Bill 156, Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, is Ontario’s response to ongoing undercover investigations and increasing civil disobedience tactics by animal activists that have resulted in the lockdown of slaughterhouses and factory farms in provinces across Canada. 156 follows in the footsteps of its forebearer in Alberta, Bill 27, which passed in a mere ten days last November 2019. These Bills are what is known as Ag-gag legislation, meant to silence whistle-blowers in the animal agriculture sector.
A troubling aspect of the bill is that people are prohibited from gaining employment under false pretenses. This specifically targets undercover investigators who work within the animal agriculture industry to capture footage of routine or abject animal abuse. It is because of these investigators that in 2014, footage of dairy cows being punched, kicked, asphyxiated and beaten with chains was captured in Chilliwack B.C; in this case fines and charges were laid against the individuals and the company responsible, a rare result for animal cruelty investigations. Undercover investigations are a vital tool for protecting the most vulnerable in our society.
Making undercover investigations illegal makes an already secretive industry less transparent, it has nothing to do with farmer safety or trespassing.
A Skewed Process.
In response to the bill, a contingent of animal advocates and scholars from across Canada including Animal Alliance of Canada, The Save Movement, Jenny McQueen, and many more presented to the Ontario Legislature’s Standing Committee on General Government. Many who testified criticized the principle motivation of Bill 156, to silence animal advocates, for its unreasonable infringement of our Charter right to freedom of expression. They also condemned the lack of accountability and transparency of the animal-use sector, while attempting to bring the suffering of animals into the conversation.
Unfortunately, for those of us watching the proceedings, it was clear that the MPP committee members were more interested in representing the interests of the farming and animal-use community than the hundreds of millions of animals that suffer within this system of exploitation. This was apparent, not only in the focus on the farmers themselves, but also in the condescending questions that were asked of animal advocates who presented which had no bearing on the issue at hand, such as “Have you ever lived on a farm?”
In contrast, MPP’s asked animal agriculture industry representatives setup questions such as, “So someone is overseeing the process to make sure that it is done in a humane way?” to allow them to further their rhetoric that systemic animal cruelty does not exist. In fact, during the entire first day of committee hearings, no MPP asked a single question about how the animals suffer or why concerned citizens would feel the need to trespass onto a farm that I could find. This is exactly why animals need political representation in all levels of government.
Animals are not silent, but they need representation.
In a First-Past-the-Post electoral system, like that in Ontario and the rest of Canada, it is not abnormal for power to be concentrated in the hands of one political party. With a majority government, meaning the party in power that has more seats than the rest of the parties combined, bills that the majority government supports can be easily passed, as one party will have enough votes to pass legislation without meaningful opposition. In Ontario, the provincial government of the day is the Progressive Conservatives (PC), they have a majority government with 40% of the vote and 76 seats, even though all the other parties combined have more than 50% of the vote, but only 48 seats. Under a Proportional Representation electoral system, the Progressive Conservatives would have a minority government and would have to work with other parties to pass legislation, potentially forcing compromise or even defeat of a bill.
Because they have a majority, the PC government can serve its own ideological interests, or that of groups with political clout that it aligns with, like animal-use industries. If the animal agriculture lobby is upset about activists exposing the animals who suffer on their farms, potentially threatening their economic livelihood, then the government can pass legislation to help them silence animal activists in exchange for political support come next election.
The problem with this quid pro quo arrangement, is that even when other parties may want to oppose the Bill on the grounds that whistleblowers need protection to expose systemic animal cruelty for example, the promise of political support from the agricultural lobby is too great a opportunity to compromise; animals remain absent from the discussion of the bill. Admittedly, some MPP’s have said they may oppose the bill because of the lack of protection for whistleblowers, but essentially none have stood up for the animals. If MPP’s question or openly challenge the OFA position that animals don’t feel pain or have emotions, then those MPP’s are compromising their votes from this sector next election. On the other side, because the hundreds of millions of animals that are killed in Ontario do not have any political representation and cannot vote, there is very little incentive for MPP’s to oppose the bill for the animals, or even the animal activists who have much less economic and political clout.
This is why our electoral system is the real ag-gag
It is built around electing politicians who will support the status-quo and industries that have something to hide. This is why it took over a century to pass marginal animal legislation at the federal level such as bill C-84 and S-238, while laws strengthening the criminalization of animal activism take weeks to pass.
Implementing a proportional representation electoral system will not immediately fix the system, but it would undermine the likelihood of majority governments, encourage cross-party cooperation, and empower a different political landscape where animal representation could rise. In countries where there is proportional representation, animal parties such as the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands are beginning to gain a foothold with a sizeable number of seats gained in parliament; recently this party was responsible for spearheading the first parliamentary committee on animal welfare in the European Union and was instrumental in the push to close down 128 remaining mink farms in the Netherlands.
Animals need political representation and Bill 156 reinforces this.
At this point, Bill 156 has passed and the committee hearings leading up to its passing are fairly assessed as just a pseudo-effort at transparency. We are confident that this bill will be challenged in court and we are actively seeking out opportunities to ensure the most effective actions are taken to overturn it. However, as discussed, this bill is only a symptom of a larger problem within our political and electoral systems and the Animal Protection Party of Canada continues to challenge these structural deficiencies. To get there, we must recognize that ag-gag legislation doesn’t just protect animal cruelty, it is a further example of our flawed political system which gives animal-use industries absolute power and animals none.
Deputy Leader, Animal Protection Party of Canada