Niagara police losing patience with escalating three-year feud over horse-drawn carriages

A three-year feud between an animal rights group and supporters of horse-drawn carriages in Niagara is testing the patience of police, who say they have gone to "unprecedented" lengths to resolve the issue.

At War for Animals Niagara and Locals for Carriages have been feuding for years in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Horse-drawn carriages in Niagara on the Lake are one of the popular attractions of the summer destination. (Sentineal Carriages)

A three-year feud between an animal rights group and supporters of horse-drawn carriages in Niagara is testing the patience of police, who say they have gone to "unprecedented" lengths to resolve the issue.

Since late 2017, Inspector Jim McCaffery with Niagara Regional Police Service and his fellow officers have been trying to resolve the conflict between two groups: At War for Animals Niagara and Locals for Carriages.

"It is getting tiring and we hope we can get back to negotiations instead of what it is regressing into right now," he told CBC News.

McCaffery says despite trying to calm both groups, the conflict continues and is also moving from the town's streets to online, where some of the vitriol is borderline illegal and heading toward vigilante justice.

It started when At War for Animals began protesting the use of horse-drawn carriages in December 2017.

Adam Stirr, a Niagara resident, and Jason King, a London, Ont., resident, have been at the helm of the demonstrations.

King said the group is fighting to end speciesism, which is the idea that humans are superior to animals and therefore have the authority to decide the rights of animals.

"It's like racism and sexism but to animals."

The group protests in the downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, a scenic summer tourist spot full of old, colonial buildings and host to the Shaw Festival. Horse-drawn carriage tours are a common feature in the town.

Montreal, however, banned horse-drawn carriages in January.

At War for Animals maintains it doesn't want carriage businesses to end. It just wants them to stop using horses. Alternatives include electric carriages or modify the carriages so that they use pedals and run like bicycles.

They aren't very popular in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They even prompted the birth of an opposing force — Locals for Carriages.

Jennifer Jones-Butski is one of the most vocal members of the group.

"They're trying to stop people from using animals whatsoever, they want people to stop breeding, the end of domestication, no more service dogs ... they're using the carriages as a stepping stone," she said.

Jones-Butski said At War with Animals are harassing kids and younger people during their demonstrations.

She also said the group uses the death of Regan Russell, an animal rights activist who died while protesting after being run over by a transport truck, to get their point across.

While the town and police are tired of demonstrations, the majority of people side with Locals for Carriages.

Stirr, from At War for Animals, said the town isn't listening.

"I would really like to see the city actually stop just blindly supporting and standing behind one business in town and this group of hooligans who support it and enter into meaningful discussions with us," he told CBC News.

Both groups demonstrate, videotape each other and ultimately frustrate one another.

No criminal charges ... so far

No one from either group has broken the law during the protests and they have never resorted to violence.

McCaffery said the issue is that horse-drawn carriages have the right to operate, but protestors also have a right to peaceful assembly.

He said police receive calls about horse carriages riding through town, the driving of protestors against horse-drawn carriages, and about the face-to-face confrontations between the two factions of demonstrators. The feud doesn't match the town's genteel atmosphere.

McCaffery added the activity off the streets and on the web is also troubling.

"We're asking people on both sides of this protest to reduce the rhetoric online on social media. We're seeing people coming really close to criminal acts ... illicit threats, citing criminal behaviour. That's gotta stop," he said.

"We're afraid it's going to resort to vigilante justice soon. It won't be tolerated and won't be supported."

Police are trying to keep the peace. They have even reined in both sides to meet and establish "gentleman's agreement" to establish conduct. It's the same kind of approach seen in labour disputes.

In 2018, both sides signed an agreement. Then things devolved.  In 2019, Locals for Carriages didn't sign the agreement. Jones-Butski said they didn't sign on the advice of legal counsel.

Police are looking to create another meeting and agreement between the two groups.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.