. While many commuters have seen us hundreds of times, we still give out leaflets to people seeing us for the first time. Recently someone dubbed St. Clair and Keele as “the intersection of consciousness”. While outreach needs to be done everywhere, this intersection is special to me because it represents how easily people can be hidden from the truth, just like I had been for most of my life. If we can’t get these people to bear witness in person, we can allow them to “bear witness” through our
images of the victims.
Who are your role models as activists?
Twyla Francois: The day I received that PETA leaflet, I went online and found
Twyla. She took the time to have an email conversation with me that helped me turn
my depression into constructive ways to help animals. Twyla is one of the bravest,
most dedicated people I’ve ever known.
Glenn Gaetz, Joanne Chang, Becci Gindin-Clarke, Roger Clarke, Willow
Hoechman: These were the members of Liberation BC, the first group I joined. I
learned everything from them!
For more about Mary-Chris, listen to her recent podcast interview, “Episode 408” at