Ontario and the meat industry are heading in the wrong direction with new Trespass Act

Cow

I was browsing through my copy of the periodical Bruce Peninsula Press recently when a brief item from the Municipality of the Northern Bruce Peninsula, December 9, 2019, council meeting caught my eye.

It stemmed from correspondence received from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs requesting support for the provincial government’s proposed Security From Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2019. The act is essentially about discouraging animal welfare activists from going undercover to expose animal abuse. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the brief item in the local paper, or even the government documents that purport to explain the reasons why a tough new trespass law is needed to protect the meat industry.

I think animal welfare is something a lot of people in this area and in the wider world take seriously. Like me, they may even be given pause in the meat aisle as they think now more than ever about the miserable lives millions of factory-farm-raised, meat animals experience. They may also be turning away increasingly to look for other protein options. That trend should be of concern to anyone trying to make a living, from farm to plate, in the mass-production meat industry. But keeping the meat industry under wraps, as if there’s something to hide, or as if the realities of how meat is made is something the average consumer can’t stomach is not the way to meet that challenge. The right approach should include opening doors and windows, not trying to close them, and thus making animal-welfare trespass more, not less, likely. It should also include the meat industry being front and center proactively in the animal welfare movement, rather than defaulting to the siege mentality apparently driving the new Act.

I’ve been a meat-eater all my life and most of what I’ve consumed has been purchased from the meat counters of supermarkets and grocery stores. I had an idea more than 20 years ago that local consumers would be interested in having a ‘trust relationship’ with producers. That became the basis of the marketing strategy of a local vendors’ market I was planning to set up in Owen Sound. It didn’t happen, but not because that wasn’t a good idea. It still is. People want to know how the food they eat is grown or raised, so they can rest assured about a lot of things, including personal health, the impact on the natural environment, and animal welfare. Get with the program. Food is a mutually beneficial partnership between producers and consumers, not a name-calling war.

If I’m going to continue being a meat-eater – and that’s a big if — I want to know at the very least that the animals who lived and died to be on my plate have had a life worth living for their own sake. They’re not just lifeless commodity, a mere thing They are beings, creatures, yes, like us in a lot of ways – better even. They have personalities, and a surprising level of intelligence and feeling. In their utter innocence they appreciate good, sympathetic treatment. They do not want to live in fear. Make no mistake, in their way, they can read you like a book: they know what’s in your heart, as soon as you walk through the barn door.

I was born and raised a city kid for most of my young life. But I count myself mostly lucky to have had the experience of living for some years on farms, first a mixed farm, and then a horse farm. One of the big things farmers are up against these days is most people, the young especially, have no experience of farm life, and little or no idea how the food they eat is grown or raised. The more you can tell them, the better.

I had first-hand experience helping take care of animals: feeding, watering, cleaning out stalls on a daily basis, early morning and after school. I had dogs and cats for pets around the house and farm. The only bad-tempered animals I saw were ones whose trust had been broken by being abused and mistreated by a previous owner; or, in my experience, one of the farmers, whose reputation was well known. I still have a vivid memory of the terrible consequences, and disposal over the back fence, of his mistreatment.

All that I’ve said here so far is no doubt why the smallest of items in the local paper jumped out at me the way it did.

Some time shortly before the Dec. 9, 2019 council meeting the Northern Bruce Peninsula municipality received a letter from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Similar letters would have been sent to other municipalities in Ontario.

The published, municipally-written, council-meeting report described it as a “request for support of proposed legislation regarding trespassers on farms and at food processing facilities and interference with livestock transportation.”

A motion to that effect was duly moved, seconded and carried by members of council. There was nothing to indicate there had been any discussion. And nothing elsewhere in the local paper that spoke to the topic.

But the wording of the item, and years of experience reading between the bureaucratic lines told me what it was really about: making it much more difficult for so-called animal activists to go undercover to get first-hand information — videos, for example —  exposing animal abuse.

The example that first came to mind involved alleged abuse caught by hidden cameras at large-scale chicken farms in B.C in 2017. That case is still before the courts and awaiting trial for so long that concerns have been raised the charges may have to be dropped.

