By Barry Kent MacKay, Director
When federal Bill C-246, The Modernizing Animal Protections Act, was proposed by Liberal back-bencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, it seemed sensible, yes, and so tepid in what it sought to do that there was no way it could be opposed. But I’ve been in the animal protection business in Canada a long time, and I know the fanaticism of “the other side”, the various animal use industries who always claim they treat animals as humanely as possible while also always opposing even the most minor legislative changes that would have absolutely nothing to do with them.
Canada is woefully behind the U.S. and Western Europe and other regions in legislation protecting animals, and I have come to expect no significant progress from Canada in that regard. Federal protection for animals in the Criminal Code of Canada dates back, virtually unchanged, to 1892. The first time I had hopes that we could move closer into the 20th century ironically came at the close of that century, in 1999, when Liberal MP Anne McLellan tabled Bill C17. It died with a call for an election in 2000.
In the following 17 years I’ve seen so many good attempts at progressive changes based on McLellan’s original bill fail that I am no longer good at optimism. That McLellan, the lone Liberal MP in all Alberta at the time, saw a need for change was hideously illustrated by an event that, like all such events, trigger outrage from the vast majority of Canadians. We really are not as cruel or indifferent as our laws suggest.
That incident occurred in 1997, in Edmonton, when a couple of guys tied two dogs to a tree and crushed their skulls with baseball bats. They were charged, but acquitted, because, as the judge, sickened as most of us would be, said at the time, “…there is no law…”
Still isn’t. Bill C-15, Bill C-15B, Bill C-10, Bill C10B or Bill C-50 all, one way or another, failed. I naively got my hopes up in 2003, when Bill C-10B, finally was approved by parliament. But it was blocked by the unelected Senate, bowing to the pressure asserted by the animal use industry. I’ll get to those lies later, but there’s more. When the Conservatives took power Liberal MP Mark Holland, young and progressive, tabled a bill nearly the same as Bill C-50, but it became a victim of PM Stephen Harper’s first prorogation. The NDP tried, in June, 2008, with its own private member’s bill, also getting nowhere.
On the other hand, in 2005, Liberal Senator John Bryden tabled Bill S-24, which actually removed the penalties to the offences from what the Liberals had proposed, leaving the offences in place. The general public and animal protection groups opposed it. It died three times due to prorogation, but of course it finally passed, thus weakening legislation already more than a century out of date.
As recently as 2011 Liberal MP Hedy Fry tried to modernize the criminal code with a couple of more attempts. No go. And so, as much of the rest of the world moves forward, Canada remains stagnant, or backslides.
So now we have this new government with its promise of sunny ways, transparency, consultation, accessibility and, of great importance to me, compassion and fact-based policy. Wow.
And along comes a compassionate, fact-based and earnest young Liberal MP with, yet again, a proposal to bring some degree of update of Canada’s 19th century legislation.
I’ve never met Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and when I read his Private Member’s Bill C-246 I thought it was, well, not all that exciting, although it would ban the import of shark fins, that was good, and puppy mills, also the sort of thing the majority of Canadians would support, and ban the import of cat and dog fur, which the US and Europe had already done and most Canadians would support, so no big deal, and, oh-oh…it proposed some reforms on penalties for animal cruelty, cruelty being unnecessary abuse, like beating two dogs to death with a baseball bat.
None of this was remotely revolutionary and was in line with legislation long since in place in various jurisdictions around the world, but this is Canada, a country noted for its lack of protection for animals. Private Member’s bills rarely pass at the best of times, and knowing the long history of attempts and failures at any modernization sections of the Criminal Code dealing with animal abuse my first thought was that Erskine-Smith’s Private Member’s Bill C-246 would go the way of all its predecessors.
Ah…but wait! This is a new day with a new government. I supported the Liberals, had their sign in my lawn. I was wearing the Liberal candidate’s button on my shirt when she knocked on my door while canvassing, and I made a donation to the party. I had had enough of the prior government’s contempt for facts and since the NDP candidate in my riding was polling poorly I strongly supported the Liberals.
