Animal activists launch constitutional challenge against Ontario over farming law

 

Animal advocates are taking the Ontario government to court over a law that has hiked fines for trespassing on farms and made it illegal to obstruct trucks carrying farm animals.

Advocacy group Animal Justice, along with an activist and a journalist, filed a constitutional challenge Monday over the law, which they argue limits freedom of expression.

The Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act came into force on June 18, 2020.

It made it illegal to interfere with farm animals in transport trucks and illegal to gain access to a farm or processing plant under "false pretenses."

That means it's now illegal for animal activists and journalists to get a job at a farm or plant with the goal of documenting the happenings inside, said Camille Labchuk executive director of Animal Justice.

"When the government takes away that tool it interferes with the ability of the public to understand what is happening on farms and in slaughterhouses," Labchuk argued.

"It interferes with the free expression rights of journalists, animal advocates and others who would like to inform the public about the truth about where their food comes from."

A spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General said it would be inappropriate to comment given the litigation. 

The constitutional challenge seeks to overturn the law. 

"One of the primary sources of information underlying complaints to law enforcement about mistreatment of farmed animals has been information, images, or footage that is covertly obtained by employee whistleblowers, animal advocates, or journalists," the legal action argues.

"The public release of information, images, and footage from these sources is also one of the primary ways, if not the only way, that members of the public are able to learn about, and see for themselves, the conditions in which farmed animals are kept." 

The law came about after livestock producers pressed Premier Doug Ford's government to take action to prosecute those who trespass on their properties and demonstrate at processing plants.

A day after the law took effect, a 65-year-old animal activist, Regan Russell, died when she was hit by a transport truck while protesting the legislation. Police charged a man with careless driving. 

She and others had long protested a processing plant in Burlington, Ont., by stopping transport trucks in order to give water to the pigs inside and to take photographs and videos of the animals. 

Under the law that passed, fines can be issued for interfering with farm animals in transport trucks. Fines for trespassing are set at a maximum of $15,000 for a first offence and up to $25,000 for subsequent offences, compared to previous maximum trespassing fines of $10,000.

The law allows for a court to order restitution for any injury, loss or damage caused as a result of an offence.

It also increases protection for farmers against civil liability from people who are hurt while trespassing on their property.

The advocates behind the constitutional challenge argue there is little transparency around how farmed animals are treated under current provincial laws. 

"The vast majority of the roughly 240 million farmed land animals slaughtered in Ontario each year are born and raised indoors on private property, out of sight of anyone but the facility's owners and employees," the legal action said.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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