Barry Kent MacKay, Director
Regan did not have to go out that day, Friday, June 19th. The government had issued a heat alert for here in southern Ontario, the dangers of heat and humidity augmented by the presence of Covid-19, the pandemic. There is social unrest everywhere. It was safest, for those of us who had the ability to do so, to putter about our homes in air-conditioned comfort. Regan certainly did not have to go out that day, the last day of her life, her final hours spent to the last moment doing what she did in opposition to oppression, abuse and cruelty.
These are unhappily strange times and early on the morning of the 19th I was, as usual, staring at my computer, perusing news about the social upheavals worldwide as a result of events forcing enhanced recognition of bigotry, racial disparity, and the plight of minorities suppressed disproportionately, even killed by the police when there was no need or moral justification. All of us become familiar with names like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, all so prominent in U.S. news coverage. The Black Lives Matter movement is entirely supported by anyone who cares about fairness, justice, equality, and the enforcement of legally enshrined rights. Regan cared and had recently attended a BLM rally.
Addition of the word “too” or “also” or “as much as white lives” to the slogan, Black Lives Matter, is understood, albeit not by the detractors of the BLM movement who counter-claim by claiming All Lives Matter, surely dog-whistle language to deny the existence of systemic racism. But all human lives do not matter equally, as indicated by so many identified instances of fatal action by the police, disproportionately against people of colour, thereby necessitating the BLM movement.
But also, and this I know for sure Regan understood Friday morning as she got ready to leave home for what she could not know was the last time, all lives do not matter, and that is a fact enshrined by law, enhanced by an Ontario law passed just two days earlier.
It is true that as defined where it counts, in law, to the degree the law is upheld, all our lives supposedly matter, regardless of age, sex, sexual orientation, colour, religious belief, or cognitive acuity – all features dependent on factors over which we have little or no control – but they don’t. There are still many individuals for whom such laws don’t exist or are not adequately enforced. Although she was 65 both Regan’s parents are still alive. Regan knew that they were in a demographic that we knew, thanks to whistleblowers, activists and investigative reporting, suffered horrific abuse and, of late, disproportionately high mortality from Covid-19 – that demographic being the elderly in long term care homes. Government had and was still continuing to dismantle regulations, what they call “red tape”, seen as an impediment to profits by private owners. This was especially true at the for-profit ones where most Covid-19 deaths occurred. Investors increased their wealth while failing to protect their vulnerable elderly residents. What we learned about the horrors of elder abuse we learned from insider information, investigations and whistleblowers. Authoritarian governments hate whistleblowers.
I stayed in my air conditioned home, Friday morning. When I saw on my computer screen that an “animal activist” had been killed Friday morning it was a brief note, few details except that it was in Burlington. Burlington, Vermont, I desperately hoped. Burlington, West Virginia? But the source was CTV, a Canadian news outlet, and I suddenly became sickly fearful. I quickly re-posted to several animal protection community lists I’m on, doing two things I had never before in the subject line: prefaced it with “TRAGEDY” and retyped the headline, also in upper case. I pushed send, and then started an internet search. Who was it? Statistical probabilities favoured it being no one I knew. But a friend wrote to ask if I knew who it was, as if she did. “Who?” I asked. Instead of the expected e-mail response, there was a phone call. A mutual friend. She said, “It was Regan”.
All lives do not matter. Our genes still determine our treatment by society. The DNA that determines our skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, mental capacity and the circumstances that determine our religion or nationality are things over which we have no control, but neither do we have control over our species. If we’re born the wrong one, which means pretty well any one of the majority of the earth’s individuals, thus not reading this or able to speak on our own behalf, we may be legally tortured and tormented for fun or, indeed, more often for profit so there can be spare ribs on the table tonight, ham in the sandwich.
