Fighting Canada’s Dangerous “Ag Gag” Laws

Animal Justice is working to stop the spread of dangerous “ag gag” laws in Canada. Ag gag laws seek to silence, or “gag”, whistleblowers, undercover journalists, and animal advocates, punishing them for exposing cruelty on farms. 

Ag gag laws cover up animal cruelty by making it illegal for an undercover investigator to get a job on a factory farm. Undercover investigations are one of the only ways to expose hidden animal abuse, public health threats, unsafe working conditions, and environmental offences at farms and slaughterhouses. 

Although Canadians are increasingly concerned about the treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food, factory farms keep consumers in the dark when it comes to how animals raised for meat, eggs, and dairy are treated. With virtually no government oversight of the treatment of animals on farms, one of the only ways abuse and mistreatment of farmed animals comes to light is through undercover investigations and employee whistleblowers. These exposés have led to animal cruelty charges and convictions, and have also been an important driver of public opinions and debates around animal use practices and food safety.

The history of ag gag laws 

Ag gag laws became common in the United States in the 2010s to shut down undercover investigations by animal protection organizations that were exposing shocking abuse and cruelty in meat, egg, and dairy farms. Fearful of losing profits, the powerful meat industry lobbied states to pass ag gag laws to outlaw the hidden-camera videos and cover up the cruelty.

Canada had previously escaped ag gag laws. But more recently, an increased focus on cruelty in the farming industry has given the public a glimpse of the suffering that animals endure. Footage from Canadian farms has shown animals beaten, crushed, and kicked. Standard industry practices have also been exposed, like slicing off the tails and horns of animals without anaesthesia, killing piglets by smashing their heads against a concrete floor, and confining mother pigs in crates so small that they can’t even turn around. Now, the meat industry is promoting ag gag laws to keep people in the dark about cruelty on farms. 

Alberta passed Canada’s first ag gag law in November, 2019, designed to silence whistleblowers and stop them from exposing animal abuse at factory farms and slaughterhouses, as well as puppy mills, fur farms, research laboratories, and other private property where animals are kept. Ontario passed its own ag gag law in June, 2020. Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, and the federal Parliament are considering passing similar laws.  

Politicians claim these ag gag laws are simply meant to discourage people from trespassing on farms. But in reality, ag gag laws go much further than trespassing. Their main function is to cover up animal cruelty. Ag gag laws ban undercover investigators and employee whistleblowers from exposing cruelty at farms and slaughterhouses by making it an offence to gain access to agricultural property under “false pretences,” effectively shutting down undercover investigations. 

In Canada, farmed animals are nearly always locked up in barns, away from public view. There are no regulations for on-farm animal welfare, and no government inspectors to monitor the conditions on Canadian farms. Standard industry practices are undeniably cruel, yet one of the only ways that abuse on farms has been brought to light is when employees blow the whistle. 

What have whistleblowers uncovered at Canadian farms and slaughterhouses?

Whistleblowers and undercover investigators have uncovered appalling conditions, horrific animal abuse, and public health risks at Canadian farms and slaughterhouses. For instance, an investigation at Chilliwack Cattle Sales in British Columbia showed cows repeatedly punched and kicked, as well as beaten with canes. Video footage also showed a cow being hung in the air by a chain around her neck. The company and seven of its employees were convicted of animal cruelty.

In Ontario, employee whistleblower footage in 2014 showed turkeys being kicked and beaten with shovels, among other disturbing acts, at the Hybrid Turkeys facility in Kitchener. Authorities investigated and laid animal cruelty charges, which led the company to plead guilty.

Employee whistleblowers have also documented abuse of pigs and piglets, goats, mink, calves, and chickens, as well as suffering caused by standard industry practices such as grinding live baby chicks in macerators.   

Canadians are increasingly concerned about the treatment of animals on farms, and most people are shocked to learn that the government lets the farming industry make up its own rules. Animal Justice believes governments should put laws in place to protect farmed animals, and proactively monitor farms for compliance. Instead, the government has given farmers carte blanche to inflict suffering on farmed animals, while passing ag gag laws to hide that suffering. This will only exacerbate tensions between farmers and animal advocates, and further erode confidence in our food system. Employees and the public must be allowed to expose unlawful and unethical treatment of animals, even if this means not revealing their full intentions to their employer. 

How do ag gag laws threaten human health?

More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair published his seminal novel The Jungle, after investigating and observing day-to-day operations in Chicago slaughterhouses. The novel exposed labour and health violations in the meatpacking industry, such as diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat. The Jungle shocked the public and led the passing of federal food safety laws in the United States. Since then, employee whistleblowers in the United States, Canada, and around the world have exposed serious public health threats at factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Concealing farming conditions furthers the risk of deadly viruses and other pathogens emerging from factory farms. Although employee whistleblowers are often motivated to expose the treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food, whistleblowers also frequently observe and record violations of public health laws. For instance, whistleblowers have exposed sick and injured animals being slaughtered and entering the human food chain, as well as animals with open sores and infections that go untreated. More, not less, oversight is needed to protect against biosecurity and food safety risks at industrial animal agriculture operations. 

