Ridden with anxiety: the view from the truck cab on July 29

Michael Koch’s butterflies are not those induced by the sweet nectar of love, but the gut-tearing sharpness of anxiety’s iron wings. 

Ag supporters (with banner) celebrate after police remove activist Sabrina Desgagnes and other animal rights activists from in front of a transport entering the Sofina Fearman's Pork Ltd. processing plant (Diana Martin, Ontario Farmer)

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Michael Koch’s butterflies are not those induced by the sweet nectar of love, but the gut-tearing sharpness of anxiety’s iron wings.

“Is today gonna be the day that I end up like our other driver? Are police gonna do their job, and just kind of enforce a little bit of a safety barrier?” Koch said. “Or am I going to be looked at as the evil person delivering pigs to the abattoir? What’s going to happen today?”

These are the questions Michael Koch faces every time he approaches the animal rights activists (ARAs) protesting at the gates of Sofina Fearmans Pork Ltd. in Burlington.

In recent weeks Koch has taken to live-streaming his approach and subsequent wait along Appleby Line before turning into the processing plant’s gates in order to show the reality of what drivers deal with.

“We’re trying to do a job here, we’re trying to be safe,” said Koch. “But if I don’t bring attention to this and show the hypocrisy of all the sides then how are things going to change and get better?”

Koch’s July 29 video shows him picking up a load of 190 hogs and hitting the road by 7:09 a.m. and arriving at the processing plant by approximately 9:40 a.m.

He pulls up to the lights at the mouth of the facility in the left lane. His tractor is an older model and he needs both lanes in order to make the tight turn.

He looks at both wing mirrors on his truck, the go-pro on his head showing the clear line of sight down each side, the left shows the officer directing cars around him, the right shows a police vehicle blocking the right lane.

Today he’s dealing with a good officer, one who ensures no activist will leave the sidewalk as he pulls into the processing plant. As he moves his truck forward, the protestors pull a yellow strap taut across the width of the entrance, his truck shudders to a halt and he asks the officer to have the line removed and he carries on safely.

Koch said enforcement from Halton Regional Police Service is sporadic at best. He’s been threatened with arrest because he refused to move forward until it was safe and had officers ignore his requests for a safety check, or to move someone out of his blind spots.

But this day is a rare moment when the police have put his safety first and highlights how protestors can protest safely and honour the animals in his trailer from the sidewalk.

Koch considers it a win.

The next day when he rolls into the same area, it was be filled with ARAs and, for the first time, a group supporting drivers, farmers, animal agriculture and the importance of Bill 156 in protecting all those things, as well as protestors.

The support is appreciated and the turnout is larger than he expected, but the potential for chaos to erupt and him to lose someone in his blind spot has him on edge.

What he does see is an increased police presence and a number of protestors being physically moved from in front of trucks and increased attention to clearing ARAs and supporters from the roads for safety. Sgt. Ismet Brahimir, HRPS District Response Unit in Burlington, informed Ontario Farmer that the current mandate is to maintain peace for everybody involved.

When Brahimir took on the Fearmans file in June he was told there was an agreement between the truckers, Sofina Fearmans Pork Ltd. and the protestors that the trucks would stop for two minutes in order for the pigs to be ‘honoured’ by the activists.

“The Ontario Livestock Transporters’ Alliance (OLTA), nor any individual transport company has ever entered into an agreement with protestors regarding stopping the trucks,” said Susan Fitzgerald, OLTA executive director. “It is simply too dangerous for all concerned to have the protestors up around the trucks and trailers.”

Following the death of animal activist Regan Russell, instead of tightening rules to keep protestors from approaching the livestock trailers and trucks, the HRPS allowed them to increase the delay time to five minutes for a period of two weeks. During the July 31 protest New Wave organizer Sabrina Desgagne could be heard arguing with an HRPS officer that the five-minute time has been approved and they can choose between the two time options.

When Ontario Farmer asked Brahimir why the police allowed the extension instead of tightening safety protocols he said livestock drivers and Sofina had agreed to the extra time because it was a short-term situation.

“Everything is being done currently safely, aside from what happened this Thursday (July 30),” he said, referring to Desgagne running in front of transports with the right of way. “Which was an anomaly, which won’t occur again.” Desgagne was captured on several videos running into the path of a moving transport before being dragged off by police and ticketed, however, activists were not stopped from shutting down four lanes of live traffic in the intersection by transports with the direct right-of-way into the plant on Aug. 6. highlighting the sporadic enforcement of laws around public and motorist safety by HRPS.

Given that one activist has already died because protestors are approaching livestock transports, Ontario Farmer pressed for a reason why HRPS wasn’t enforcing existing laws much like the Ontario Provincial Police service does when policing ARA actions. Brahimir was also asked why HRPS didn’t dissolve the ‘agreement’ in favour of safer protocols in the aftermath of the June 19 death.

“That’s exactly what we’re doing now,” said Brahimir. “I’m speaking with Sofina now to come up with a safer protocol – with the protestors, Sofina and the Trucking Association.”

Fitzgerald confirmed that OLTA, Ontario Pork, and Sofina, in conjunction with the HRPS, have been trying to find an appropriate solution to ensure safety for all involved over the past four years.

“The obvious solution is to ensure the protestors stay on the sidewalk and not be allowed to approach or touch the truck and trailers,” she said. “However, to accomplish that requires the cooperation of the police to enforce it.”

Fitzgerald said the OLTA has remained steadfast in the position that as long as protestors continue to warm the truck and trailers, it is an unsafe situation for ARAs, the drivers and the animals they are transporting.

“I guess they don’t want to pick sides,” said Koch, of HRPS response. “But you shouldn’t have to pick sides to enforce laws.”