Ontario “Ag Gag” Bill is Unconstitutional, Say Leading Legal Experts

TORONTO—Dozens of Canadian law professors and constitutional and criminal law experts are sounding the alarm over Ontario’s Bill 156, Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2019.  According to these leading experts on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government bill would infringe individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The so-called “ag gag” bill would make it illegal for whistleblowing employees to expose animal cruelty on farms.
 
In a letter sent today to Minister of Agriculture Ernie Hardeman and Attorney General Doug Downey, the legal experts say the bill must be amended in order to protect citizens’ basic human rights.  
 
“We applaud these leaders in the legal community for stepping up to ensure respect for Ontarians’ basic constitutional rights”, said Kaitlyn Mitchell, staff lawyer with Animal Justice. “The public cares strongly about protecting animals, including animals kept behind the closed doors of industrial farms. Laws that shield those who commit egregious abuse at farms and slaughterhouses by silencing journalists and animal advocates have no place in our free and democratic society.”
 
Bill 156 increases fines for trespassing on agricultural property, and has been promoted by the government as protecting property rights and biosecurity. However, the bill goes much further by giving owners of farm property sweeping powers to arrest individuals on their property, and restricts the public’s ability to gather outside slaughterhouses to document the conditions inside animal transport trucks as animals arrive to slaughter.
 
Bill 156 also makes it an offence to gain access to a farm under “false pretences.” This troubling provision would make it illegal for an employee not to disclose that they intend to expose or film unethical or illegal animal abuse on farms, or to fail to disclose that they are affiliated with an animal protection group. This would affect undercover exposés revealing cruelty on farms. The provision is similar to a number of laws, commonly known as agricultural gag, or “ag gag” laws, that have been introduced in U.S. states. 
 
Courts in the U.S. have repeatedly found that ag gag laws attempting to silence farm whistleblowers violate the First Amendment right to free speech, including in Idaho, Utah, and Iowa. Just last month, the U.S. District Court in Kansas found that the Kansas ag gag law, which makes it a crime to use deception to enter a farm or slaughterhouse to take photographs or recordings, violates the First Amendment. These courts have recognized the fundamental role of whistleblowers in providing information to the public about important animal welfare and food safety issues.
 
Undercover exposés in Ontario have revealed shocking, illegal cruelty to animals, including chicken cruelty at Maple Lodge Farms slaughterhouse, horrific abuse of pigs at Crimson Lane Farms, and violent treatment of turkeys at Hybrid Turkeys, which led to a cruelty conviction for the company. Millbank Fur Farm is still facing charges after whistleblower footage revealed suffering minks just last year.
 
“The government still doesn’t regulate or monitor animal welfare on farms. In the absence of government oversight, whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing animal cruelty, unsafe working conditions, food safety concerns, and environmental problems at farms and slaughterhouses,” said Ms. Mitchell. “Rather than making it even more difficult to detect animal abuse behind the closed doors of factory farms, Ontario should regulate and proactively enforce animal welfare standards on on farms.”

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The letter can be read here.

For more information, contact:

Kaitlyn Mitchell
Staff Lawyer
kmitchell[email protected]

Banner image by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals