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Petition: Ontario must repeal new law facilitating animal cruelty

January 20, 2021
topic:Animal Cruelty
tags:#Canada, #animal cruelty, #petition,, #activism, #Regan Russell
by:Yair Oded
On 18 June, 2020 the government of Ontario, Canada passed a law that will facilitate the covering up of animal abuse at industrial farms and slaughterhouses. The law - Bill 156, often referred to as an “ag gag” rule - prohibits whistleblowers from reporting animal cruelty incidents on farms and bans lawful protests outside slaughterhouses. The law’s provisions, activists and legal experts claim, bluntly violate animal rights and freedom of speech, as well as pose a grave risk to public health.

A day after the passage of Bill 156, an animals rights activist named Regan Russell was brutally murdered by a truck driver transporting pigs for slaughter, as the former was protesting against the “ag gag” law and supplying water to the pigs. Russell’s killing, along with the police’s haphazard investigation of the incident, have sparked worldwide protests calling for justice for Russell and an end to the government's abetting of animal cruelty. 

A petition launched by the animal rights NGO Last Chance for Animals (LCA) is calling for the immediate rescinding of Bill 156.

Widespread torture of animals

In addition to the unfathomable environmental damage caused by the farming and meat industries, the latter are also responsible for widespread and continuous torture and neglect of animals. 

The same holds true across Canada, where countless cases of animal cruelty at farms and slaughterhouses have been exposed by whistleblowers, journalists and activists.

At Maple Lodge Farms in Ontario, secret video footage revealed callous torture of baby chickens who were deemed too small to be sold. The chicks were ground up alive, smashed against metal objects, or, in some cases, discarded into crammed baskets and left to suffer for hours until they died. 

At Crimson Lane Farms, also in Ontario, undercover video exposed dozens of incidents in which pigs were viciously kicked, slammed and shocked, and piglets were bashed against the floor multiple times until they died. 

In 2015, a turkey breeder at Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario had pleaded guilty for charges of animal cruelty, after secret footage exposed employees ruthlessly beating birds, neglecting to treat their open wounds and kicking them repeatedly with shovels. 

The list of horrors goes on, and as no government mechanism exists to detect and prevent cases of animal cruelty, it can be assumed that most incidents go unreported. 

The ‘ag gag’ bill

After a year of deliberations, and despite mounting public opprobrium, the government of Ontario finally passed Bill 156 in June 2020. 

The agricultural gag (or “ag gag”) law, titled Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020, purports to protect property rights and biosecurity by increasing fines for trespassing on agricultural property and making it unlawful to access farms under “false pretences.”  

In reality, the law prohibits whistleblowers from reporting abuse, torture and unsanitary conditions at farming facilities. It would, for instance, make it an offense for an employee to secretly tape incidents of animal cruelty or fail to disclose to their employer that they are affiliated with an animal rights group. 

The law also severely limits activists’ and journalists’ ability to access facilities and witness the conditions and treatment of animals first-hand. 

The backlash

The passage of the bill has sparked a significant backlash by activists who decry the legislation as a governmental stamp of approval on animal cruelty. 

“Today is a dark day for animals in Ontario, and for transparency and free expression,” lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, stated on the day of the bill’s passage. “Ontario’s ag gag law makes a bad situation far worse for animals. Animal farming is already highly secretive, with animals locked up behind closed doors with no regulations to protect their welfare, and no government inspections to monitor their well-being.”

In a letter to the Ontario government from February (several months before the bill’s passage), a group of Canadian legal experts expressed their concern over Bill 156 and its violation of the constitution by hindering freedom of speech, cracking down on investigative journalism and restricting lawful protests outside slaughterhouses. 

The cohort of professors drew on examples from similar ag-gag rules that passed in the United States and were struck down by numerous state governments for violating the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

“As with many US ag-gag laws, section 4(6) of Bill 156 appears to target investigative journalists and protected speech, and has no connection to the stated goal of protecting property and biosecurity,” the letter reads. “It would insulate private actors from being held publicly accountable.” 

“Section 5(2) would unreasonably curtail rights to protest on public property,” the authors of the letter continue, “In an open democratic society, streets and other public places are an important place for public discussion and political expression. Protecting rights to protest on public property is critically important to safeguard freedom of expression, and its corollary, the right to listen.”

Experts have also alluded to the grave consequences the law would have on public health, as it will restrict whistleblowers’ ability to report on unsanitary conditions at farms and slaughterhouses. This is particularly true during a global pandemic that has seen industrial farms morphing into petri dishes of coronavirus - leading to explosive rates of infections among workers and their communities and the frantic, inhumane killing of millions of animals due to the shutdown of slaughterhouses. 

“Transparency in the food system is needed more now than ever before,” Labchuk of Animal Justice said back in June. “Slaughterhouse workers across the country are being infected and dying of COVID-19. Meanwhile, deadly viruses regularly emerge from factory farms, including bird and swine flu. Legislation that covers up conditions that can cause zoonotic diseases, unsafe work environments, and animal cruelty will have deadly consequences for humans and animals alike.”

Russell murdered while protesting against Bill 156

Among those protesting the passage of Bill 156 was Regan Russell, a longtime Canadian animal rights activist. Russell, 65, was a member of Toronto Pig Save (a chapter of the Animal Save Movement), and along with the group organised recurring protests outside Fearman’s Pork Inc. pig slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ontario. 

Among other activities, Toronto Pig Save used to ask truck drivers transporting pigs for slaughter to stop for two minutes as they left the gates of the premises and allow activists to film themselves as they gave water to the pigs through slits in the truck. In the videos, the pigs appear to be in a state of physical and mental distress as they are crammed together in dire conditions - exhausted, panicked and dehydrated. 

Fearman’s have a long track-record of abusing animals and clashing with activists, nearly running their trucks into them on multiple occasions and intentionally parking the trucks in the middle of traffic so as to put the activists at risk as they give water to pigs. 

On 19 June, 2020, Russell and other Toronto Pig Save activists attended Fearman’s to protest the passage of Bill 156 and water the pigs. At the end of the demonstration, the transporter driving the truck accelerated suddenly and ran over Russel, dragging her body several yards and killing her on the spot. 

Although a videotaped retracing of the incident by activists demonstrated that the truck driver must have seen Russell from his vantage point, a police investigation into the killing identified no criminal intent and charged the transporter with careless driving.

Mounting calls for justice

The murder of Russell has sent shock waves throughout the world, and people in cities across the globe have staged vigils, demonstrations and die-ins to protest the police’s dismissal of the incident. 

In a demonstration held following Russell’s death outside Fearman’s slaughterhouse in Burlington, actor and animal rights activist Joaquin Phoenix stated that “While her tragic death has brought upon deep sorrow in the Animal Save community, we will honour her memory by vigorously confronting the cruelties she fought so hard to prevent by marching with Black Lives, protecting Indigenous rights, fighting for LGBTQ equality, and living a compassionate vegan life."

Now, protesters do not only demand justice for Russell through a proper police investigation into her case and access to all the available footage from the incident, but also call on the government to repeal Bill 156 and establish effective mechanisms to end animal cruelty at farms and slaughterhouses.

“These charges are feeble and do not amount to justice for Regan,” said Anita Krajnc, co-founder of Animal Save Movement, adding that “They’ve rejected these calls far too long and have Regan’s blood on their hands – we will not rest until Bill 156 is repealed.” 

Activists emphasise that in lieu of governmental regulation and oversight, whistleblowers, journalists and activists play a critical role in exposing incidents of animal cruelty and neglect and holding perpetrators accountable. 

“Whether you're concerned about public health and infectious disease control, animal cruelty, migrant worker abuses, workplace discrimination, environmental damage, or financial corruption, the public just lost one of its only windows into what happens on farms, meat processing plants and in the transportation of animals in Ontario,” write the authors of the petition. 

“LCA will continue working to reverse Bill 156 and fight for whistleblowers,” the petition further reads. “This isn't over.” 

The petition has garnered nearly 80,000 signatures. Please consider helping them reach their 150,000 target by signing here

Repealing Bill 156 could have a cascade effect on similar laws passed elsewhere and bolster the growing outcry calling on both governments and industry to end the torture and abuse of animals.

Image by Animal Equality International.

Article written by:
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Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
Embed from Getty Images
Animal rights activits protest Bill 156 outside of Queens Park. Ontario Legislature starts sitting for question period as the opposition questions the government concerning their back to school plan. in Toronto. September 14, 2020.
© Steve Russell / Contributor
Embed from Getty Images
In Mexico and other countries around the world, activists from the same organization have demonstrated in memory of activist Regan Russell, who was run over during a protest outside the Fearmans slaughterhouse in Burlington, Canada. Before she died, Regan Russell offered water to sows and pigs arriving in trucks, and witnessed, with her presence, the conditions in which the animals were transported before being slaughtered.
© NurPhoto / Contributor
Embed from Getty Images
Animal rights activits protest Bill 156 outside of Queens Park. Ontario Legislature starts sitting for question period as the opposition questions the government concerning their back to school plan. in Toronto. September 14, 2020
© Steve Russell / Contributor
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