Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/9/2020 (644 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you’ve never heard of an "ag-gag" law, get ready: you may start hearing the term a lot more in Manitoba. Popular in the United States, these laws are designed to gag would-be whistleblowers in the agriculture sector by making it an offence to enter farms and slaughterhouses under "false pretenses," or to covertly record footage. Their purpose is to stop the public from finding out about animal abuse and mistreatment at farms and slaughterhouses.
Ag-gag laws are an American export that should have never made their way north of the border. In the past year, Alberta and Ontario passed Canada’s first ag-gag laws. Manitoba appears to be considering similar legislation.
The provincial government is using an to consult Manitobans on a range of legislative amendments to combat rural crime. Some of the proposals are aimed at tackling issues such as metal theft and damage to crops caused by careless ATV drivers, but the province’s proposed amendments to The Animal Diseases Act should raise the alarm for anyone concerned about the treatment of farmed animals, worker health and safety, and public health.
The wording of the survey is , but what is clear is that the province plans to take an Orwellian page from the ag-gag playbook and designate slaughterhouses, farms, and transport trucks as "animal protection areas." It says it wants to protect biosecurity and farmers from animal activist trespassers, but has not pointed to a single instance of activists trespassing in the province.
It fails to mention the fact that trespass and mischief are already illegal. The province also appears to be pondering restricting rights to peacefully protest on public property outside of slaughterhouses.
The government’s proposal sounds dangerously similar to how Ontario and Alberta described their ag-gag bills. Those governments also suggested the laws were merely aimed at protecting farmers from trespassers, and gave their ag gag bills unobjectionable names about protecting "law-abiding property owners" and "food safety."
In reality, the Alberta and Ontario bills were a Trojan horse for trampling freedom of expression rights. Trotted out under the guise of stopping trespassers, they in fact go much further, making it an offence to enter a farm under "false pretenses." This is a way of preventing investigative journalists or individuals associated with animal-protection groups from gaining employment at farms and slaughterhouses. It makes it an offence to not reveal to one’s employer that one intends to expose animal abuse or unlawful activity witnessed on the job.
Employee whistleblowers follow all requirements of the job and pose no risk to biosecurity. Whistleblower footage at Puratone Corp. near Arborg exposed , including thousands of pregnant pigs in gestation crates so small the animals could not even turn around, pigs bleeding from untreated wounds, and piglets killed by being slammed into concrete floors and a metal post.
With outbreaks of COVID-19 at slaughterhouses across the country, including at the Maple Leaf plant in Brandon, whistleblowers can also play a valuable role in exposing unsafe working conditions and public-health risks. Now is the time for more transparency in our food system, not less.
Any ag-gag law introduced in Canada will almost certainly be subject to costly constitutional challenges based on the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. According to who voiced public concern over Ontario’s ag-gag law, such challenges are likely to be successful, just as they have been in the United States, where courts have struck down ag-gag laws as unconstitutional in five states.
Whistleblower exposés are in the public interest. Because there are no legally binding standards of care for animals on farms, and no proactive public inspections to monitor animal welfare on farms, these exposés are one of the only ways the public, as well as law enforcement authorities, are alerted to the abuse of farmed animals. They also promote open dialogue about animal use practices and food safety.
In fact, ag-gag laws can have unintended consequences for industry, in farmers by leaving consumers wondering what it is that industry wants to hide.
Let’s hope the provincial government focuses its attention on real threats facing rural communities and respects the basic constitutional rights of its citizens. Better yet, Manitoba should create legally binding, proactively enforced standards to improve the well-being of animals on farms throughout the province.
The public has until Oct. 31 to comment on this proposal — a fitting deadline, since the threat of ag-gag rearing its ugly head here in Manitoba is a truly frightening prospect.
Kaitlyn Mitchell is an animal rights lawyer at Animal Justice, Canada’s only non-profit group focused on using the law to protect animals. She lives in Winnipeg.