Despite the popularization and public awareness of global climate breakdown being embedded in our minds since 2006 and the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth, the distractions of economic uncertainty, global conflict, and Donald Trump dominated the media landscape. Climate breakdown is difficult to sell as something we should collectively react to because it does not have a face or even a shape to vilify as the culprit. It is even more difficult when the problem is the myriad systems of production, trade, and consumption we all participate in. Climate breakdown mirrors our behaviour of environmental exploitation and indifference with a reflection too damning for most to acknowledge.
Along with ecological collapse, more recently it was announced that one million species face extinction. Anyone who has advocated for even one non-human animal species knows how hard-fought protections for these vulnerable populations are. Multiply that by a million and it is profoundly overwhelming to contemplate what species to prioritize protecting over others. Compound that with the hundreds of billions of animals killed in our food systems each year which further undermines the stability of wildlife and marine species, and the futility of the entire animal and environmental protection project seems insurmountable.
In response to this crisis, governments have failed to escape the trajectory of the century past. Economic stability continues to be prioritized over ecological, social, and species integrity. Pipelines, trade wars, nuclear armament, growth, and neoliberalism still dominate international policy. Racist and nationalist rhetoric became the fuel for the fire of these divisive tactics of protectionism that look to abdicate responsibility of individual states to act in the global interest.
In the dying throes of the past decade, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) have managed to rally a global response to government inaction on the climate crisis. In Thunberg, a 16 year-old girl has unapologetically condemned the inaction of world leaders to take meaningful action on the climate only to see them stay the course. Through XR, hundreds of thousands have occupied, disrupted, and shut down parts of society to get the attention of the public and politicians of the impending environmental disaster only to be relegated largely to second page news.
This failed response to humanity’s greatest existential threat could lead to the decade ahead being the defining decade for humanity. It could be that the Anthropocene will be fundamentally reduced to humanity fighting for survival in a soup of environmental devastation regardless of the ingredients of change we look to manage the tempest with. It may be that our worst predictions will be mitigated by our technological potential, for a time, allowing us to prolong any certain end to the ragged project of “civilization” we impose upon the Earth. If what we can learn from the previous decade is how capable we are of acting against our best interests, then the decade ahead will force us to recognize that our hubris is our most enduring quality.
Redefining the decade ahead
Personally, I do not like the idea of measuring our successes and failures in decades. Like New Year’s resolutions, if our only motivation to make meaningful change in our lives is the day of the year, we are unlikely to internalize that motivation in the coming weeks and months ahead as we get further away from the starting point. Similarly, if our global response to the climate crisis and species loss is based on the start of a new decade, we may quickly find ourselves losing interest in the plight before us as the distractions of the decade ahead unfold.
The transformations needed are significant in all aspects of society. Some of the changes are more plausible than others, so here are some starting points for how we can begin to reshape our political system to invite the sorely needed consideration of animals into our politics. It is just one aspect of all the work that needs to be done, but politics without consideration of animals and their habitat has outright failed. If we are to mitigate the worst aspects of climate breakdown and create a world that can regenerate, we need to ensure that humanity is no longer the only species being considered by our social, economic, and political systems.
1) Proportional Representation
Justin Trudeau campaigned on electoral reform back in 2015, stating that the 2015 federal election would be the last under First Past the Post electoral system. In 2016, a Special Committee on Electoral Reform was established and toured across Canada getting feedback from Canadians on the kind of electoral system they wanted. They generated a report based on this feedback that recommended a referendum on proportional representation. In turn, Trudeau and the Liberals did an about face, accusing the committee for not doing their job and said it was not in the public’s interest to hold a referendum.
The vast majority of the world uses some form of proportional representation. It is a much more democratic electoral system and so is the starting point for the changes we need for animals in the next decade. People do care about the treatment of animals in Canada, but the mainstream political system we have does not offer much opportunity for discourse on these issues. In countries where animal parties have a seat in government animal issues are discussed far more often, giving these issues more influence in the minds of the public and politicians.
2) Recognition of animals as sentient beings
Quebec is the only province in Canada which recognizes animals as “sentient” beings in their legislation. This is a largely symbolic statement. However, it does give force to the laws they have protecting animals. As sentient beings, animals are afforded greater consideration under the law than where animals are defined as “property” under the law across the rest of Canada.
More than just consideration under the law, recognition of animals as sentient gives them moral weight in society. It is about modernizing our culture to be in tune with our values. It is not about animal rights as much as it is about giving them their own personhood which we had no entitlement to diminish in the first place.
3) Removal of animals from the property section of the Criminal Code
In 2016, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal back bencher, brought forward Bill C-246, the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. This bill contained a number of moderate improvements for animals including removing them from the property section of the Criminal Code originally. This was later taken out to try and accommodate opposition to the bill from animal-use industry influenced MP’s, but as a starting point to change how the law relates to animals it would have been a good step. Despite the bill existing in other forms years earlier and originally brought forward by a Liberal Minister of Justice, the Justice Minister of the day, Jody Wilson-Raybold and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not support the bill with their majority government.
It is unlikely to happen under a First Past the Post electoral system with minority or majority government, but under proportional representation it might get through. As long as animals are still considered property under the law, no government of the day can say that they care about the treatment and status of animals in Canada.
