The push for animal welfare in Canada is gaining momentum. Here’s what’s on the agenda


Jane Goodall needs no introduction. And you don’t have to be an animal rights activist at heart on your sleeve to feel immense respect for the pioneering animal behavior expert and conservationist who gave us first-hand insight into the world of chimpanzees there. over 60 years ago.

But for those working in animal welfare, the hope is that his name will soon be associated with groundbreaking legislation advancing animal rights in Canada.

Senate Bill S-241, also known as the Jane Goodall Act, aims to protect a multitude of wild animals from suffering in captivity. Its adoption could also serve as a testament to the nascent animal rights movement in this country.

The bill was one of many legal developments on the agenda of the annual Canadian Animal Rights Conference, which saw more than 200 attendees converge on the University of Toronto last weekend. “We thought it was important for the community to share their wisdom,” said attorney Camille Labchuk, executive director of event co-sponsor Animal Justice.

While the United States has hosted a similar conference for 30 years, animal welfare wasn’t even on the radar for the average person in Canada 15 years ago, Labchuk added. But today there is a palpable momentum, with animal welfare a concern for many.

Some believe that climate change and the pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle encourage greater compassion for animals. The increase in the number of pet owners may also be a factor. Then there is the growing call for transparency and ethical standards in the products we buy, including the treatment of food animals.

“Improving animal rights and protections is one of the new social justice challenges of our time,” Labchuk said. “We’re already seeing huge changes in people’s attitudes, politicians taking issues more seriously, and people and consumers rising up, demanding better.”

Canada is starting to catch up, maybe even leading in a few areas. The passage of Bill S-203 in 2019, for example, ended the captivity of whales and dolphins (animals in concrete tanks do not grow as they do in the wild and live twice less time, advocates say) and bans shows for entertainment.

In 2015, Ontario passed a law prohibiting the breeding, buying or selling of killer whales, a law that made headlines again when Kiska – the last surviving killer whale in Ontario’s Marineland – was considered to be suffering in isolation. The laws allowed Marineland to keep the animals it already owned, but many were calling for Kiska to be rehomed.

This is where the proposed whale sanctuary project in Nova Scotia could come in.

Planned to be the world’s first permanent seaside sanctuary for beluga whales and killer whales, the sanctuary will provide refuge for formerly captive animals that are unable to be released back into the ocean for their own safety. With a space 300 times larger than SeaWorld’s largest tank, it will not just be “a place to live but a place to thrive,” according to Lori Marino, president of the project.

The hope is that the sanctuary will welcome its first residents in late 2023. As for who they expect to greet first, Marino is unequivocal. “We want Kiska there and we will fight hard to get him.”

Other legal developments in Canada include a bill to ban fur farming and the Goodall Bill mentioned above. If passed, it has the ability to restrict ownership of more than 800 species of wild animals in Canada that don’t do well in captivity, while effectively ending roadside zoos.

“It would go a long way toward harmonizing national standards for animals in captivity,” Labchuk said.

The bill was first introduced in the Senate in 2020 by Murray Sinclair, a former senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. He said he believed it would help rebalance the relationship with nature, essential to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. A more comprehensive iteration of the bill — with the same mandate — was introduced by Senator Marty Klyne last March.

Canada’s zoo industry is under intense scrutiny. Many argue that confining certain animals to cages is both physically and psychologically harmful. Brittany Semeniuk, a veterinary nurse specializing in emergency medicine and exotic animals, wondered if accredited zoos were doing enough to care for their animals. Moose, for example, are not meant to live in captivity, said Semeniuk, who has seen their natural ecosystem suffer a lot.

And then there are problems with roadside zoos. In May 2019, following a criminal investigation, animal protection officers from the Montreal SPCA seized more than 200 animals from the Saint-Edouard Zoo in Quebec (after a long legal battle and pandemic delays, the number increased to over 300 due to multiple births). In what was a first in Canadian history, the owner of the zoo was arrested and charged with animal cruelty and neglect.

“The current system in Quebec is broken,” said SPCA director of animal protection and legal affairs Sophie Gaillard. “Despite documenting years of violations, the government had reason to act and power to seize, but it did not.” Instead, the zoo reissued its license. “It was our responsibility to intervene under the Criminal Code.

Regarding pets (c. appeal in 2021). This decision can have a real impact, as sentient beings are embodied with rights and position that a kitchen table does not have.

While companion animals have their share of legal challenges, farm animals were put on trial at the conference. For one, pets have better protections overall. On the other hand, farm animals represent the largest group of animals used in Canadian society, with 851 million people killed in 2021 alone. Most importantly, farm animals suffer the worst abuse, putting their welfare first.

On this front, our country is lagging behind. Example: Canada has the longest transport time in the developed world that animals can be in a truck without food, water or rest. And while 10 U.S. states have enacted confinement bans (banning caged animals), Canada has no such law.

In fact, there is not a single law that regulates animals on farms. “We let the agriculture industry set its own animal welfare standards,” Labchuk said. “We don’t oversee companies in industries that use animals, so they’re on their own and without government oversight.”

“It’s really regressive and, quite frankly, a national embarrassment,” said Jodi Lazare, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law who teaches animal law, among other courses. The animal agriculture industry is a huge force in Canada, she added, and despite the “horrendous” conditions on the farms, “the industry was able to convince the government to subsidize it significantly and immunize him from public scrutiny”.

Certainly, there have been slow and incremental commitments by industry to improve conditions. The phasing out of gestation crates for sows is one. Additionally, 100 food companies in Canada have pledged to phase out cages for laying hens (more than 2,300 companies have cage-free commitments worldwide).

But Canada needs to do more, said PJ Nyman of Mercy for Animals, an international nonprofit whose mission is to end industrial animal agriculture through sustainable food systems. In 2021, the organization launched the first Canadian report to rank food companies based on their animal welfare progress. He revealed that 83% of laying hens in Canada were still caged in 2021, compared to 35% in the UK and 71% in the US.

“I used to think that laws are just a reflection of attitudes, and as attitudes change, laws will catch up,” Labchuk said. She now sees a huge disparity between the two, with profit being the underlying cause. There is a lot of money to be made exploiting animals, after all.

Yet animal welfare seems to be winning the hearts and courts of public opinion, and advocates are lining up for the chance to make a difference. “The number of registrations for my course this year is the highest ever,” said Lazare. “Canadians should carefully celebrate the changes that have happened, but also recognize that there is a lot of work to be done.

Labchuk would agree. “Our challenge is to encourage more people to be active and to make it clear that it is no longer acceptable for animals to have so few protections in 2022,” she said. “I’m very confident we’ll get there.”


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