Millions did stay cool, enjoyed leisure, that Friday, and many would, that night, dine on ribs or chops or ham, it being unthinkable not to. For those people who could do that, others must suffer pain, fear, premature death. Even though they also wanted to live, also had the ability to feel fear and pain, vast numbers of pigs were moved out of horrific, noisy, dirty confines, absent the feel of grass, sun or rain through their short, severely confined lives, and were shipped, whatever the weather, with assembly-line efficiency, jammed into train cars and trucks, sent to places where they would be lined up and, one by one killed, more than 45,000 of them slaughtered at the one plant that was Regan’s destination when she left home that hot, Friday morning.
And what was Regan going to do? She was trying to relieve the terrible suffering endured by these pigs. She wanted to convince everyone she talked to that a healthy life could be lived without imposing suffering on millions of farmed any by changing to a plant-based diet.
Regan cared. What Regan was doing was trying to do was what she had done before over the last four years. She was going off to again bear witness, to acknowledge at some level that these beings also had interests, could also suffer. And she sought to ease their suffering, as did a handful of other activists present, with something we all take for granted, even on a blazing hot day, until we don’t have it: water. She was just giving them water, and in that simple gesture, she showed that we should not be indifferent to suffering. Regan cared.
As I understand, the protocol, agreed upon by the slaughterhouse, was for each truck to stop on public property at the gates to the slaughterhouse, with one activist standing in front of the vehicle, the other giving water to those pigs still alive and well enough to come to the small openings in the side of the truck. Then the two activists would change places. Signs are carried in hope that a passing motorist or better yet, media, might take note, but there is no effort to judge those who don’t understand or share the values of the demonstrators, may even be unable to understand, why the suffering of another being, especially one not like them, already doomed, should matter. The media’s interest, barring an “incident”, is always elsewhere.
I first met Regan about forty years ago. She was as stunning as a fashion model, which, in fact she was, in the process of transitioning to running her own modelling agency. She took pride in her appearance, graced by nature but augmented by an inherent sense of style. Her throaty voice and statuesque looks alone meant that she was a strong presence in any crowd, and all the more so when she spoke, always with gentle wit and sharply honed insight. Her pride was beautifully balanced by her sense of humour, often self-deprecatory, and the grace of her movements, her interest in others and her efficiency. She was well-educated, smart and hard working. She got things done.
She was Regan Wood more than forty years ago, when I first met her, and she was married to Brian Wood, an affable TV meteorologist. They seemed the perfect young, upwardly mobile and very happy couple, although the marriage didn’t last. She was later to re-marry, inheriting two step kids, and living too far from my own home for our paths to cross as often as before. She helped Animal Alliance of Canada in its early days in many ways, perhaps most notably by producing a cruelty-free fashion show fund-raiser. She went on to join the staff of the Kindness Club, an elite charity founded by J. Cameron Watson (1921 – 2004) which sent her and her rescued dog into grades from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 to teach the kids the principles of kindness, at no charge to school boards. Some boards were at first afraid she’s proselytize and make children feel guilty for such common practices as meat-eating or wearing fur, but once they saw her approach, non-judgemental, interactive, upbeat and encouraging, she was welcomed back. I went with her once to watch her teach. She had an instant rapport with the kids. She was involved in a sanctuary for donkeys for many years, and kept many different rescued animals throughout her life, with full support from her partner, Mark, and support and encouragement from her parents, themselves full of compassion and generosity. She was a strong mentor to others, but never seemed to seek the limelight, never moved in the direction of the recognition she so deserved.
Although she was about 12 years my junior, Regan and I and so many others, most still around and active or not to varying degrees, were part of a group from the Greater Toronto Area who were tired of the acceptance of animals as ours to treat as we will, so long as their suffering was traditional, or in the interest of fun and profit. Only the most egregious cruelty could be punished under law, and then only if fully documented. Animals were, and still are, things, as defined in law.
We met socially, we held meetings, attended conferences, held demonstrations, sought out strategies and techniques and vetted philosophical arguments, poured over scientific literature, shared the jokes and the odd illicit joint and so very often, we had fun. Those were days of youth, surety, optimism, exploration and energy. Regan and I shared secrets, and confided in each other, she becoming a needed sisterly presence for me in a life devoid of sisters, a young mentor to me in my own time of psychological need and a guide into social mores I sometimes grasped with difficulty. When she moved so far away we kept in touch by phone. As we moved, me with staggering ineptitude, into the digital era, she was a Facebook person who eschewed e-mail while I work with e-mails, being inept with Facebook. Happily, we had the telephone as common ground and often long, wonderful talks where we might decide how best to save the world, or parts of it at any rate.
It was some four years ago that Regan sometimes joined demonstrations of what is called the Save movement, specifically Toronto Pig Save. She cared about all animals but was more involved with the plight of domestic farm animals while I am a naturalist, most involved with wildlife. Then along came the present government, not only as bad as the previous one, but worse. It regurgitated Bill 156.
It is natural, in writing about a life cut short, to focus on the last pages of the final chapter and what led to the closing moments. But Regan was the sum of a richly fulfilled and joyously lived life of decency, goodness and productivity, always helping others. As fellow activist Anita Krajnc said, “She supported Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights and she was an intersectional vegan who understood the importance of equality in terms of racial justice and in terms of animal equality.”
Equality in what? Well, for starters, the ability to suffer stress, pain and fear. That farmed animals too often do so has been exposed of late by a series of revealing video footage and other materials often obtained surreptitiously by groups such as Last Chance for Animals, which, two years ago, took a camera into a goat dairy farm in Caledon, Ontario. The results (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKPHpC2-1QI) were to be shown to the committee of the Ontario legislature reviewing Bill 156, but they refused to allow it! They would not watch. They joined president Donald Trump in believing if you can’t see it, it can’t be happening.
But it is, notwithstanding investigatory bodies. The truth about what happens to farmed animals is now more difficult to expose than before, because of the passage, two days before Regan’s last moments feeling the sun on her skin, of Bill 156 by the Ontario provincial government.
Bill 156 makes it not only all the more difficult to shine the light of transparency on how animals may be abused in agriculture but leads to an egregious degree of punishment against those who try to reveal truths. The bill prevents investigations by journalists, individuals like you and me and groups such as Last Chance for Animals, Mercy for Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others whose hidden cameras and undercover investigations have brought to light so much painful mishandling of animals in the interest of what so many people eat or wear. It is abuse that happens whether we see it or not, but more if we don’t see it, and that is what the government has made happen. Few dangers to society are greater than the elimination of transparency and provision of hard facts. Beware the secret state. That is why before it was passed Bill 156 was criticized by dozens of lawyers and legal scholars as unconstitutional (https://www.animaljustice.ca/media-releases/ontario-ag-gag-bill-is-unconstitutional-say-leading-legal-experts), and why, on June 10, the Canadian Association of Journalist raised numerous concerns in written testimony, all ignored.
But all Regan wanted to do was bear witness, a practice learned from the Quakers, to give water to parched, panting animals soon to die, to hold up a sign, to exercise what democracies around the world see as a fundamental right, to advocate, peacefully, on behalf of others. She never hid cameras or wore a press pass or broke or entered windowless buildings or wrote exposés, but even her activity, peaceful, designed to ease suffering, will now be illegal.
Regan did not have to go out that hot, Friday morning. But she did, for a reason I believe an anonymous child who wrote in a poem in 1941 would fully understand:
He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.
When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A bird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.
Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive.
The poet is anonymous as she or he was one of some fifteen thousand children who passed through the Terezin Concentration Camp in World War II, of whom all but 132 did not survive.
There are things we would rather not know, rather not see, but some go out, as did my dear, lovely, sadly missed friend, Regan Russell, on a hot morning in June, never to return. May she take earned rest and eternal peace from all that is small-minded, mean-spirited, and cruel.