4) The end of charities as enforcers of animal laws
This past year was a landmark year for animal protection laws in Ontario. Not because any particular laws were passed that improve protections for animals, in fact the laws may have gone backwards, but because the OSPCA, a charity, was stripped of its powers of enforcing the laws protecting animals. Some of the problems with charities enforcing laws is that they have no public oversight, no accountability, or transparency. Furthermore, there is a major conflict of interest in this model because they can receive funding from the very businesses that are some of the worst animal abusers. They will now be enforced by provincial officers which adds a previously absent level of accountability and transparency to the how laws protecting animals are enforced.
Most provinces still have SPCA’s and Humane Societies who enforce these laws and the same problems that caused the OSPCA to lose their enforcement powers exist in these places too. If we want to ensure that the few laws we do have protecting animals are enforced with integrity and to the highest standard it is time for provincial governments to step in with funding to empower the legislation they have created.
5) Federal and provincial ministries for animals
If you spend any time working on a campaign for animals where you engage with various levels of government you quickly learn that people who hunt, trap, fish, farm, transport, and slaughter animals have ministries that work for them. Effectively the federal and provincial governments ensure that animals are being managed and killed in ways that are sustainable for business.
This creates a profound problem in that there is no counter-balance. There is no minister or ministry that has funding or an interest in improving the lives of animals in Canada. So, if you ever wondered why it is so hard to get simple legislation passed to improve protections for animals, now you know. By creating a role, with funding, to work towards reducing the use and mistreatment of animals in Canada by government we could put the interests of those trying to help animals on the same footing as those trying to harm them.
6) A national inquiry into the status and treatment of animals in Canada
It is hard to imagine the sheer scope of how terribly animals are abused in Canada and around the world. It is not something that governments want to talk about unless they are framing it as a success story they can claim for themselves. Often when a group goes to lobby the government about various animal issues, the MP’s or MLA’s do not know anything about the issue. There are one billion animals killed in Canada on farms and through the fishing industry each year, that doesn’t include all the other animals killed in other animal use industries. More than fifty percent of Canada’s monitored wildlife species are in decline a quarter of those have declined by eighty percent and nothing is being done to address this overwhelming loss.
It is time for Canada to be the first country to hold a national inquiry into how animals are used and their status in the minds of Canadians. We need a clear picture of what is happening to be able to address the issues directly. Fragmented information will never be able to paint the whole picture to the public of this is a crisis that deserves their attention. An inquiry of this scope will create the narrative the animals need to pull them out of the dire conditions they live and die under daily.
7) Reimagine the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) and the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC)
There are a couple of organizations in Canada which are psuedo-oversight bodies used by animal use industry to create the impression that there are regulations and protections in place in the interests of animal protection. The NFACC develops guidlelines for farm animals care based on standard industry practices. Even if a practice causes suffering to an animal, if it is seen as a standard industry practice that keeps a producer economically viable it will probably be allowed in the guidelines. These guidelines are merely recommendations and are not laws in most provinces. In fact, the guidelines may be used to protect farmers who are charged with animal cruelty.
The CCAC is another body that certifies member organizations such as universities, zoos, and aquariums, but is completely voluntary for private institutions. In animal research they are supposed to promote the 3 R’s, (Replacement, Reduction, Refinement) in animal research, but there is little evidence to show this model is being implemented. In fact, in 2017 more animals were used in research in Canada than in previous years. Furthermore, even when these organizations have been found to treat animals cruelly, which is rare because there is no transparency and accountability, they have not lost their CCAC accreditation.
Both these organizations should be phased out by an independent animal-centric body with the authority to fine and shut down non-compliant institutions.
8) Phase out animal use industries and their subsidies.
One of the most ecologically damaging industries on the planet is animal agriculture, but no federal political parties take this issue seriously except for the Animal Protection Party of Canada. These industries receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government, more than double that of the oil and gas sector. If we want to save animals and the planet, we have to stop killing wildlife and farm animals by the millions each year.
Phasing out these industries and transitioning them to plant-based industries would cause a seismic shift in our culture and our relationship with nature. We could also tax meat and animal products, and support alternative approaches to agriculture to help promote these changes through economic incentives.
9) Educate people about animals and their cultures
Most Canadians who now live in cities experience animals from a distance. Our misconceptions about animals based on decades of misinformation from the animal use sectors has caused many to have little understanding of how animals live and express themselves. If we want to change the public’s relationship with animals than we need to create a national strategy for educating the public starting with youth in our schools and public awareness campaigns.
If people think that elephants belong in zoo’s in Edmonton, killing wildlife helps protect their declining populations, or that cows are perpetual milk machines standing in fields then we are not doing a very good job of educating the public about 99% of the Earth’s population of beings. We must do better.
10) Go Vegan
Yes, this may be number one on many people’s lists and fair enough. The Canadian government did make as least one good policy change for the animals in 2019 and that was reimagining the Canada Food Guide as an evidence-based policy that promoted people’s health, rather than animal lobby groups interests. That glass of milk on the table was replaced by a glass of water, a very political statement. Meat was largely absent, with grains and vegetables making up the lion’s share of the plate.
Despite this, I still hear from Members of Parliament that it is difficult to get anything vegan in the cafeteria at Parliament. Our politicians should lead by example with our new food policy and champion plant-based eating within government agencies. Some political parties will be more inviting to this than others, but that shouldn’t stop it from being the norm for a new political frontier.
Deputy Leader, Animal Protection Party of Canada