Animal rights activists decry Ontario bill that would limit farm protests

Ontario Bill 156 would increase fines for anyone caught trespassing on farmland and food processing plants, and introduce new measures against interfering with animal transportation. 

Proposed law hikes fines for trespassing on farms, prohibits interfering with animals

Animal rights activist Anita Krajnc gives water to a pig in a truck in a handout photo. Krajnc was acquitted on charges of mischief, but a proposed Ontario law would make her action illegal. (HO-Elli Garlin/CP)

Animal rights groups have begun protesting and petitioning against Ontario Bill 156 — a law aimed at curbing activism against farms and farming practices.

The Security From Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2019  was introduced in the Ontario legislature late last year.

Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said the bill comes in response to complaints from farmers about animal rights groups trespassing on their private property. 

In debate, Hardeman called the bill a "bio-security" measure, to protect food safety. The bill is now in its second reading.

If passed, the bill would increase fines for anyone caught trespassing on farmland and food processing plants, and introduce new measures against interfering with animal transportation. 

The law would also make it illegal to gain access to a farm under "false pretences" — effectively making undercover filming an offence.

Ottawa protests

A group of about 20 animal rights activists showed up at Ottawa's Lansdowne Park Saturday with signs and leaflets, encouraging the public to sign a petition against the law. It was one of several protests planned over the next month,

Ottawa animal rights activists protested Saturday at Lansdowne Park. (Radio-Canada)

"It will stop people from seeing animal suffering," said Lucie Tsi, who works with the Ottawa group Animal Rebellion.

She fears the proposed law will halt animal activism.

If caught trespassing on a farm, offenders could be fined as much as $25,000, a significant hike from the current $10,000 maximum under the Trespass to Property Act.

It would also introduce fines for interacting with farm animals which are being transported by a vehicle without permission.

Krajnc case would be illegal

Tsi points to the example of Ontario activist Anita Krajnc who made headlines in 2017 when she was arrested for giving water to pigs on the back of a transport truck on the way to a slaughterhouse.

Krajnc was acquitted on charges of mischief, but if the new law is passed, similar actions could be found in violation.

Lucie Tsi is with the Ottawa group Animal Rebellion. She fears Bill 156 will shut down animal activism. (Radio-Canada)

Farmers have been lobbying for legislation to protect them from the threat of more "aggressive tactics" from animal rights activists.

"It poses stress on farmers, and anxiety that it might happen to them," said Mireille Leroux, first vice-president of the Union des Cultivateurs Franco-Ontariens.

Mireille Leroux,with the Franco-Ontarian farmer's union, says the bill is needed to help limit farmers' stress. (Radio-Canada)

"The more aggressive activism is what farmers fear the most," she said. "So we want to keep our families safe, and our work environment safe." 

Legislation 'unconstitutional'

Similar legislation was passed in Alberta earlier this year, and also exists in the United States. 

But among the half-dozen states that now have what activists call "Ag-Gag" laws, courts have struck down legislation in Idaho, Iowa and Utah as being unconstitutional.

Last week a U.S. federal judge ruled the law in Kansas banning undercover filming at farms and slaughterhouse facilities "criminalizes" free speech.

"The prohibition on taking pictures at an animal facility regulates speech for First Amendment purposes," wrote U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil. 

Camille Labchuk, a lawyer with the group Animal Justice, said Ontario's law could also be challenged in court.

"The legislation makes it illegal to essentially expose animal cruelty on farms," she said.

"It makes it very difficult for advocates to expose what happens behind closed doors, and that restricts people's freedom of expression."