By Camille Labchuk
In 1997, two men in Edmonton tied a border collie and a husky to a tree and smashed their heads in with aluminum baseball bats. The sickening killings sparked nation-wide outrage, but the judge in the case acquitted the men, stating, “It certainly is not acceptable to me and many other people in this country to kill a dog like [that]… but there is no law.” That’s right—this brutal and vicious beating wasn’t a crime under our animal cruelty laws because the dogs seemed to have died quickly.
There are many more stories like this one, but the point is that our animal cruelty laws are severely outdated and full of legal loopholes. Canada is widely considered to have the most ineffective animal cruelty legislation in the western world, and the result is that countless animal abusers escape criminal prosecution every year for shocking acts of cruelty like puppy mills, neglect, hoarding, animal fighting and even bestiality. Yes, it’s true: Our laws are so bad that last June, the Supreme Court was forced to rule that humans are legally entitled to perform a variety of sex acts on animals, so long as they stop short of penetration.
You might think that the shock of a court legalizing bestiality would motivate politicians to take action, but perhaps the saddest part of this story is that MPs–including the Liberal government–recently killed an important bill that would have closed some of our embarrassing loopholes and helped bring Canadian laws into the 21st century. Despite overwhelming support for this legislation in opinion polls, Members of Parliament voted 198 to 84 against protecting animals in a vote last October. For millions of vulnerable animals, no end to this nightmare is in sight.
So, how did we get here? Canada’s animal cruelty laws were first enacted in 1892, and they were significantly updated only once—in the 1950s. The problems with these laws have been apparent for decades, especially to the federal Liberal party which once led the charge to fix them. Starting in 1999, well-respected former Justice Ministers like Anne McLellan and Irwin Cotler drafted and introduced government legislation that would have closed the loopholes in our laws, and moved animal crimes out of the property offences section of the Criminal Code. This is important recognition of the fact that aren’t mere inanimate objects like tables and chairs, but living beings who can suffer and feel pain.
Some of the bills introduced in the late 90s and early 2000s got very close to becoming law. They were the subject of extensive study by Parliamentary committees, with animal protection advocates, veterinarians, and humane societies making the case for giving more legal protections to animals.
The bills passed repeated votes in the House of Commons and the Senate, ut bad luck and worse timing meant that the legislation died after prorogations or elections. Animal cruelty laws were reintroduced many times as private members’ bills by MPs like Mark Holland, Hedy Fry, and several members of the NDP. But with zero interest in animal cruelty updates during the recently-ended Conservative decade, animals were put on the back burner.
When Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept back to power last year, they promised to once again ensure that Canadians’ compassionate values were reflected in public policy. Animal advocates had reason for the first time in years to be optimistic—there was no reason to think the new government wouldn’t still agree that animals deserve laws to protect them.
The first animal cruelty bill came quickly from Toronto-area Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. His private members’ Bill C-246 was virtually identical to the previous versions introduced in the late 90s and early 2000s. On top of fixing our laws in the same way recommended by former Liberal governments, Erskine-Smith added in provisions to protect animals from sexual abuse to respond to the unfortunate Supreme Court decision. Bill C-246 proposed as well to ban imports of cat and dog fur, which is surprisingly still legal in Canada despite bans in the US and EU. It also targeted the horrific practice of shark finning, in which live sharks have their fins sliced off and are left to die. Bill C-246 wasn’t a legal revolution for animals, but it would have taken a solid first step toward helping our laws align better with those of other western democracies.
Bill C-246 had support from the humane societies and SPCAs from coast to coast that enforce animal cruelty laws. These are the inspectors who see first-hand the heartbreak caused by our loophole-ridded laws. Not surprisingly, law enforcement agents often feels deep frustration when an animal abuser escapes conviction, or when a prosecutor gives up, refusing even to lay criminal charges against abusers out of fear the charges won’t stick.
Bill C-246 also had broad support from Canadians. Public opinion polls consistently show that over 90 percent of people want to see stronger animal cruelty laws, and MPs were deluged with emails and phone calls urging them to support Bill C-246.
But overwhelming support for protecting animals fell on deaf ears when it came to the government. Instead of listening to compassionate Canadians who care about animals, the government instead listened to lobbyists from the hunting, fishing, and farming industries. These special interests did everything they could, spending enormous amounts of money to block even the most basic protections for animals.
These lobby groups were responsible for inventing preposterous claims about Bill C-246, spreading alarmist propaganda that it would have criminalized people who hunt, fish, farm, and conduct medical research.
It’s not worth examining the details of these false claims, other than to say they’re not true, and betray a disturbing indifference toward protecting animals from sadistic cruelty. Keep in mind that Bill C-246 was largely drafted by the Justice Department, with the clear goal of targeting animal abusers—not animal users. Not a single legal expert in the country came forward to say that these basic protections for animals would have somehow affected industries.
In the end, the animals lost out and political concerns won. The government chose to sell out abused animals, and listen instead to these narrow special interest groups for fear of losing votes in rural ridings where hunting, angling, and farming groups may complain.
But it’s a mistake for the government to assume it won’t pay a political price for blocking basic animal cruelty legislation. Canadians want to do the right thing for animals, and support for ending animal cruelty runs deep. Pet owners and other compassionate animal advocates even got active in the last election to endorse animal-friendly candidates, and working as volunteers to help good MPs win. In the next election, MPs and candidates who voted against protections for animals may be surprised and dismayed to see active efforts to expose and unseat them.
The effort to fix our laws is only just beginning, and if we want to win, every Canadian who cherishes the friendship of a companion animal needs to step up and help. It’s critical that each of us tells our elected officials that we care about animals, want them be protected against cruelty, and will only vote for parties that vow to pass strong animal protection legislation.
While Canada’s identity as a country revolves around the idea that we are a polite, compassionate society, our animal cruelty laws are out of step with this perception. After two decades of trying, it is long past time we fix our animal cruelty laws for once and for all. It’s up to us to make sure that happens.