Agriculture security law, Bill 156, receives Royal Assent

TORONTO – The Ontario Legislature passed Bill 156 – the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020 – on June 17 to mixed reviews.

Farmers like it, but animal activists do not.

“On-farm trespass causes serious threats to the mental health and well-being of Ontario farmers and significant stress and harm to our animals” said Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture in a press release.

“The intent of this act is to protect farms, our families and the safety of our food supply chain by addressing the ongoing threat of unwanted trespassing.”

Animal activists say the new law could make it illegal for employee whistleblowers to seek out and expose animal abuse on farms, violations of workplace safety laws, and filthy conditions that could breed pathogens and threaten public health, they say.

“Today is a dark day for animals in Ontario, and for transparency and free expression,” said lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, in a release.

“Ontario’s ag gag law makes a bad situation far worse for animals. Animal farming is already highly secretive, with animals locked up behind closed doors with no regulations to protect their welfare, and no government inspections to monitor their well-being…

“In 2020, citizens expect meaningful public oversight for farmed animals—not an unconstitutional law that will inevitably be struck down by the courts after a costly legal challenge.”

Bill 156 is similar to so-called “ag gag” laws that have been struck down as unconstitutional by courts in Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Kansas, and North Carolina, opponents say.

Over 40 Canadian legal experts wrote to the government in February to advise that Bill 156 is unconstitutional because it attacks freedom of expression and could make investigative journalism at farms and slaughterhouses illegal.

The bill was introduced by Ernie Hardeman, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, in December and sprang from incidents in recent years, of individuals or groups trespassing on farms, spraying graffiti on walls, contaminating food and disrupting the management of farms. Activists claim they enter farms secretly to reveal examples of animal cruelty that would otherwise never come to light.

The Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020 helps deter trespassers by:

– escalating fines of up to $15,000 for a first offence and $25,000 for subsequent offences, compared to a maximum of $10,000 under the Trespass to Property Act;

– prescribing aggravating factors that would allow the court to consider factors that might justify an increased fine;

– allowing the court to order restitution for damage in prescribed circumstances which could include damage to a farmer’s livestock or from theft;

– increasing protection for farmers against civil liability from people who were hurt while trespassing or contravening the act, provided the farmer did not directly cause the harm;

– removing consent to enter a farm property when it was given under duress or false pretenses.

“Our government will always protect the right for people to participate in lawful protests. The Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020 does not change that. However, that right has never included trespassing onto private property and harassing farmers and their families,” said Hardeman.

Labchuk, at Animal Justice, agrees that COVID-19 has taught us lessons but her group has a different take-away.

“Transparency in the food system is needed more now than ever before. Slaughterhouse workers across the country are being infected and dying of COVID-19,” she said.

“Meanwhile, deadly viruses regularly emerge from factory farms, including bird and swine flu. Legislation that covers up conditions that can cause zoonotic diseases, unsafe work environments, and animal cruelty will have deadly consequences for humans and animals alike.”

Last year, the government passed the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act, 2019, giving Ontario the strongest penalties in Canada for people who are convicted of animal abuse. The province now has the first fully provincial government-based animal welfare enforcement system in Canada.

If anybody in Ontario believes that an animal is being mistreated, they should call 1-833-9ANIMAL or 1-833-926-4625 and have a trained inspector investigate the allegation.

Together, the acts protect animals and farmers, the government says.

Bill 156 received broad support from Rural Ontario Municipal Association, Association of Municipalities Ontario, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Chicken Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Pork, the Ontario Livestock Transporters’ Alliance, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Food and Beverage Ontario and the Ontario Mutual Insurance Association.

The ministry will continue consulting with stakeholders to develop the regulations that must be put in place before the Act can be proclaimed into force.