Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Ag-Gag laws are a growing trend in Canada that’s bad for animals and freedom of expression. The agricultural industry, a huge lobbyist to the federal and provincial governments, is largely protected from even the scant animal welfare laws in Canada, a condition referred to as “agricultural exceptionalism.” There are no statutes that cover what is illegal – only Codes of Practice “suggest” what should be proper treatment and conduct around animals.
Animal activists have provided valuable information of public importance by entering farming premises and documenting mistreatment and abuse. Journalists often resort to extraordinary techniques, including going undercover when there is no other way to get the story. These investigations are of great importance since there is really no information that counters misleading industry marketing practices. In her article entitled “Ag-Gag Laws, Animals Rights Activism, and the Constitution: What is Protected Speech?” Professor Jodi Lazare traces out the analytical framework for evaluating the constitutionality of Ag-Gag legislation in Canada.
Lazare’s article examines the constitutionality of Ag-Gag legislation that has recently been adopted by two Canadian provinces and is on the horizon in others. Ag-Gag laws prohibit activities such as trespass onto agricultural animal operations, gaining entry onto agriculture operations using false pretenses, and interfering with the transport of farmed animals to slaughter. The article contends that Canadian Ag-Gag legislation prevents the communication of messages related to seeking truth, participation in the political system, thus limiting individual freedom of expression. Current legislation restricts or punishes the utterance of specific words or spoken messages. Ag-Gag laws effectively prohibit undercover investigations of agricultural properties, whether by an animal rights activist, an undercover journalist, or anyone else.
Prof. Lazare’s analysis draws on events held at various protests and sit-ins at farms in Canada.
- September, 2019 – approximately 90 animal rights activists staged a “sit-in” at a southern Alberta turkey farm – by Liberation Lockdown
- December, 2019 – 11 animal rights activists occupied a pig farm south of Montreal – by Direct Action Everywhere
- February, 2020 – a main roadway was closed when animal rights activists occupied at King Cole Ducks in Newmarket, Ontario
- June, 2015 – protests held on a traffic island in Toronto adjacent to Fearman’s Pork slaughterhouse, by the Save Movement, where activist Regan Russell was killed by a transport truck in June 2020, not long after Ontario’s Bill 156 received Royal Assent.
- June 2014 – CTV Vancouver aired “shocking video” of “horrific animal abuse”23 at “the largest dairy barn in Canada.”24 The video showed “cows being whipped and beaten with chains and canes” – by Mercy for Animals
These laws are unnecessarily financially punitive. Trespassing is already illegal and many activists who have exposed inhumane farm practices and conditions have been charged as trespassers. There is no need to layer more penalties on top of existing laws. It’s very frightening to contemplate that someone in a farming environment could perform a citizen’s arrest and lock someone in a shed on the property. Furthermore, barns are separate from homes – nobody lives there except the animals. Activists have no interest in trespassing into homes, so there is no legitimacy to the claim that Ag-Gag laws protect individual safety. Transport issues are not private property issues – how can you be prohibited from standing on a traffic island to protest?
Politicians in Canada have played on the risk of infectious disease risks in pushing Ag-Gag laws. These laws in Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba target individuals protesting on public property near transport trucks or covertly recording conditions while working at farms and slaughterhouses, even though these activities pose no risks to biosecurity. Politicians have promoted the idea that animal activists are implicated in diseases like mad cow, which is spread by feeding pigs and cows contaminated spinal cord tissue from infected cows.
We know that Ag-Gag laws do nothing to protect biosecurity – a report by Animal Justice shows that of more than 1,000 disease incidents that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has investigated since 2000, and none were caused by an animal activisst or a trespasser on a farm. Prion diseases, biosecurity gaps, infected trailers, insect and wild bird/animal vectors, backfeeding, and ticks, are not the result of contact with activists. Similarly, recent outbreaks of COVID-19 on mink farms in B.C were not caused by protesters or people trespassing, but by transmission from farm personnel to animals. A FOIA to the CFIA revealed that no shipments of animals of any species been rejected at a slaughterhouse due to “interference” by animal activists from 2016-2020 either. In Anita Krajnc’s “PigTrial” case, it has already been rejected by the court that activists have threatened the safety of the Canadian food chain. (Rogues Gallery – Read who voted for Bill 156 – 65 PC and 1 Liberal MPP voted in favour…)
In the creation of the various Canadian Ag-Gag laws, legislators have mirrored regulations that have been deemed unconstitutional in the US. Prof. Lazare has asserted that Ag-Gag laws have caused the public to lose confidence in Canadian farm operations.
So, what is the harm these laws are meant to address? Neither animals, nor farm residents/staff are being harmed, and it is the very nature of protests that they all involve a hindrance of some sort. Obviously, the harm is the information that would be revealed. Ag-Gag legislation prevents speech that seeks to spread truth about animal agriculture and disable participation in democratic discourse. Ag-Gag laws protect slaughterhouses and other animal ag industries from anyone who wants to expose their abuses – what other industries wouldn’t love to have these same protections from media exposure? This should not be taken lightly, either by legislators or by courts, as Bill-156 is challenged in court by Animal Justice.