As It Happens

Senator supports whale captivity ban, draws parallels to her residential school experience

Sen. Mary Jane McCallum says her experience as a residential school survivor factored into her support of the Free Willy bill.

Mary Jane McCallum says she empathizes with the captive animals

Sen. Mary Jane McCallum supports a bill that would ban whale and dolphin captivity in Canada. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

There was a time when Marineland conjured images of smiling dolphins planting kisses on visitors' cheeks, goofy looking beluga whales juggling balls on their noses and rows of orca whales leaping out of the water. 

But the popular tourist park in Niagara Falls, Ont., may soon have to end the dolphin and whale shows. A federal bill banning whale and dolphin captivity in Canada — known as the Free Willy bill — just cleared the Senate. It must clear the House of Commons before it becomes law. 

Mary Jane McCallum, an Independent senator who supports Bill S-203, spoke to As It Happens guest host Megan Williams.

Here is part of their conversation.

Marineland says this bill is explicitly targeted to close their business. Is that its intent?

No, it isn't. The issue here is the captivity of whales and dolphins. It is not targeted at a specific organization. It's just the inhumane conditions that these mammals are put through. 

A viewing area at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont. shows a small pod of beluga whales. (Scott Dunlop/Canadian Press)

You and others painted a vivid and disturbing picture of what goes on in these parks that the public doesn't see.  An adult female beluga whale lying motionless below the body of her dead baby calf. An orca lying motionless on her side floating towards the top of her tank after being heavily sedated from an accidental overdose of Valium. Why do you think it was important for the Senate to hear that?

As an Indigenous person, when I look at the web of life and what we do to any other species that we live with on this Earth, we need to be cognizant that they play a vital role in the sea.

When I look at how people look at the whales and dolphins that are enclosed in cages, we present to our children the idea that this is normal.

Conservative Manitoba Sen. Don Plett poses for a picture with John Holer, the owner of Niagara Falls' Marineland. (Twitter)

The Vancouver Aquarium has already decided to stop displaying whales and dolphins. So it's really just Marineland in Ontario that would now be affected. Marineland put out a statement saying: "The debate around this bill has been highly emotional, lacking in fact-based or science-based analysis and mired in unnecessary conflict incited by radical animal rights groups from the U.S." What's your response to that?

I would just like to say that we are not going down a good path. We need to protect a species that doesn't have a voice, that cannot voice their unhappiness in where they live. 

That's where my point came from, in that we need to look after the web, as I called it, and we need to speak up about it.

They also argued that the animals were part of research programs. Do you think an exception should be made in this bill if it's for research purposes?

To research animals in a condition where they don't live ... I don't know what they are researching because they're not able to perform their deep-diving ability, the fluking, the breaching. That is their natural practice.

So what I would question is what is so critical about their research that they wanted to do it in an artificial medium.

Your Conservative Senate colleague Don Plett ... challenges the idea that Marineland was somehow a horrendous facility. He also said at one point, "I see the joy on these belugas' faces when they come out and get food." Is it possible to see joy on the face of a beluga?

IF that was my only way of having joy, when I have been taken out of my surroundings, that I have absolutely no say in my life, I would look at what gave me joy. And that would be the food that they would be getting at the moment.

I had said that studying whales in this condition is on par with studying human behaviour of those that are in solitary confinement. We determine their boundaries. We determine their actions.

I was a residential school student and that's what I can relate to because we were brought in from our home, put into confinement. We were told what to do, how we had to act, and we made the best of it.

So when Sen. Plett said that he saw joy in the face of the mammal, that's why I said we find what little joy we can in this life — and these are highly intelligent creatures. 

So you are feeling some pretty powerful empathy with the creatures.

I am. And I think all Indigenous people do, because as you saw at the beginning of my speech, I said, "all my relations" and those relations include the mammals that live in the sea world.

They contribute to the sustainability of this place we call Mother Earth.

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and John McGill. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong​. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.