Bill 156: Silencing Activists in Ontario
On June 17, 2020, Bill 156, the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, was passed in Ontario.
Bill 156 is a seemingly innocent bill touting benefits to biosecurity and safety of farmers. Alarmingly though, many of its provisions have little to do with the protection of farmed animals or food systems at all, and instead are intended to “crack down” on farm trespassing and protests, and hide important information from the public.
Bill 156 is known as an “ag gag” law, a term popularized in a 2013 New York Times column. Since their inception in the United States, ag gag laws have been introduced to prevent the public from investigating or documenting conditions on farms. In many cases, exposing these conditions horrified and infuriated citizens, which led many states to pass laws to protect industry interests. Bill 156 is the second of four ag gag laws that have passed in Canada. While Alberta took the lead on these ag gag laws, Manitoba and PEI have also followed suit. Each jurisdiction’s laws vary slightly, but the ag gag laws all have the same impact: silencing activists. As such, Animal Justice (a national animal law advocacy organization) is currently challenging the law as unconstitutional.
Bill 156 came about after persistent lobbying from livestock producers, spurred by a number of actions targeting the industry. In 2016, activist Jenny McQueen was charged after entering an Ontario “pig production facility” intending to document conditions. What she discovered was so abhorrent that she ended up removing a piglet from the facility. She witnessed mother pigs suffering from prolapses, sows confined in gestation crates, and the stench of ammonia emanating from open sewage pits under the barns. When charges against McQueen were dropped, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture called on the government to take a stronger stance against activists.
Contents of Bill 156
Bill 156 takes various measures to distance activists from industrial farming operations. It more than doubles the fines for trespassing on agricultural property, gives the occupiers of farms the power to arrest individuals who enter their property, makes it an offence to enter agricultural zones under “false pretences”, and prohibits individuals from gathering on public property around animal transportation trucks.
Impacts of Bill 156
Section 4(6) of Bill 156, prohibiting entry on to farms under false pretenses, seemingly compels individuals to disclose affiliations with animal rights groups, environmental organizations, and media. Given the touted purpose of the bill, this provision seems far too broad to be simply addressing biosecurity concerns. Rather, it completely undermines investigative journalism, and penalizes whistleblowers who have long provided a check on the largely unregulated industry. Undercover workers on Canadian farms have previously documented and exposed the severe abuse and neglect at the Chilliwack dairy farm in British Columbia, the Millbank Fur Farm in Ontario, and other facilities around the country. These cases of abuse would otherwise have continued unnoticed. It’s hard to imagine investigative journalism being outlawed in places with other vulnerable members of society, like homes for the elderly or daycares. Animals, also unable to defend themselves, are left with no protection.
Bill 156 is more than just a danger to animal welfare. An assessment done by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations showed that the livestock sector contributes to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Another study exposed the staggering impact that livestock production has on air and water quality, making communities living in proximity to these operations more susceptible to various health issues such as increased respiratory ailments. Furthermore, animal manure contains dangerous substances and bacteria that can contaminate surface and ground water, similarly impacting those living near the facilities.
Despite these concerns, there is very little industry oversight, with no comprehensive federal or provincial regime regulating animal farming practices. Instead of government regulations, Canadian farms are simply expected to police their own practices. The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), a private group overseen primarily by industry interests, develops codes of practice that set voluntary standards for all Canadian farms.
By preventing individuals from documenting the conditions of animals on farms and in transportation trucks, Bill 156 undermines expressive activity that should be safeguarded by section 2(b) of the Charter. It also undermines the right of consumers to have access to information informing their food purchasing decisions, which is also protected by 2(b).
Bill 156 is a powerful tool for preventing environmentalists and animal activists from exposing dangerous industry behaviours. Along with an alarming disregard for constitutional rights, it has created yet another layer of secrecy around an industry that seems exempt from any scrutiny.
AEL Advocacy supports Animal Justice’s endeavour to strike Ontario’s ag-gag law as unconstitutional. In the meantime, AEL Advocacy helps animal activists navigate the existing law in order to lawfully continue advocating for animals and the environment.
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