Ontario appealing decision that found OSPCA’s powers to be unconstitutional

A dog from Canada's north awaits transfer to an OSPCA shelter as part of the Northern Dog program. SUBMITTED PHOTO

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TORONTO — The Ontario government is appealing a court ruling that found the enforcement powers held by the province’s private animal welfare agency were unconstitutional.

Last month’s decision had found the government was wrong to grant police powers to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals without also imposing accountability and transparency standards on the agency.

The Attorney General of Ontario filed the notice of appeal on several grounds, including one arguing the court erred when it recognized a new principle of fundamental justice that law enforcement bodies must be subject to reasonable standards of transparency and accountability.

“This principle does not meet the criteria for a principle of fundamental justice set out by the Supreme Court of Canada,” the notice of appeal reads.

The OSPCA, a private charity that receives millions of taxpayer dollars as well as private donations, has had police powers since the OSPCA Act became law in 1919. It enforces both provincial and Criminal Code animal cruelty laws.

The agency is not accountable like police forces across the province that must comply with the Police Services Act, the Ombudsman Act and freedom-of-information laws.

Jeffrey Bogaerts, a paralegal with an interest in animal law welfare, launched the constitutional challenge over the OSPCA’s powers five years ago as a matter of public interest. He had no personal dealings with the OSPCA, but believed that the government didn’t have the proper checks and balances on the agency’s policing powers.

The government argues the court should not have allowed public interest standing to Bogaerts to launch the challenge.

Bogaerts lawyer, Kurtis Andrews, said he wasn’t surprised the government wants to appeal, but said he and his client would continue to push their side of the case.

“It’s all more or less restating their initial arguments,” Andrews said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”

Justice Timothy Minnema, who ruled on the case, said many sections within the OSPCA Act violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The attorney general argues in the notice of appeal, however, that the judge made a mistake about the Charter violations.

On Jan. 2, Minnema gave the government a year to rewrite the legislation that governs the OSPCA.

Community safety Minister Sylvia Jones, who is responsible for overseeing the enforcement arm of the OSPCA, said the government recognizes the importance of animal welfare.

“While our government has decided to appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal … that does not mean that Ontario’s animal welfare regime cannot be strengthened and improved,” Jones said in a statement, adding that the province has been holding discussions on the matter with stakeholders.

“Our goal is an approach that is transparent and accountable, and ultimately improves the animal welfare system across Ontario.”

Animal Justice, which intervened in the case, said it will look to intervene again in the appeal.

“Animal Justice is committed to ensuring the animals’ interests are represented at every step of this appeal,” said its executive director, Camille Labchuk.

The OSPCA has declined to comment, saying it is a matter between the courts and the Ontario government.

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