What defeated predecessors to Bill C-246 were the lobbies mounted by industries that use animals, such as farming, hunting, trapping, research, zoos and so on. It’s not that they’d be affected but I think that they felt that any move to protect animals against egregious abuse would somehow hurt their interests, even though they wouldn’t. Their activities are legal, and what’s legal is, well, legal. That fact did not matter.
But THIS party now leading the government said facts did matter, and that it was committed to fact-based policy. And so, for a fraction of a moment I had a bit of hope that lies would not be believed, fear tactics so popular with the previous government would go nowhere, and that the two human qualities I most cherish, logic and compassion, would win out. Bill C-246 was originally designed by the Justice Department and vetted by various lawyers specifically to avoid involving animal use industries.
I was wrong. The next thing that happened was the Liberal cabinet itself opposed the bill, effectively repeating all the bizarre lies and misinformation promoted by industry, ignoring the fact that, as an Environics poll had shown, 92 percent of us Canadians supported strengthening our animal cruelty. In spite of the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise of fact-based policy, misinformation was again directing policy.
When former hunting and fishing columnist, now MP, Robert Sopuck rose in the House and parroted all the usual propaganda, that the Bill would prevent hunting, fishing, research, trapping, farming and so on, no big deal. He’s a Conservative. He belongs to a party we voted out because, in part, they were so opposed to facts, muzzling scientists and closing down research facilities, even into denial over climate change and firing civil servants who spoke the truth.
But when other Liberals did the same, when the Justice Minister’s own parliamentary secretary Bill Blair, mindlessly repeated the same sort of misinformation, appearing to be exceptionally ill-informed, or just plain disingenuous, what was I to think? This is exactly what I voted against. If I had wanted a government that was contemptuous of public opinion, that only listened to industry, that avoided facts and kept its MPs on a short leash, I’d have voted for someone like Sopuck, a Harperesque Conservative.
The argument that they are put at risk is a paper tiger, imaginary, utter bovine excrement.
As a citizen of Canada longer than Sopuck, Harper, or Trudeau, I’m tired of it; I’m tired of not counting, and a government not caring. I have had nine teeth-gritting years of it. I just happen to agree with Mahatma Gandhi’s famous (to me, but probably not to Mr. Trudeau) quote, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I’m willing to forget greatness, just yearn for a bit of goodness, a little moral progress, which surely is reasonable, but no, not yet, not now.
And while Erskine-Smith apparently feels that, because the bill could pass if enough Liberals outside the cabinet voted for it, along with the NDP and Green party, no…not when the boss categorically plays the fear tactic so beloved by his immediate predecessor in the office he now holds. I’ll get to that in a moment.
And that brings us to our public announcement. It was not produced without controversy, both within our organization, and from our supporters once it was posted.
Put simply, the major argument against the announcement was that because we want the government to pass Bill C-246, why would we be critical of that same government? Why not just point out that what they say in opposing the bill is utter nonsense, a concern easily resolved.
Because those Liberals not in cabinet are free to vote with the way most Canadians think with the help of the NDP, the bill would pass were they to do so. The problem is those Liberals now know how the Prime Minister is thinking. He’s promoting the misinformation of animal use industries. They are not all as brave and idealistic as I think Erskine-Smith is, and they know that challenging a young and popular party leader does not lead to their own cabinet position. It is not parliament that is the problem, it is Justin Trudeau.
I like facts. I support compassion. The announcement says that Trudeau is trying to kill Bill C-246 because he is. We tell what it would do if passed, because that is what it would do – ban the importation of shark fins, the sale of cat and dog fur, and it would strengthen the antiquated Criminal Code’s animal cruelty sections. That is what the term “modernization” in the bill’s title means. The announcement says that the Prime Minister is siding with those who harm animals because he is, since no one else could possibly benefit from this bill being killed, certainly not the animals or those of us who care about them.
Why not speak the truth?
Why not defend compassion?
Why, otherwise, did I vote Liberal?