Animal activists thrilled after parts of Ontario agriculture law unconstitutional

TORONTO — Animal advocates are celebrating after parts of a controversial Ontario agriculture law that made it illegal to get a job on a farm under false pretences to expose conditions inside were deemed unconstitutional.

Justice Markus Koehnen struck down parts of Bill 156, the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, earlier this month after advocacy group Animal Justice, along with an activist and a journalist, launched a Charter challenge in 2021.

They argued the new law infringed on their freedom of expression because they could not tell the outside world what was happening inside a farm if they gained access to the property through a false pretence.

The act required consent from the owner to be on a property where animals are kept, raised or slaughtered. That consent was voided under the law if someone lied to get on the land.

"The act limits the mode of expression by preventing undercover exposés or even eyewitness descriptions of the conditions in which animals are raised or slaughtered if the person providing the description gained access to premises using false pretences," the judge wrote in his decision.

"In light of the foregoing, I find that one of the purposes and one of the effects of the act and the regulation is to infringe on the applicants’ freedom of expression."

The province enacted the legislation in response to demands from the agricultural industry and about 120 municipal resolutions calling on the government to do more to control trespassing, the decision said.

Ontario argued the legislation was aimed at "protecting animal safety, biosecurity, and the safety of farmers as well as preventing economic harm that can arise from threats to animal safety and biosecurity."

Part of the case focused on lying.

"If lies can amount to protected speech in a context as odious as Holocaust denial, they should be equally protected when someone denies having a university degree or being affiliated with an animal rights group to obtain employment at or entry to an animal auction, petting zoo, rodeo, fair or circus," the judge decided.

The news thrilled Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice.

"It’s a decisive victory over unconstitutional ’ag−gag’ laws that were designed and had the effect of covering up serious animal cruelty on farms," she said.

"In light of this ruling, we’re looking forward to getting back to doing investigative work in Ontario as soon as possible."

The animal advocates had submitted undercover video of farms that were eventually aired on national television broadcasts and led to criminal charges and convictions in some cases. None of that would have happened without lying to get a job in the first place.

"The expression is of public interest," Koehnen wrote.

"Publicizing the way in which animals are treated is an issue of interest to at least some members of the public. It is an issue about which the public is entitled to be informed if they want to be."

The advocates who brought the casealso argued undercover operatives would follow the rules on farms, only deviating to take pictures of video of what was happening with the animals.

The judge agreed.

"For a potential employee to deny any association with animal−rights groups in a job interview does not threaten biosecurity, the food supply chain or animal safety," the judge wrote.

"Nor does the followup act of such an activist communicating what they see in an agricultural facility."

The bill also made it illegal to interact with animals inside transport trucks, a law seemingly designed to target one group in the province: Toronto Pig Save. The group is part of the large Save Movement whose members "bear witness" and hold vigils for animals en route to slaughter.

They often gave water to the pigs inside trucks stopped at intersections to "show kindness and compassion to animals in their final moments," the decision noted.

Two days after the bill came into force in June 2020, a truck hauling a load of live pigs ran over and killed Regan Russell, 65, who was protesting the new law outside a slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ont. The driver, Andrew Blake, pleaded guilty to the provincial offence of careless driving causing death. He was fined $2,000 and given 12−months of probation.

The Regan Russell Foundation intervened in this case, arguing the law interfered with both its constitutional right to protest and freedom of expression.

The judge disagreed and held up that portion of the act.

"The purpose of protecting freedom of expression is to do just that, allow people to express themselves," Koehnen wrote. "It does not allow people to appropriate, even momentarily, the property of others as a means for that expression."

Russell’s stepson, Joshua Powell, was disappointed with that part of the decision.

"It is upsetting, but we are very, very elated that the judge upheld the ability to hold vigils at these sites as a protected act," Powell said.

"And, most important, we are really happy that undercover exposés, from journalists or activists, won’t be illegal anymore. It was one of the main reasons Regan was out there that day."

The Ministry of the Attorney General said it is reviewing the decision and has not yet decided if it will appeal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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