U.S.-style ag-gag laws come to Canada

March 2, 2020

https://www.theprogress.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/17892898_web1_12113239_web1_Elite-Farm-Services-Catching-Rough-Handling-48.jpgWorkers at a Chilliwack-based farm were caught abusing animals in a 2017 undercover video filmed by California group Mercy for Animals.

In 2015, Ontario turkey farm Hybrid Turkeys was convicted of animal cruelty after a whistleblowing employee came forward to expose shocking abuse. Footage recorded by the employee and aired on CBC’s Marketplace program showed birds suffering from festering and bloody open wounds, birds being repeatedly beaten with shovels and other metal objects, and workers advising employees to kick turkeys.

This was not an isolated incident. Whistleblowers in Ontario have also revealed horrific chicken cruelty at Maple Lodge Farms chicken slaughterhouse, appalling conditions for pigs at Crimson Lane Farms, and suffering minks at Millbank Fur Farm, which is now facing charges.

But now, chilling new legislation introduced in Ontario and Alberta could make it illegal for whistleblowers to expose animal abuse and neglect in farms, slaughterhouses, and during animal transport. Bill 156, the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, was introduced by Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman on December 2, and follows on the heels of Bill 27 in Alberta, the Trespass Statutes Amendment Act, passed in only 10 days late in November without any serious legislative scrutiny.

These bills reflect a worrying, U.S.-inspired effort to further conceal farmed animal cruelty in Canada. “Ag gag” laws became common in the U.S. during the last decade in an effort to stifle undercover exposés of farming conditions. With animal rights advocacy on the rise in Canada, it is perhaps not surprising that the powerful farm lobby is pushing back here, too.

The Ontario and Alberta bills massively hike up trespassing fines and make it an offence to obtain permission by “false pretences” to be on farm property. This vaguely worded prohibition could effectively shut down undercover exposés into conditions on industrial farms, which may involve seeking employment without disclosing an intention to blow the whistle on cruel and illegal conditions. Similar laws in multiple U.S. states have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional, including in Utah, Idaho, Iowa and Kansas. Canada’s ag gag laws will inevitably face similar legal challenges, as they may well violate Charter rights to freedom of expression.

The public is highly dependent on whistleblowers right now to pull back the curtain on farms, slaughterhouses, puppy mills, labs and other animal-use industries. This is because there is currently no meaningful government oversight of farms—there are no on-farm animal welfare regulations, and no public inspections to monitor the tens of millions of animals confined on farms. Undercover exposés regularly lead to animal cruelty prosecutions and convictions. Greater transparency is good for animals, food safety and public confidence.

Ontario’s Bill 156 also targets citizens who hold vigils outside slaughterhouses, making it an offence to interact with animals on slaughter trucks or give them water. In Canada, animals can be transported for days at a time without food, water or rest, and advocates outside slaughterhouses have exposed horrific conditions inside transport trucks. Save Movement founder Anita Krajnc was prosecuted for criminal mischief in 2015 for giving water to suffering pigs in a transport truck on a hot summer day and was acquitted after a much-publicized trial. It’s clear that this did not go over well with the farm industry.

Ontario’s Bill 156 should be rejected by legislators. Both that bill and Alberta’s new ag gag law are likely unconstitutional. In 2019, citizens expect meaningful oversight for farmed animals. Instead of trying to further cover up on-farm conditions, the public would be better served by a government that introduces laws to protect animals on farms and provide for public inspections, shedding some light on what typically is kept behind closed doors.

Camille Labchuk is Executive Director of Animal Justice.