Ag-Gag Comes North

Laws that criminalize exposure of inhumane animal treatment have come to Canada - will they be struck down, as they have in the US?

by Gavin MacRae

Photo taken during an undercover investigation on foie gras farms in Quebec. | Photo © Farm Sanctuary

Upton Sinclair worked undercover for seven weeks in Chicago meatpacking plants to research The Jungle, his famous muckraking novelization of the brutal working conditions, filth, and animal cruelty commonplace in America’s stockyards and abattoirs at the start of the 20th century.1

The public outrage from his exposé prompted the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate sanitary conditions in slaughterhouses, the Meat Inspection Act to govern the condition of livestock heading to slaughter, and the eventual formation of the US Food and Drug Administration.2

Modern undercover investigations – now with hidden cameras – continue to expose inhumane conditions for animals in agriculture.

Except where they are illegal.

In the 1990s, with a push from the meat industry, US states began to pass an​ti-​whistleblower legislation, known commonly in animal activism circles as agricultural gag laws or “ag-gag.”3 The laws had a surge of popularity in the 2010s.

“Ag-gag refers to a number of different types of laws proposed first in the United States, that seek to silence people from speaking out about animal cruelty conditions on farms, and specifically try to prevent people from exposing those conditions through photos or videos,” says Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, a Canadian animal law non-profit.

Ag-gag laws impose bans on taking photos and videos on farms and other animal facilities, or target undercover investigations by activists, journalists, or employees by making it an offence to gain access to farms under false pretences. In some states the laws also include “quick reporting” clauses that require witnesses to animal cruelty to report to the authorities within a short time frame – typically 24 or 48 hours – or be party to the abuse under the law. In this way undercover investigators are prevented from amassing enough evidence to build strong cases against abusers.4

Ag-gag roosts in Canada

Two such laws have recently been passed in Canada: the Trespass Statutes (Protecting Law-abiding Property Owners) Amendment Act 2019 (Bill 27) in Alberta, and the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Security Act 2020 (Bill 156) in Ontario.

Alberta’s law vastly increases penalties for those found trespassing on rural properties, decreases civil liability for property owners if a trespasser is injured or killed, makes anyone entering farmland on false pretences a trespasser, and adds explicit references to land used for animal rearing. The bill was put forward after dozens of activists occupied a free-range turkey farm in southern Alberta to highlight what they alleged were cramped conditions and poor air quality for the animals. Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said the law will help deter protests by “animal rights radicals,” the Edmonton Journal reported.5

“It’s already illegal to trespass on farms. People who trespass on farms have been prosecuted and convicted in many cases, so there’s no legal gap there. What these laws are really aimed at is shutting down those images from coming out.”

Ontario’s law similarly raises fines for trespassers on farmland and food processing facilities, or people found interfering with livestock transportation. The legislation also makes using false pretences to gain access to farms illegal and gives farm owners powers to arrest individuals on their property.6

In a written statement, the Canadian Association of Journalists said the bill strips away whistleblower protections, exposes journalists to lawsuits and arrest by farm owners, and criminalizes work done in the public interest.

Weeks previous to the law’s enactment, the investigative television program W5 featured hard-to-watch footage obtained surreptitiously by Animal Justice documenting several types of abuse on an Ontario pig farm.7 Animals are shown being beaten with fists and objects, and being castrated or having tails docked without anaesthesia.

Justified?

Justifications for the laws rely on the assertion that animal welfare activists are a serious security and biosecurity threat to Canadian farms. Biosecurity refers to measures to prevent the introduction or spread of viruses or bacteria in the food system.

In a post from June of last year on the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s website, Keith Currie, president of the OFA, advocated for Ontario’s new law on the grounds that animal welfare activists are trespassing, stealing, harassing farmers and farm employees, and “put the entire food system at risk” by violating biosecurity protocols.8

Labchuk says the threats are imaginary.

