The owner of a vegan restaurant in the Laurentian town of Val-David says she was driven out of business after being bombarded with threats and transphobic remarks.
Sophia Banks opened La Cantine Vegan with her partner in the mountain village over the summer. She says that her business was regularly vandalized almost as soon as it opened, but the problems got worse after people found out that she was opposed to Quebec’s bill 21, a controversial law that bans any government employees (including teachers and bus drivers) from wearing any religious symbols.
“Within the first week, there was vandalism — this could be random teens, but [people] just came in and flipped over all the patio furniture, making a huge mess, just pissing all over the [exterior] walls,” Banks tells Eater.
Banks says that dead birds were left at the café’s front door on two occasions, and that the restaurant was broken into just two weeks after opening. She adds that broken glass was left in the restaurant’s driveway, and benches from its terrasse were torn out of the wall and smashed.
Banks says that the anonymous vandals left no clear reason as to why they damaged her establishment, but there were indications she was targeted because she’s a trans woman.
“In town, I heard whispers like ‘oh, there’s a boycott, and people aren’t going to your restaurant because it’s trans owned’. I don’t have [pride] flags in the window and things like that, but I don’t feel that I have to hide my identity.”
She also notes that she did not know of any other businesses in Val-David facing similar problems.
“It’s a little village of 5,000 people,” adds Banks. “It’s supposed to be so friendly, and I’m pretty sure [other restaurants] are not having dead birds left at their front door and being trashed every week.”
Banks says there were some other small signs she and her partner weren’t welcome in the town. She recalls one incident when a neighbour came onto the restaurant’s property to yell at Banks, and refused to leave. She also says that when Vegan Cantine was preparing to open, she contacted every bakery in the area to find a supplier for the restaurant, yet was “shunned”, with nobody even getting back to her.
As summer went on, the problems escalated. Banks — who is active on Twitter, with around 18,000 followers — tweeted her opposition to Bill 21, which the National Assembly passed in June. She never posted any political content to the restaurant’s social media channels before the harassment began. About two weeks after her tweets, Banks says alt-right groups made the connection, and a campaign of online hate started against the restaurant.
“They started hounding me intensely on Twitter and there was this barrage of fake [Facebook] reviews being left about the business, telling me to go home, you’re not welcome here, really transphobic messages, a lot of people saying I’m racist towards Québécois people,” says Banks.
Some of those reviews were anonymous, using fake names such as “Jeffrey Epstein” (referencing American businessman, a convicted child sex offender), “Ontario Strong” (a right-wing group in Ontario) or “Rodrigo Duterte” (the President of the Philippines). Some made false comments about the restaurant, while others targeted Banks directly with comments like “Say no to gender ideology” or calling her a “racist Quebecophobic” and telling her to “go home”.
“We’re on the radar of [far-right group] Soldiers of Odin and I don’t feel safe,” Banks says. “Especially as a small cafe, my address is there, the hours are there, people know exactly when to find me and where to find me. It only takes one person to act.”
Banks says she opted not to get the police involved, in part because her family has experienced police violence in the past, making her wary of that option. The anonymous nature of the attacks, and the fact that Val-David uses the provincial police, not a local department, also made Banks concerned that calling them wouldn’t help.
“Having police drop by once a week isn’t going to make me feel safer.”
Speaking to the Montreal Gazette, Val-David mayor Kathy Poulin said the situation was “deplorable” and highlighted problems with online radicalization, adding that Val-David is “very accepting of diversity”.
Banks says while some Val-David residents were very supportive, she decided that with the vandalism and threats, it wasn’t worth staying in business.
“We lived here in the winter, it was nice, it was cute. [Now] we don’t feel welcome in the town, we don’t feel safe in the town. It’s the kind of people where they’re accepting of gay people in the sense of ‘oh, she lives with her friend’.”
Banks says she sunk around $50,000 into the restaurant — her and her partner are hoping to recoup a small portion of those costs via a crowdfunding campaign.
With that experience behind her, Banks says she’s staying in the food business, but not in Quebec: her and her partner are preparing to move to British Columbia, where they’ll focus on selling at farmers’ markets.
- Vegan Canteen Recovery [GoFundMe]
- Val David café owner closes shop amid ‘transphobic’ attacks, vandalism [Montreal Gazette]