Animal welfare advocates are protesting a bill that could see Manitobans jailed or fined for giving livestock food or water while they’re being transported.
A small group of protestors gathered with signs on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg on Saturday afternoon to bring attention to Bill 62, known as the Animal Diseases Amendment Act.
Advocates refer to it as an “ag-gag” law, a term used to describe legislation that forbids people from documenting conditions in the agricultural industry.
Corey Feere, an organizer with Manitoba Animal Save, said it’s not just activists like him who should be concerned about the bill.
“Even if consumers aren’t going to change their choices, they should have the right to know what happens in the farm,” Feere said.
“And this is the farm not allowing you to see how your food’s made and where it comes from.”
Part of the proposed legislation seeks to stop people from interacting with animals being transported, including by giving them food or water, without the permission of the person driving the vehicle.
People found guilty of breaking the Animal Diseases Act can face a fine of up to $10,000 and up to a year in jail.
That’s a longer sentence than a first-time animal abuser could face under Manitoba’s Animal Care Act, which caps that punishment at six months, said Winnipeg-based Kaitlyn Mitchell, a staff lawyer at the national animal law advocacy group Animal Justice.
Mitchell said the proposed legislation is too far-reaching and its penalties too harsh.
“It’s an incredibly broad prohibition and it could really cover a whole range of peaceful activities that happen on public property,” Mitchell said.
“I think it’s really telling about where the government’s priorities are, when they try to make it so severe, the penalties, for something as innocuous — and I would say compassionate — as giving a thirsty animal water.”
Mitchell also pointed to a letter sent to Manitoba Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen earlier this month by a group of Canadian legal experts who raised concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.
Law addresses biosecurity risks: province
The proposed legislation comes as Manitoba seeks to implement another bill proposing tougher penalties for protestors.
The recently introduced Bill 63 would allow the operators of pipelines, provincial highways, courthouses, hospitals and animal-processing facilities to apply for temporary protection zones around those sites.
A spokesperson for Manitoba’s Department of Agriculture and Resource Development said those bills work together to uphold biosecurity standards and protect livestock from contamination.
“These measures are key to protecting animal health, human health and our food supply from risks of contamination and the spread of animal diseases,” the spokesperson said in an email.
“Any witness to animal neglect or abuse has the right to report these offences. Although some people may be well intentioned it is best that those with specific knowledge of animal welfare, government officials and law enforcement officers deal with any concerns related to animal welfare.”
Mitchell, whose group has been pushing back against “ag-gag” laws across Canada, said those arguments don’t line up with the facts.
“Biosecurity risks are real, but they are not caused by peaceful protestors. Biosecurity risks are caused by lax standards or adherence to those standards by farm owners and operators,” she said, like using the same needles on different animals or having workers who go back and forth between facilities.
“To suggest that there’s some sort of risk from members of the public seeing inside these trucks or documenting conditions, I just think that that’s ludicrous.”
Bill 62 is set for another reading at a hearing of a standing committee of the Manitoba legislature on Tuesday, Mitchell said.
And while she thinks the legislation will ultimately pass, she said she would like to see some amendments first — like taking out the prohibition on interacting with animals in transport.
“I hope that the members of the committee will give it a real look and think really critically about it and what kind of province we want to live in.”
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