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Councillors dumb clucks on backyard-hens issue

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Winnipeg city councillors who think the backyard-poultry issue will simply fade away after they vote to restrict chickens to areas zoned for agriculture might want to think again.

Instead, the city will be earning its spot in SCREW, the acronym used by the growing Prairies-wide "right-to-grow-food" movement to describe the stance of Saskatoon, Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Winnipeg on this issue.

In fact, Paul Hughes, a Calgary activist and founder of CLUCK (the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub), is working his way through the court system with what he hopes is a groundbreaking Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge.

"All these capricious local councils across our country that are regulating our right to food will be trumped," predicts the 48-year-old single dad, who first took up the cause in 2008.

For him, it's an issue of urban food security as well as his conscientious objection to the industrial food chain. He finds it ironic that the five major Prairie cities, whose history is deeply rooted in agriculture, seem the most determined to turn their backs on the urban form of it while more than 100 other North American cities have embraced the idea.

Hughes says he formed CLUCK after one official told him the reason Calgary residents are allowed to keep 150 pigeons in their backyards -- but not even one laying hen -- is because pigeon-racers belong to a recognized club. So he formed a Klub.

Winnipeg's bylaw is similar. There are rules about how residents must maintain their backyard pigeon premises, limits on how many birds they can keep and when they can let them fly. Up to 150 pigeons are OK. Hens are not.

Hughes even finked on himself, calling in the Calgary bylaw enforcers about his backyard hens in order to get the case before the courts. The gist of his argument is that no municipality has the authority to deny a Canadian the right to grow their own food, provided they comply with appropriate standards of safety, welfare and sanitation.

An Alberta provincial court judge ruled against him last September, finding not only that he is guilty according to the letter of the law -- chickens do constitute livestock as defined under the Calgary bylaw -- but that the law itself doesn't contravene the charter. In rejecting his arguments, the judge at one point cited case law on whether use of recreational marijuana constitutes a "lifestyle" under charter protection. Not.

"No one was looking for an out-of-the-park home run at this level," Hughes says, adding the rejection has simply given the urban-agriculture movement more traction for an appeal due to be heard in June. He draws from a diverse group of supporters, including new Canadians, low-income families, upscale urbanites, young professionals and seniors.

Winnipeg now has its own organized lobbyist in favour of backyard poultry -- the Winnipeg Urban Chicken Association. It cites food security, support for local businesses through the purchase of feed and supplies, organic insect and weed control, natural fertilizer, reduced waste and a lower carbon footprint as tangible benefits from keeping backyard hens. Plus, its members say there are nutritional benefits from eating fresh eggs, educational opportunities for youth and opportunities for more social interaction between neighbours.

It's hard for us to imagine food shortages when cruising the aisle of the local grocery store, but evidence elsewhere shows that in the event of a major disaster that disrupts the just-in-time supply chain, grocery stores could be cleaned out within two to three days. How is it wrong for residents to wish for their own source of protein, similar to the wartime United States, when posters informed citizens it was their patriotic duty to have at least two hens in every backyard?

The problem with the council's recalcitrant stance on the issue is its arguments against backyard poultry are based on neither science nor logic. One type of bird kept in relatively large numbers for recreational purposes is OK; another type kept for food is not.

Pigeon owners can be trusted to maintain their aviaries according to clearly outlined bylaw rules, but prospective poultry producers might let their birds go hungry, or might not clean up after them, or might not keep them contained.

Barking, defecating dogs in people's backyards are fine; clucking hens scratching around eating bugs and weeds aren't.

Council can either concede to a vocal minority and establish ground rules, or it can say no and face civil disobedience anchored in moral rectitude. Either way, this isn't going away.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 B9

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