A bill in the Manitoba legislature proposing stricter animal agriculture laws would violate Manitobans’ charter rights, says a letter from 10 law professionals from across Canada. Multiple animal advocacy groups have expressed support for the letter.
If passed, the amendment to Bill 62 would make it illegal to enter places such as farms or slaughterhouses without permission. It would also make it illegal to "interact" with animals on that land or in transport without consent. That would include giving food or water to animals. Violating these rules could carry fines up to $10,000 or one year in jail, or both.
"I think it’s a complete red herring," said Kaitlyn Mitchell, a Winnipeg-based lawyer at advocacy group Animal Justice. "These are not biosecurity bills."
It’s already illegal to trespass on private farms and slaughterhouses or to give an animal poisoned food or water, she said, so neither measure adds new protections.
Rather, the bill’s language is designed to quell peaceful protest, she said.
"The term ‘interact’ is incredibly broad," said Mitchell. "Does that mean if they make eye contact? Does that mean speaking? Does that mean singing?"
She said it appears to target people who protest near trucks on public property outside of slaughterhouses in particular.
"It would essentially make it an offense for those people to go really anywhere near a truck."
These constraints on public protests would violate the charter, say critics.
Mitchell said she often relies on photographs and videos of inhumane conditions to support and launch lawsuits aimed at holding animal processors accountable. She worries the threat of fines and jail time will scare protesters and prevent them from getting near enough to transport trucks to get footage.
Even if taking the photo or video itself isn’t considered interacting, she said, she’s heard animals may nudge or lick a protester if they’re close, which may result in criminal charges under the new amendment.
"These laws are designed to try and silence or stifle animal rights activists," said Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"The concern here is what is special or unique about the agricultural industry that makes it acceptable to pass legislation that arguably insulates them from scrutiny?" she said. "And what other industries might like to benefit from legislation like that?"
Others also worry the bill sets Manitoba on a slippery slope.
"The problem with this type of bill is where does it stop?" said Sam Trosow, associate professor at University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law and letter signee. "If they do it here with respect to farm facilities, will they do it next in a hospital or in a long-term care home or in some other type of public facility? It’s too easy to come up with these really sort of onerous measures."
The authors of the letter accuse the province of making it easier for government and private business to shut down peaceful protest. And they say it’s part of a broader campaign.
They point to Bill 57, which has drawn criticism and protests from a wide range of people, including a board member of the National Farmers Union. Vague language in that bill has also fed controversy. The bill would allow owners and operators of "critical infrastructure" to apply to Court of Queen’s Bench for orders to stop or limit protests.
The letter describes Bill 62’s amendments as an ‘ag gag’ law. Similar laws have already passed in Alberta and Ontario, stirring controversy in those provinces too. Manitoba’s proposed law is narrower in scope than Alberta’s and Ontario’s, which can prosecute people for entering farms and animal processing centres even with consent if they enter on "false pretenses." That means journalists or activists who take jobs in these centres to collect information on them could face heavy penalties.
Mitchell and Animal Justice have already launched challenges to Ontario’s law. Mitchell said she hopes it won’t come to it, but Animal Justice would consider taking the province to court if the bill passes.