But under the provisions of a bill rushed through the Alberta legislature by the Conservative government in 2020, an individual in that province who has been found guilty of trespassing is now subject to a fine of up to $10,000 for a first offence—plus six months in jail. A second offence is now subject to a fine of up to $25,000, plus a further six months in jail. An organization involved in sponsoring or directing an act of trespass is subject to a fine of up to $200,000. If one is deemed to have gained access under “false pretenses” (for example, by falsely saying as you start a job at a pig farm that you have no intention of taking photographs of any animals being abused), one is subject to the same penalties.
Why prescribe such harsh punishments for such a minor offence? The key is in another part of the bill, where it is specified that such penalties apply even when property is not fenced off and no notices forbidding trespassing have been posted—if the offence occurs on farmland or “on land that is used for the raising of and maintenance of animals.”
Alberta’s Bill 27 was the first Canadian example of a type of legislation familiar to many Americans as “ag gag legislation”—legislation intended to gag those who would inform the general public of what goes on behind the closed doors of the agricultural operations where the 10 billion or so mammals and birds killed every year in North America for human food live out their brief, unhappy lives.
As in many other North American jurisdictions, such operations in Alberta are in practice exempt from almost all provisions of animal cruelty legislation. Typically, such legislation prohibits only the causing of “unnecessary” pain, suffering or injury to an animal, and in many jurisdictions any practice, no matter how cruel, is allowed if it can be classed as part of “generally accepted” practices of animal management or animal husbandry. For those who may imagine that the industry would not allow cruel practices to become “generally accepted” in the industry, it should be pointed out that such practices have for decades included (to pick only two well-known examples) the confining of sows in crates so small that the animals can never turn around, and the confining of egg-laying hens in cages that allow them no more than 67 square inches of living space per bird.
It’s all too clear that allowing the industry to follow “generally accepted practices” leaves a vast amount of room for cruelty. But not enough room to satisfy the animal agriculture lobby. Over the past two decades and more, undercover operations at animal agriculture facilities across North America have revealed horrific examples both of what constitutes “generally accepted practice” and of abuses that exceed anything that could possibly be described as “necessary cruelty” or “generally accepted practice.” As Camille Labchuk, executive director of the organization Animal Justice, has pointed out, “whistleblowing employees are often the only way the public has to monitor the conditions animals endure on modern farms.”
Alberta is now only one of four Canadian provinces that have moved to criminalize such whistleblowing; Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has passed similar legislation, as have the governments of PEI and Manitoba.* In some cases the penalties prescribed are even more draconian than those in Alberta. Constitutional challenges have been launched, but for the moment, the ag gag laws of all those provinces remain in place—and Quebec is considering enacting its own legislation.
At the federal level, ag gag legislation has twice been introduced in Parliament. In 2021 Bill C-205 had passed second reading (with the Bloc Quebecois and—remarkably—the New Democrats joining the Conservatives in voting to give priority to private property rights over any concern for cruelty to animals). In the spring of 2022 Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow introduced a new ag gag law, styling it as a “biosecurity” measure. The powerful animal agriculture industry lobby continues to press both at the federal and the provincial level for ever more draconian measures against animal advocates.
I have touched already on what it is that the animal agriculture industry so determined to hide. It’s worth taking a longer look. Organizations such as the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals, Mercy for Animals, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all provide on their websites descriptions and images that give a visceral sense of the lives these animals live. Many of these images, as you would expect, were obtained through undercover operations. Here is a description from the organization, Animal Justice, of what’s shown on video footage shot in Excelsior Farms, an Abbotsford pig farm in 2019:
The footage from Excelsior Farm showed mother pigs trapped in gestation crates with dead and dying piglets; pigs prodded in the face with electric current; untreated injuries; and workers castrating piglets without anesthesia. Although the footage was provided to law enforcement officials, no charges were laid against the farm. Instead, four animal advocates were charged with dozens of offences for allegedly entering the farm to expose suffering. [What’s shown on the video is far less sensational than the abuses captured on numerous other undercover videos of animal agriculture facilities, but it certainly has the potential to be shocking or disturbing, especially for those unfamiliar with the realities of today’s animal agriculture operations. For those who do wish to watch, here is a link to the Global News clip: https://globalnews.ca/video/5214345/disturbing-images-captured-at-abbotsford-pig-farm.]An update: in October of 2022 two of the animal advocates were sentenced to jail terms—jailed for a non-violent act of civil disobedience, the only goal of which was to bring to light horrific cruelty that otherwise would have remained hidden. In provinces with ag gag laws, advocates in similar circumstances could have been subject to a $50,000 fine in addition to jail time.
At stake here is not only the treatment of non-human animals, important though that is; it is also freedom of speech. A society in which whistleblowers are prevented from drawing the attention of the public to horrific abuses is a society that gives license to the powerful to do anything they please.
But surely, many may say, property owners have a right to do as they please on their own property; should we not do everything we can to protect that right? To be sure, we should recognize that a conflict of rights is involved here. If someone trespasses on land owned by someone else, private property rights are indeed not being respected. The question is, do we as a society hold private property rights to be our highest value? Or do we consider certain other values—and certain other rights—to be sufficiently important that they may trump private property rights?
Let’s imagine a situation in which those being abused are not calves and piglets and chicks but puppies and kittens—or human children. In any such scenario it becomes clear that we instinctively feel private property rights to be far outweighed by the rights of those being abused—and the right of the general public to know of the abuse. We probably feel as well that anyone who has reason to believe that such abuse is taking place has a responsibility to do something about it—to report the suspected abuse to the relevant authorities, or—if there are no authorities in a position to stop the abuse in a timely fashion, to take action themselves. We would regard it as irresponsible for anyone who comes across a parent beating up his child, or a dog-walker repeatedly kicking a dog in his care, not to take some action.
Perhaps many would prefer not to know the details of the cruelty routinely inflicted on farm animals. But the vast majority (even of those who eat animal products) say that they would prefer that farm animals be treated humanely up to the moment when they are killed. They are the consumers, and surely all those who wish to know have a right to know how the food they consume is produced. The public has a right to know—and, I would argue, the public and its representatives have a responsibility to do everything possible to stop the abuse. That’s particularly the case given that agricultural operations enjoy the benefits of considerable government subsidies—substantial expenditures of taxpayer dollars—in almost every North American jurisdiction. Yet governments in four Canadian provinces, just like governments in many American states, are doing everything possible to keep the public from knowing what’s going on, and are doing nothing whatsoever to stop the cruelty.
Animal advocacy and free speech groups are challenging the constitutionality of the Canadian laws, just as such legislation has been challenged in America. But the efforts of the animal agriculture industry lobby are outpacing those of the animal advocacy groups. In America, ag gag laws have been attempted in a total of at least 28 states; they have become law in a total of at least 11. Even in Iowa, where the state ag gag law was ruled unconstitutional in January 2019, the legislature within two months managed to pass a new ag gag bill. And in some states with ag gag laws—notably, North Carolina—the legislation is worded so broadly as to deter whistleblowing in almost any industry in almost any context.
Today’s media pay a good deal of attention to alleged threats to freedom of speech coming from progressives on university campuses; it’s time more attention was paid to the far more serious threats to the free flow of information that are coming from industry and from government.
*It’s worth noting that the provinces which have not passed ag gag laws win no prizes for cracking down on cruelty to animals or for treating whistleblowers fairly. Indeed (as the Excelsior Farms case discussed below goes to show), some of these provinces treat whistleblowers at least as harshly as the provinces with ag gag laws on their books.