Conditions on factory farms can cause foodborne illnesses and are widely recognized by scientific experts to be the perfect breeding grounds for new zoonotic diseases, including deadly strains of swine and bird flu. Although the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by cruel and unsanitary conditions at a wet market in China, the next global pandemic could very well emerge at a factory farm here in North America. With the economic and public health stakes so high, governments should be moving to increase transparency and oversight at these facilities, not to prohibit employee whistleblowers.

Do ag gag laws violate constitutional rights?

Keeping the public in the dark about how animals are treated is not only irresponsible—it’s also likely unconstitutional. Preventing journalists and animal advocates from exposing animal abuse restricts freedom of expression, one of the most important human rights in Canada. 

Courts in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Iowa, and Kansas have found ag gag laws to be unconstitutional violations of the right to free speech. These courts have recognized the public interest in individuals and organizations exercising their free speech rights to expose animal suffering and provide information to the public about important animal welfare and food safety issues.

Ag gag laws are new to Canada, but more than 40 leading constitutional and criminal law experts have expressed concern that these laws interfere with rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In particular, provisions which make it an offence to enter a farm or slaughterhouse without disclosing that one intends to expose abuse appear to violate section 2(b) of the Charter, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. This important right is aimed at promoting and safeguarding the open debate and discussion essential to a free and democratic society. 

Which Canadian provinces have ag gag laws?

Alberta

Alberta has the unenviable title of being home to Canada’s first ag gag law.  The Trespass Statutes (Protecting Law-Abiding Property Owners) Amendment Act amended several existing laws. Most notably, it seeks to silence employee whistleblowers by prohibiting entry onto agricultural property under “false pretences,” punishable by up to $25,000 and six months in jail. This will affect the ability of whistleblowers to record and expose animal cruelty on industrial farms, as failing to disclose on a job application that a worker is affiliated with an animal protection organization could be considered a false pretence. In fact, Alberta’s law is so broadly worded that it could also affect journalistic investigations, and organizations and individuals that go undercover to expose wrongdoing and poor conditions in places like factories, nursing homes, and daycares.

Undercover investigations are often conducted by animal protection organizations, or news outlets. Alberta’s ag gag law means that groups such as these could be fined up to $200,000 for directing employee whistleblowers to enter farm property.

Alberta also recently passed Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, a constitutionally questionable Bill aimed at increasing fines for protestors who set up blockades similar to the solidarity protests that took place across Canada earlier this year in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Bill 1 could also significantly restrict rights to protest on public highways, including protests and vigils near transport trucks taking animals to slaughter.

Ontario

In addition to prohibiting entry onto agricultural property under “false pretences” and increasing fines for trespassing on farms, Ontario’s ag gag law gives farmers sweeping powers to arrest people on their property, and use force during arrests. Fines for violating the ag gag law are up to $25,000.

Ontario’s ag gag law restricts the public’s right to peacefully gather on public property and document illegal cruelty in transport trucks by making it an offence to “interact” with an animal en route to slaughter, even on public roadways. This section appears directly targeted at peaceful animal advocates who bear witness outside slaughterhouses, and alert authorities when they see animals suffering inside trucks shipping them to slaughter. Footage gathered by members of the Animal Save Movement from inside slaughter trucks has shown illegal conditions, including sick, bleeding, and injured animals, animals suffering from heat exhaustion and frostbite, and overcrowding. 

British Columbia

A private member’s bill has been introduced in British Columbia to increase fines for trespassing on farms, but does not yet contain provisions aimed at prohibiting employee whistleblowers. The bill was introduced after a group of peaceful animal advocates entered the Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia to document and publicly expose the conditions that pigs were living in. This occurred following the release of footage showing horrific abuse of pigs at the facility. 

The government in British Columbia is also consulting extensively with the meat industry on passing ag gag legislation.

Manitoba

Manitoba is also considering passing ag gag legislation. The premier of Manitoba recently instructed the province’s Minister of Justice and Minister of Agriculture and Resource Development to work together to review legislation and enforcement policies related to trespassing on farms. Details about the province’s proposal are expected in the fall of 2020 and Animal Justice will be working to ensure Manitoba does not follow the lead of Ontario and Alberta by introducing its own ag gag law.

Quebec

In December 2019, 11 people entered a pig farm in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. The footage they livestreamed from inside the barn was difficult to watch. It showed pigs mired in muck and filth, and mother pigs confined in crates so small that they cannot even turn around. But instead of considering action to improve conditions for farmed animals, Quebec has instead created a committee to examine how to prevent trespassing on farms. Animal agriculture industry representatives have urged the Quebec government to follow the lead of Ontario by introducing similar ag gag legislation.

Government of Canada

Conservative Member of Parliament John Barlow introduced Bill C-205, An Act to amend the Health of Animals Act, which would make it an offence to enter farms or slaughterhouses in a manner that could expose animals to disease. The Bill does not currently prohibit employee whistleblowers, but does allow for fines of up to $500,000.

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