Hamilton

'My life ended' Friday: Regan Russell's supporters want justice, Bill 156 overturned

As far as Mark Powell is concerned, his life ended last Friday when his wife, Regan Russell, was hit and killed by a transport truck during a Burlington animal rights protest. Now he'll spend the rest of his days, he says, trying to get rid of the bill that haunted her.

'I'll fight it the rest of my life,' says Regan Russell's husband, Mark Powell

Regan Russell, says friend Julie Maue, "taught me how to have long friendships. How lucky am I?" (Agnes Cseke)

As far as Mark Powell is concerned, his life ended last Friday when his wife, Regan Russell, was hit and killed by a transport truck during a Burlington animal rights protest.

Now he'll spend the rest of his days, he says, trying to get rid of the bill that haunted her.

Powell, a west Hamilton contractor, says there's been an international outpouring over Russell's death, from artwork to YouTube tributes, and it's helped make the grief a little lighter. His wife was deeply rattled by Bill 156, which creates "animal protection zones" that prohibits animal rights activists from "interfering or interacting with the farm animals in the motor vehicle." 

He's hired a lawyer for two reasons: to see justice in her death, and to try to get the new bill repealed. 

"I'll fight it the rest of my life," he said. "My life ended on Friday, so for as long as I'm left here, we have to pick up the torch, and we have to fight things like Bill 156."

The notion of Russell having a legacy is comforting to Powell and others who knew her. The 65-year-old activist often protested in front of Fearman's Pork Inc. as part of Toronto Pig Save. The group gives a last gulp of water to pigs packed into hot trailers, moments before they're slaughtered.

That's what she was doing at 10:20 a.m. June 19. Somehow, witnesses say, she ended up being hit by the transport truck.

Regan Russell (left) and Katherine Wightman are shown as young models in the photo on the left. In the more recent photo, Russell is on the right. "I've lost my right arm," Wightman says. (Katherine Wightman)

Halton Regional Police Service said Thursday that the collision reconstruction unit is doing a "thorough investigation." 

"A determination on charges will be made by the collision reconstruction unit once the investigation is complete," said Const. Steve Elms in an email. "At that time, investigators will issue a media release to update the community."

Russell was also a women's rights and Black Lives Matter supporter and attended a rally days before her death, says close friend Katherine Wightman. She believed strongly, Wightman says, that all beings are equals, and that informed her activism.

Russell often posted her thoughts on Facebook, most recently about Bill 156. "Bill 156 has passed," she wrote on the day before she died. "Now, any time an animal is suffering on a farm in Ontario, no one, not even an employee, has the right to expose it."

Animal rights activists have been rallying against the Security From Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2019  since January. 

The bill was introduced in the Ontario legislature late last year. Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said it's in response to complaints from farmers about animal rights groups trespassing on their private property. 

Friends and community, including Russell's parents and husband, gathered for a vigil last weekend. (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

The bill, he said, is a "bio-security" measure. It increases the fines for anyone caught trespassing on farms or food processing plants, and makes it illegal to gain access to a farm under "false pretenses," which effectively makes undercover filming an offence.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture rallied support for the bill, saying it "protects our farms, families, livestock and food supply" from increasingly aggressive tactics from animal rights groups.

"Ontario farms have come under increasing threat from trespassers and activists who illegally enter property, barns and buildings, breaching biosecurity protocols," president Keith Currie said in a June 12 media release

"Once peaceful protests have now escalated to trespassing, invasions, barn break-ins, theft and harassment."

There's precedent, however, to what Powell is considering. In Idaho, Iowa and Utah, courts have struck down similar "Ag-Gag" laws as being unconstitutional. That's led Ontario animal rights activists to consider whether Ontario's law could be struck down in court.

"She was dynamic," friend Julie Maue says of Russell. "She was confident. She always made you feel like you were as beautiful as her." (Toronto Pig Save)

Powell has retained Anandi Naipaul at Ross & McBride LLP. Russell's family has also launched a fundraising campaign "to continue Regan's work and assist the family."

Powell says it's the best way he knows to honour his wife's life. Russell's activism began when she was 24, he says, and living in Winnipeg. She made her own sign that said "Stop the seal hunt" and stood outside a downtown government building on a frigid winter day. After several hours, she thought she'd instigated some change.

"She went home, freezing cold," Powell said. "She took a hot bath and thought, 'There, that's done. What's next?'"

Russell was born and raised in Hamilton, Powell said, and moved to Moose Jaw and then Winnipeg. In Winnipeg, she became a model, an occupation that continued until 2002. She also enjoyed spending time with the family's seven rescue cats, which Russell warned Powell about when they started dating. 

"She said, 'You have to understand there will be cats, plural,'" he recalled. "I accepted that, and it's grown to a family of seven cats."

Animal activists embrace at the scene on June 19. (Andrew Collins/CBC)

In 1985, Powell says, she read Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals by Peter Singer, which changed her life, and she became vegan. She gave her dad Bill, now 89, the book, and he became an animal rights activist too. The pair protested together at Marineland, Powell says, and also at a 2017 Bill Cosby show in Hamilton.

Wightman met Russell as a teenage model in Winnipeg, and "she was instantly like a big sister." The pair talked on the phone as often as five times a day. Wightman called Russell's cell phone on June 19, not knowing Russell had died until Powell answered it and told her. 

Now, "it feels like I've lost my right arm," Wightman said. Their last conversation, she said, was about Bill 156. "She said, 'I am so tired. Do you realize now the work that lies ahead of me?'"

If there is a bright spot, she said, it's that "the word has become global about who she is and what she stood for."

Russell's friend Julie Maue says the last time she saw her friend, they went to the office of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas MPP Sandy Shaw to talk about Bill 156. Russell, Maue says, was compassionate, intelligent and logical.

A animal activist protest in Burlington has turned deadly after Halton police say a vehicle struck and killed one of the activists. 0:54

"She was dynamic," Maue said. "She was confident. She always made you feel like you were as beautiful as her."

Anita Krajnc, founder of the Save movement, says Russell's death has inspired vigils in multiple countries. She wants to keep the momentum going.

Krajnc made headlines at the Burlington plant in 2016 when she was charged with mischief for giving water to pigs. She was ultimately found not guilty after a lengthy trial that included slaughterhouse footage and testimony from a variety of experts. Russell attended the trial.

"I wake up multiple times a night, and I'm instantaneously thinking about her," Krajnc said. Then "I go online and I watch the vigils."

"I believe that site where Regan was killed, there will one day be a plant-based facility. I truly believe that."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

With files from Amanda Pfeffer

now