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.
Farm groups are also expected to speak at the committee Monday and Tuesday.
The bill could be passed into law later this month by the Progressive Conservative government.
Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman 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.
Hardeman’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.