Farmers see crackdown, activists see coverup as Ontario farm trespass law kicks in

(Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

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A controversial new Ontario law to crack down on animal rights activists who trespass on farms took effect over the weekend, packing harsher penalties for break-ins.

But such activists have slammed it as an “ag-gag” law, saying it will stop them from exposing animal cruelty on farms.

The new law makes it illegal to enter an “animal protection zone” on a farm or processing facility without the owner’s consent or to interfere with any animals on those sites

Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman announced Friday that Bill 156, the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020, had been proclaimed by the Ontario government.

“This act reinforces protection for farmers, agri-food business, farm animals and our food supply, while promoting safety and maintaining the rights of people to participate in legal protests on public property,” Hardeman said during a digital news conference.

Ernie Hardeman (File photo)

The maximum fine for a first offence is $15,000, with repeat offenders facing fines up to $25,000 — up from a maximum $10,000 fine under the Trespass to Property Act.

Courts now also can order restitution for damages to farms, and farmers are protected from civil liability for anyone hurt while trespassing.

A section of the bill making it illegal to stop or obstruct a truck carrying farm animals took effect in September.

The contentious laws have drawn praise from the farm community, who said they need more protections to fend off trespassers and activists.

Hardeman said some farmers have “no longer felt safe” on their own properties.

“Trespass onto farms, in barns and processing facilities and interfering with transport vehicles can have devastating impacts on the health and safety of our food supply,” said Peggy Brekveld, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

Peggy Brekveld, the 2021 president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).

Animal rights activists countered, arguing the law isn’t actually about biosecurity risks, but is designed to chill their ability to expose animal cruelty or unlawful activities on farms.

“This law is about one thing and one thing only and that’s covering up animal cruelty,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice. “Outlawing access to farms and slaughterhouses means whistle-blowers will no longer be able to bring information forward that’s normally kept behind closed doors.”

Under the new law, individuals can be charged if they gain consent to access the property under “false pretences,” meaning journalists and activists undertaking undercover investigations could face penalties.

This week, an undercover investigation by Animal Justice at a Southwestern Ontario pig farm produced hidden-camera footage of animals being beaten, kicked and slapped by workers, living in filthy conditions and not receiving veterinary care for injuries, Labchuk said.

She said this could be the last such investigation in the province.

“It’s shocking that the government’s response to the egregious, unchecked abuse of pigs that we revealed this week with hidden-camera footage is not to take action to address animal cruelty on farms,” she said.

Labchuck said there aren’t enough regulations to protect farm animals in Ontario and no public inspections.

“The government should be passing regulations and providing inspections to get this under control,” she said. “Instead, they’re giving carte blanche to the industry to cover up their own cruelty.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada