The province of Manitoba recently became the fourth province in Canada to pass ag-gag laws. Ag-gag laws got their name from the intended effect of gagging activists from exposing the truth about the animal agriculture industry. As the fourth province to pass ag-gag laws, Manitoba joins Alberta, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island.
Ag-gag laws grew in popularity in the United States in the 2010s and were not introduced in Canada until 2019. These laws were introduced in direct reaction to increased animal rights activism and undercover investigations on farms and in slaughterhouses. Although each ag-gag law is different, common features include (1) dramatically increasing fines for trespassing on farms, (2) prohibit ‘false pretenses’ or lying to get a job on a farm, and (3) reducing owner liability if activists get hurt on farm property.
A new feature of Canadian ag-gag laws is banning interactions with animals on transport trucks. These laws work together to prevent activists and whistleblowers from recording and publicly sharing information about what happens to farmed animals in Canada.
The purpose of ag-gag laws is clear: the animal agriculture industry and provincial governments don’t want you to know what happens to animals on Canadian farms, during transport, or in slaughterhouses.
This is extremely troubling, as animal rights activists play an important truth-telling role. Activists and undercover investigations have revealed the conditions for animals in Canadian farms. For example, undercover investigations by Animal Justice and Mercy for Animals have exposed alleged animal abuse and other animal welfare issues in Canadian agriculture. As the industry is exempted by provincial animal welfare laws, activists become the last line of accountability for the public to learn the truth about the industry. In exposing the animal agriculture industry, activists also illuminate inhumane working conditions, environmental degradation, and food safety risks.
In the U.S., organizations including the Animal Legal Defence Fund have taken to the courts to argue that the suppression of activist information sharing violates the First Amendment right to free speech. In each of the six states where a constitutional challenge has been brought, the courts have agreed that ag-gag laws are unconstitutional and struck down the laws. Ag-gag laws have been struck down in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa, Kansas, and North Carolina. Litigation is pending in Arkansas.
In Canada, Animal Justice, along with Jessica Scott-Reid and Louise Jorgensen, have filed a Charter Challenge against Ontario’s ag-gag law. They similarly claim that Ontario’s ag-gag law unconstitutionally infringes the s. 2(b) Charter freedom of expression. Indeed, it appears Canada is following in the footsteps of the United States in folding to the agriculture industry’s pressure to pass unconstitutional ag-gag laws just to have them challenged and struck down in court.
The Manitoba ag-gag law is the newest province to add its own ag-gag laws. On May 25, 2021, Manitoba passed legislation that amended the Animal Diseases Act, and the Petty Trespass Act, and Occupier’s Liability Act. The amendments prohibit trespassing onto farms or other places where farmed animals are kept, limit owner/occupier liability for the harm experienced by trespassers and prohibits activists from giving food or water to animals in transport trucks.
In passing the ag-gag laws, the Minister of Agriculture and Resource Development, Blaine Pedersen, stated that the law will “allow our farms and food processors to continue to produce food–or, to produce world-class, safe and healthy foods in a humane way with amendments that will enable law enforcement to protect the safety of food, livestock, and people.”
Responding to Pedersen, Member of the Legislative Assembly Diljeet Brar countered that the law “goes too far to target the rights of protesters, the people who care about animals, the people who care about fair treatment of animals, the people who raise their voices against animal cruelty at factory farms.” Brar goes on to ask “why the government is targeting the whistle-blowers and attacking [animal rights activist] rights to protest?”
Despite the possible limits to activist freedom of expression, Manitoba’s ag-gag law was passed largely along party lines, with Progressive Conservative members voting to pass, and New Democratic Party and Liberal members voting against passing.
Activists and legal professionals are rightly concerned about the possible Charter violations, and additional litigation is inevitable. The chilling effects on freedom of expression brought on by ag-gag laws cannot be ignored, and cannot be upheld. Canadians should know how their food is produced, and make informed purchasing choices based on transparency. Ag-gag laws that shield the agriculture industry from public scrutiny should be struck down.
Samantha is an LLM student at Osgoode Hall Law School, researching the areas of animal law, constitutional law, and policy development. Samantha is also a licensed lawyer with the Law Society of Ontario and Instructor with York University’s Law & Society Program.