A new provincial law to keep trespassers out of barns and animal rights advocates away from transport trucks may do that — but it may also erode public trust in farming practices.
“The public wants to know what it is that farmers are trying to hide,” Jodi Lazare told the Co-operator.
Lazare teaches law at Dalhousie University. She has expertise in constitutional and animal rights law and currently holds a federal grant to study the constitutional dimensions of animal rights activism.
“There’s documented evidence that these laws end up doing more harm to the agriculture industry than good in terms of the publicity of any legal challenge that is launched and in terms of public trust and transparency,” Lazare added.
Why it matters: Animal rights activism is a source of stress and frustration for many farmers who say harm caught on video isn’t representative of common practice, but laws to keep activists at bay may only cause distrust.
Bill 62, the Animal Diseases Amendment Act passed on May 20, though at the time of writing it awaited royal assent before it took effect.
The bill requires a person to get permission to enter a biosecurity zone or to interact with animals in that zone. The bill makes it an offence to interact with animals in transport without permission or to block or interfere with a vehicle carrying animals.
The law is similar to laws in Ontario, Alberta and Prince Edward Island. A comparable federal bill, C-205, is before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Agriculture groups like KAP, Manitoba Egg Farmers and Manitoba Pork Council welcomed the new law. Manitoba Pork general manager Cam Dahl told the Co-operator it would help “producers protect their biosecurity as well as help them protect their workers and their families.”
Animal rights advocacy groups, meanwhile, blasted the law as having nothing to do with biosecurity but rather with protecting an industry that feels threatened.
Perception of wrongdoing
Livestock producer groups say they have nothing to hide — why would they mistreat the animals on which their livelihood depends? They point to animal care regulations — for instance, codes of practice for essentially every farmed animal under the National Farm Animal Care Council.
Manitoba’s chief veterinary officer also investigates reports of poor animal welfare, both livestock and pets. In 2020 it investigated 50 cases involving pigs, 81 involving cattle and 102 involving horses, the province’s website shows.
“Pork producers are committed to environmental stewardship, food safety, animal care and quality assurance,” Dahl told the provincial Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food on April 20.
“On our farm, we take care of birds from Day 1 ’til they are at least 72 weeks old,” Manitoba Egg Farmers board member Kurt Siemens told the committee. “We have a lot invested in our birds, and the care of those birds, for us, is paramount.”
Consumers are left to square up codes of practices with alarming reports they see on the news — like video from a Quebec veal calf farm that surfaced in 2014. It showed workers kicking and punching calves. A CBC article says a calf was seen bleeding profusely after a botched euthanasia attempt. Another was seen collapsed with its hind leg caught in the wooden slats of its crate.
Quebec’s bovine producers’ federation condemned workers’ actions but said it was an “isolated incident,” CBC reported.
The same year, an undercover animal activist publicized video of young employees at a British Columbia dairy farm “beating (cows) about their heads, legs, backs and udders with metal pipes and rakes,” the National Post reported. “Cows were chained at the neck, hoisted into the air and hit.”
The employees were fired, but the farm owners were acquitted of wrongdoing.
As a result, telling consumers to trust them while enacting laws to keep out activists may create the impression that farmers have something to hide.
A University of British Columbia study, published in 2016, surveyed 750 U.S. residents on their opinions on ‘ag-gag’ laws. Researchers presented participants with common features of these laws, for instance, a ban on obtaining employment at farms under false pretences or a ban on video and audio recording of farms without permission.
The participants were also given a list of common arguments in support of these laws. They were then asked to indicate their level of support or opposition for the laws.
Nine per cent of respondents said they were aware of this type of law prior to the study. Once made aware, 64 per cent said they opposed it. The study also showed people felt less trust toward farmers once made aware of the law.
The drop in trust did not vary by political affiliation, researchers wrote. Self-identified Republicans who read about the law reported less trust in farmers than Democrats who had not read the law. Similarly, rural residents who had read the law reported less trust in farmers than urban dwellers who had not read it.
“Learning about ag-gag legislation, which restricts the flow of information coming out of farms, reduced trust in farmers,” the study authors wrote. “Importantly, the overall decrease in trust represented a shift from slightly trusting, to slightly distrusting farmers.”
“In exchange for barring photography and videotaping on factory farms, states forfeit the ability to assure the public that the conditions of local farms are in conformity with regulations and thus their food is safe to consume,” says a 2012 article in the Suffolk University Law Review.
