TORONTO — A proposed law to protect farmers from aggressive protesters will trample freedom of speech, say animal rights activists who are calling on the Ontario government to reverse course on the bill.
The activists told a legislative committee Monday that the bill - dubbed the Security from Trespass and Animal Safety Act - will violate the charter and will spark legal challenges.
The bill was introduced in 2019 by the Ontario government and would hike fines for trespassing on farms and food-processing facilities and make it illegal to obstruct trucks carrying farm animals.
The executive director of Animal Justice told an all-party committee reviewing the legislation that the bill is a step backwards for animal protection and is unconstitutional.
“We’ve seen this movie before and the lengthy court battle will waste taxpayer funds at a time when we’re going further into debt,” Camille Labchuk said.
The legislation comes after livestock producers pressed Premier Doug Ford’s government to take action to prosecute those who trespass on their properties and demonstrate at processing plants.
Under the legislation, fines for trespassing would be set at a maximum of $15,000 for a first offence and up to $25,000 for subsequent offences, compared to current maximum trespassing fines of $10,000.
The bill would allow a court to order restitution for any injury, loss or damage caused as a result of an offence.
The proposed law would also increase protection for farmers against civil liability from people who are hurt while trespassing on their property.
Miranda Desa, a consultant for the group Last Chance for Animals, said the bill would make it illegal to gain access to a farm or processing plant under “false pretenses.”
That would mean animal rights groups could not expose cases of abuse by using whistleblowers who work on a farm or in a processing plant.
“The bill will make it a crime to reveal the truth,” Desa said. “This is a severe erosion in oversight and transparency and an unjustified intrusion on freedom of expression. Whistleblowers are an essential part of our legal system regulating animal agriculture.”
Groups that advocate for farmers have said livestock producers across all sectors are subject to strict rules and inspections in order to ensure animals are treated safely and humanely.
Ed Benjamins, chairman of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, said that organization supports the measure and is concerned with what it sees as “disturbing trends” where activists trespass on farms and put families and animals at risk.
“Existing laws have not been strong enough to protect our farms and our homes from the risk of invasion,” he said. “Ontario chicken farmers expect that the same level of protection be afforded to their homes as are enforced for homes in urban and suburban Ontario.”
Benjamins said the threat to the biosecurity of farms, and the risk of spreading disease, is a serious concerns.
Trespassers can unknowning carry illnesses into a barn and that can result in the loss of animals and put the food supply chain at risk, he said.
“We change our footwear, we change our clothing, everything is done on my farm, and everyone’s farm to prevent contamination ... if those (measures) are breached the effects can be catastrophic,” he said.
The government has said the proposed law would help ensure the biosecurity of the province’s food supply while also striking a balance that ensures the right to protest.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner, who is a member of the committee, said he is concerned about the “unintended consequences” of the bill and what it could mean to the reputation of Ontario’s farming community.
In U.S. states where these types of bills have been implemented, court challenges have hurt trust in farmers, he said.
“It will be a very contentious, high-profile litigation,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said the bill will not prevent any worker from raising concerns to a farm operator or from reporting that to the government.
“This bill is about protecting the safety of farmers, their families and their farm animals from unlawful and risky trespass activities,” he said in a statement.
“Individuals would never tolerate having strangers unlawfully enter their homes and to be threatened and harassed by those strangers. Farmers are no different and deserve the same protection under the law.”
The committee hearings are to continue Tuesday but the bill could be passed into law later this month by the Progressive Conservative government.