“The industry doesn’t like to talk about shutting down undercover investigations, even though that’s the thrust of these laws,” she says. “The industry’s message is always focused on biosecurity and protecting private property, and so they point to times where people have trespassed on farms and they say, ‘This is what we’re trying to stop!’ That’s obviously a lie, because it’s already illegal to trespass on farms. People who trespass on farms have been prosecuted and convicted in many cases, so there’s no legal gap there. What these laws are really aimed at is shutting down those images from coming out.”

Canada’s new laws will face charter challenges for being an affront to freedom of expression.

And while biosecurity is an important goal, Labchuk adds that invoking it as an argument to reduce the transparency of farm animal living conditions is disingenuous – particularly in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In 2020 we all know very well what contributes to the creation and spread of pandemics … factory farms are inherently risky propositions in terms of viral outbreak.”

Why now?

That ag-gag laws have come to Canada is testament to several trends buffeting factory farming, Labchuk says.

Recording and sharing proof of inhumane conditions is easier and more common in the age of smart phones, while the rise of plant-based meat alternatives, the promise of slaughter-free cellular agriculture, and the growing popularity of events such as “Veganuary” – where participants pledge to stick to a vegan lifestyle in January – are eroding support for the meat industry, she says.

“If people can choose less cruel alternatives, they will in every case.”

In recent years there have been rumblings about other potential ag-gag laws in Manitoba, Quebec, and BC, while Prince Edward Island has enacted a law that has some ag-gag elements.

But in the United States the wind is blowing the other way: of the 29 ag-gag laws once on the books, all but six have been challenged, found unconstitutional for violating First Amendment provisions for free speech, and struck down.

Jodi Lazare, assistant professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, says Canada’s new laws are no less vulnerable and will face charter challenges for being an affront to freedom of expression.

“[The laws] limit what people can say and how they express themselves, and in doing so [prevent] people from engaging in democratic discourse,” Lazare says.

A February 2020 letter signed by Lazare and over 40 other legal experts warned the Ontario government that Bill 156 violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.9

“It was said time and time again that these laws will be challenged,” Lazare says. “I told them their law is unconstitutional.”

Lazare adds that many Canadians would be surprised to know that despite claims by industry and some governments about the strengths of animal protection, “There are no laws – written statutes – expressly detailing what constitutes acceptable treatment for animals on a farm.” Instead, she says, the meat industry is left to regulate animal welfare itself with codes of practice.

A loss for ag-gag backers could also be brewing in the court of public opinion. A 2016 study by UBC researchers, published in Food Policy, found that just learning about the existence of ag-gag laws decreased many participants trust in farmers, increased negative perceptions of animal welfare conditions, and increased support for animal welfare regulations.10 11

“What ends up happening is the government gets sued,” Labchuk says. “There is a drawn-out legal proceeding, there is media attention paid to the fact that the government and the industry have conspired to pass these really troubling anti-whistleblower laws, and in the end those laws are struck down, but in the process the farming industry gets dragged through the mud. So frankly, if they were trying to make themselves look bad, I can’t think of a better way to do so than by promoting and passing ag-gag laws.”


Watershed Sentinel Feb-March 2021 CoverThis article appears in our February | March 2021 issue.


  1. The Jungle | Summary, Characters, & Facts | Britannica
  2. What Is Ag-Gag Legislation? | Farm Animal Welfare | ASPCA
  3. What Is Ag-Gag Legislation? | FarmAnimal Welfare | ASPCA
  4. What Is Ag-Gag Legislation? | Farm Animal Welfare | ASPCA
  5. UCP proposesmore protections for rural property owners | Edmonton Journal
  6. Animal rights activists decry Ontario bill that would limit farm protests | CBC News
  7. Hidden Camera Exposes Shocking Abuse at Ontario Pig Farm | CTV W5 -YouTube
  8. Bill 156 protects the safety of Ontario’s farm and foodsupply | Ontario Federation of Agriculture
  9. animaljustice.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-02-10-Bill-156-Sign-on-Letter-FINAL-UPDATED.pdf
  10. Awareness of ag-gaglaws erodes trust in farmers and increases support for animal welfare regulations -ScienceDirect
  11. New Study Finds “Ag-Gag” Laws Erode Trust in Farmers -Modern Farmer

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