Ontario’s proposed legislation also targets anyone who dares to give comfort to animals being transported to slaughter, as Anita Krajnc did in June, 2015 when she saw a tractor-trailer load of pigs stopped just short of its destination and tried to give them water. Two years later an Ontario Judge found her not guilty of a charge of mischief

That well-publicized incident and the subsequent court case is likely one of the reasons, if not the main one, why “interfering” with transportation of animals destined for slaughter is included in the new legislation.

But nothing about it, or any other particular incident, is mentioned in the provincial press releases and backgrounders detailing the reasons for the new, get-tough, legal approach. It includes an increase in maximum fines to $25,000, instead of the $10,000 maximum in the existing Trespass to Property Act. The proposed new legislation says this, for example.

“Concerns have been raised about people in close proximity to moving trucks or attempting to stop them on a public roadway. As well, interacting with animals in transport can cause unnecessary additional stress and risk introducing contaminants.”

Not a word about even the possibility, or not, the animals may be suffering, although the words “additional stress and risk” suggests something not very nice is happening.

The government documents are a lesson in evasive and dishonest, Orwellian double-speak. That’s as in, the truth is what we say it is, not what is already known to be the truth about well-documented animal abuse, sometimes thanks only to whistleblowers.

“They have to be punished for this. These people have to be stopped. They can protest all they want, but they cannot come into a farm anymore than I can go into their living room and sit down and tell them how to take care of their dog.” That was Crispin Colvin, an Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) director in the Middlesex area, quoted in a London Free Press article last October, about OFA’s push at the time for tougher action against farm trespass.

On the face of it, Colvin’s comment seems to make sense. Except for this: a factory-farm where thousands of animals are penned up in crowded, unnatural conditions, and possibly abused, is not equivalent to my living room and my two canine best friends.

At least Colvin — and through him, the federation – is not hiding behind word games like this release from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs early this past December, under the heading, “Keeping farmers and agri-food workers safe:

“The proposed Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2019, if passed, is intended to keep Ontario’s farmers, their families, agri-food workers and farm animals safe by reducing the likelihood of trespassing on farms and processing facilities. The proposed legislation also enhances protections from obstructions in the transportation of livestock.

“The proposed legislation would address unique risks and challenges associated with trespassing onto a farm or into a food processing facility.”

And this under the sub-heading, “Targeting specific areas,” as follows:

“The proposed legislation would create ‘animal protection zones’ on farms, processing facilities and other prescribed premises.  Animal protection zones include animal enclosures, areas marked with signs in accordance with regulations and other areas on the property the Minister may prescribe.”

Under the circumstances and in the context of what this legislation is really all about I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so ironic as the ministry’s use of the ‘animal protection zones’ wording.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government as of January 1, of this year has taken over the animal welfare investigation role previously carried out by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, often under contract with local humane societies. But the 100-year-old history of that has ended, after a court ruling early last year declared it unconstitutional because it involved delegated police powers without the appropriate accountability and transparency.

For a century, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) was responsible for the investigations, often through subcontracts with local humane societies.

The OSPCA ended its government contract and stopped providing animal protection services in March. In June, the province launched a temporary system to protect animals.

The same government now hiring its own animal welfare inspectors to respond to complaints of alleged animal abuse in Ontario is also trying to put a cordon around livestock farms to keep whistleblowers from exposing abuse.

Time will tell how well that works to investigate and prevent abuse.

Meanwhile, are the changes being put into place by Ontario Progressive-Conservative government more or less likely to encourage improvement in the living conditions on factory-farms?

What has the government of Premier Doug Ford done to respond to growing animal welfare concerns about the unnatural, crowded, and stressful factory-farm conditions in which meat animals are being raised?

What government inspector, without more humane, more animal-appropriate, natural conditions of care to uphold, is going to open that barn door, even a crack?

2 thoughts on “Ontario and the meat industry are heading in the wrong direction with new Trespass Act

  1. Thanks for this blog post. It occurs to me that with the Province taking responsibility for policing farm animal welfare that farms might become subject to inspection by grand juries composed of lay citizens. Maybe not. But it occurs to me that were animal transport and abattoir and chicken barn facilities, to name only a few, subject to regular inspection by interested animal loving laymen that even better living and dying conditions might result for the animals whose eggs, milk, and meat appear on our dinner tables.

    Like

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