TORONTO—Animal Justice is suing the Ontario government over a troubling “ag gag” (agricultural gag) law that was passed last year to conceal animal suffering. Together with journalist Jessica Scott-Reid, and animal advocate and photographer Louise Jorgensen, Animal Justice is asking the courts to strike down multiple sections of Ontario’s Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act for violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, most notably the right to freedom of expression.
This is the first lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of an ag gag law in Canada. The ag gag law passed in Ontario last year makes it illegal to go undercover to reveal animal abuse, food safety risks, and unsafe working conditions that are pervasive in animal agriculture. Ontario’s ag gag law prohibits entering farms or slaughterhouses under “false pretences”, making it illegal for journalists, animal protection advocates, and others to get hired at a farm or slaughterhouse to document and publicly expose animal abuse or other unlawful activities.
In addition, Ontario’s ag gag law targets peaceful protesters who stand on public property outside slaughterhouses to bear witness to the suffering of animals in transport, and document the condition of animals in transport trucks. The law makes it an offence to “interfere” or “interact” with animals inside trucks.
“Our government doesn’t regulate or monitor animal welfare on farms, so hidden-camera footage is often the only way for the public to learn the truth about poor conditions and shocking animal cruelty in the food supply,” said lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice. “This dangerous law was pushed by the powerful farm lobby to silence whistleblowers and conceal animal cruelty from the public. We are hopeful the court will strike down this troubling ag gag law and make it clear that Ontario and other provinces cannot interfere with Charter rights to protect the profits of the meat industry.”
“As a journalist my work relies heavily on information gained by those working undercover in animal agriculture settings, those bearing witness to animals in transport trucks, and those willing to blow the whistle,” said Jessica Scott-Reid, a co-applicant in the case. “Without activist and whistleblower information, many of my widely-read published stories would not have been told. I feel great concern about my ability to do this work going forward.”
“Ontario’s ag gag law interferes with the right to gather information on matters of public interest, and to peacefully protest on public property—activities at the core of what the right to freedom of expression protects,” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, staff lawyer at Animal Justice. “Not only does the ag gag law infringe the rights of journalists, advocates, and researchers who engage in these important activities, but it also violates the public’s right to know how animals are treated behind the closed doors of factory farms.”
Undercover footage shot by employee whistleblowers at farms and slaughterhouses has led to animal cruelty convictions and has revealed shocking animal suffering in Ontario, including workers kicking, punching and beating animals; animals crammed into tiny cages; botched euthanasia and improper slaughter; filthy conditions; and workplace safety concerns. A November, 2020 exposé by Animal Justice showing abuse at an Ontario pig farm aired on CTV’s W5 and prompted an ongoing animal cruelty investigation by authorities.
Ag gag laws were first passed in the United States at the behest of the powerful farm lobby, but these laws have now been struck down as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech in Idaho, Utah, Iowa, North Carolina, Wyoming, and Kansas. Canadian legal experts have warned that Ontario’s ag gag law is similarly unconstitutional.
Alberta passed Canada’s first ag gag law in November, 2019, followed by Ontario in June, 2020. Manitoba and Quebec are considering ag gag laws, and the meat industry is lobbying for these laws across the country.
Animal Justice and the other applicants are represented by Kaitlyn Mitchell and Scott Tinney of Animal Justice, Arden Beddoes of Beddoes Litigation, and Fredrick Schumann of Stockwoods LLP.
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A copy of the lawsuit is available here.