WINNIPEG—A group of Canadian law professors and legal experts is sounding the alarm over Manitoba’s Bill 62, The Animal Diseases Amendment Act. According to these leading experts on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government bill would infringe individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The so-called agricultural gag, or “ag gag”, bill would make it illegal for anyone to “interact” with farmed animals en route to slaughter. This sweeping prohibition would capture a wide range of peaceful protest activities that take place on public property in the vicinity of transport trucks and make it illegal for individuals to go near vehicles in order to observe and document conditions inside.
In a letter sent today to Minister of Agriculture Blaine Pedersen and Attorney General Cameron Friesen, the legal experts say the bill must be amended in order to protect citizens’ basic human rights.
“We applaud these leaders in the legal community for stepping up to ensure respect for Manitobans’ basic constitutional rights,” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, Winnipeg-based staff lawyer with Animal Justice. “The public cares strongly about protecting animals, including farmed animals who endure long and stressful journeys, often through extreme weather conditions, on their way to slaughterhouses across Canada. Laws that silence concerned citizens who document the conditions in which animals are transported and raise awareness about their suffering have no place in our free and democratic society.”
Bill 62 has been promoted by the Manitoba government as necessary to protect biosecurity and farmed animals. It appears to be modelled in part after Ontario’s recently-enacted ag gag law and is one of several ag gag laws enacted or proposed across Canada.
In addition to restricting the Manitobans’ ability to gather on public property outside slaughterhouses to document the conditions inside animal transport trucks, Bill 62 also makes it an offence to give a farmed animal food or water without permission, even when an animal is in distress and showing clear signs of thirst, malnourishment, or heat exhaustion. An individual found guilty of giving a farmed animal food or water could be fined up to $10,000 and spend up to a year in prison. In contrast, a first time offender who violently abuses an animal in Manitoba can only be sentenced to a maximum of six months in prison under the Animal Care Act.
Courts in the U.S. have repeatedly found that ag gag laws restricting individuals’ ability to gather information and footage showing the conditions in which farmed animals are raised, transported, and slaughtered violate the First Amendment right to free speech. These courts have recognized the fundamental importance of allowing public access to information about important animal welfare and food safety issues. Animal Justice is currently challenging the constitutionality of Ontario’s ag gag law.
Millions of farmed animals die in transport in Canada each year, with many freezing during long journeys in frigid temperatures or dying from heat exhaustion on hot summer days. Footage obtained by concerned citizens in Manitoba has shown feather-bare chickens and turkeys transported in freezing temperatures, pigs crowded in trucks, and filthy conditions, among other disturbing images. In many cases, footage has been used to submit complaints to law enforcement authorities.
“Canada has some of the worst animal transport laws in the industrialized world, and the government doesn’t regulate animal welfare on farms,” said Ms. Mitchell. “Rather than restricting the rights of concerned Manitobans in order to keep the public in the dark about animal suffering, the government should regulate and proactively enforce animal welfare standards on farms and improve existing transport standards. This law is a clear and transparent attempt to conceal animal suffering and the public and legal community will not stand for it.”