Speaking through a spokesperson, Ag Minister Blaine Pedersen said the bill doesn’t restrict whistleblowers, including farm and food-processing employees from making complaints if they witness cruelty.
“Bill 62 does not restrict the public’s right to express their views,” the spokesperson said a statement sent to the Co-operator.
Farms in court
Activists have shown they’re not afraid of a court battle, which gives them platforms to argue to the court of public opinion for animal rights.
For instance, Ontario activist Anita Krajnc drew widespread attention, and support from musician Moby and actress Maggie Q, when she was charged with mischief for giving water to a pig on a transport truck outside a Burlington slaughterhouse in 2015, CBC reported.
The hog owner told the court he was afraid there were contaminants in the water and the hogs would be turned away, or that activists would get hurt, the Toronto Star reported. The transport truck driver testified that activists frequently gave pigs water and the slaughterhouse had never turned his loads away.
Judge David Harris chastised Krajnc’s legal counsel for comparing her to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, but ultimately acquitted the activist, reported CBC.
Protesters arrested in a Sainte-Hyacinthe hog barn will be going to trial. Shay Lee, who goes by “Shay the Activist” on Facebook, posted that she and the other protesters would have a “two-week-long trial in criminal court for their charges after exposing animal abuse at Porgreg Pig Farm in St-Hyacinthe (sic) Quebec.”
She told her 2,700 followers a courthouse rally was in the works, and posted photos she said she took at the pig farm. Photos show dirty pigs with bloodshot eyes crammed into rusty, bent penning that is crusted with feces.
Activist group Animal Justice recently submitted a constitutional challenge of Ontario’s ‘ag-gag’ law, the Co-operator reported earlier this month.
The applicants said the act infringes on sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms addressing freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom to peacefully assemble.
The application could take years to be resolved, said Ottawa lawyer Don Buckingham. Any decision would probably be appealed and finish at the Supreme Court of Canada.
Not about biosecurity?
Animal rights activists are quick to point out that laws like Bill 62 are unlikely to have much effect on animal health.
A member of Manitoba Animal Save told the provincial Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food that: “We have documented and seen many times drivers and other employees breaking biosecurity protocol… with no perceived issues from management.
“This bill is a red herring to use legislation to attack those who are a detriment to the profits, while not adhering to the same rules themselves,” he added.
The activists have some legal and veterinary experts on their side.
In testimony related to Bill C-205, federal chief veterinary officer Jaspinder Komal said, “We think the level of risk that will be induced by trespassers would be very minimal, because in order to have risk from a disease perspective, you have to have continuous and prolonged contact with the animals.”
Later Komal added, “In scientific literature we haven’t seen much evidence of transmission of disease through these activities.
MP John Barlow, who sponsored the bill, claimed that after activists broke into a Sainte-Hyacinthe, Quebec, hog farm that farm became “infested with rotavirus.”
Komal told the committee he was “not sure if there’s evidence that there actually was transmission from the activists to the pigs.”
“A breach in biosecurity can be caused by anybody — a farm worker or a trespasser or anybody else — and with this kind of activity, the risk of disease is more on the lower side,” Komal said. “That’s why it is a bit difficult to see the Health of Animals Act as the right act for this bill to amend.”
Winnipeg lawyer Elizabeth McCandless told the provincial committee that, while enhancing biosecurity is an important legislative purpose, a close reading of Bill 62 “suggests the proposed amendments don’t actually address biosecurity risks.”
McCandless co-chairs the animal law section of the Manitoba Bar Association, but testified as a private citizen.
“Manitoba already has legislation at both the provincial and federal levels to provide protection from trespassers and individuals coming onto farms,” she said. “These provisions would provide protection to livestock living on those farms.
“Manitobans want more oversight and transparency about animal agriculture in our province, not less,” McCandless said.
The province said it wrote the law based on national biosecurity standards.
“The standards suggest that biosecurity breaches in the ‘restricted access zones’… present the highest risks to animal and human health,” said a spokesperson for Pedersen. “Bill 62 supports the national biosecurity standards, which recommend that farmers control the movement of people and animals in the restricted access zone.
“Although some people may be well intentioned it is best that those with specific knowledge of animal welfare, government officials and law enforcement officers deal with any concerns related to animal welfare,” the spokesperson said.