Three months ago, two-term Liberal member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told The Tyee that he wanted animal-welfare issues incorporated into the platforms of his and the other parties during the campaign.
The Liberals’ most ardent animal-rights advocate in the House of Commons, Erskine-Smith, who is seeking re-election in the Toronto riding of Beaches–East York, got what he sought.
All of Canada’s major political parties have included some form of animal protection in their campaign platforms. The Conservatives have several references in theirs, including a section on animal welfare in which the Tories would ban puppy mills.
But neither the Conservatives nor the Bloc Québécois, the latter which has a provision to protect animal transport in agriculture in its platform, had one of their party’s candidates participate in what was billed as the first national animal-protection debate during a federal election.
Organized by several animal-advocacy organizations, the online panel held on Sunday night drew more than 1,000 viewers and featured animal-friendly candidates seeking re-election from the Liberal (Erskine-Smith), Green (Elizabeth May) and New Democratic (Alistair MacGregor) parties.
It was more discussion than debate (“we’re all friends here,” May offered) as the three incumbent MPs are virtually on the same page in pushing for better animal-protection laws and regulations across Canada.
But in the final stretch of the federal campaign, the debate was also an opportunity for the trio to highlight the animal-welfare provisions in their party’s platforms.
For the Liberals, it includes:
- Introducing legislation to end cosmetic testing on animals as soon as 2023 and phase out toxicity testing on animals by 2035 (also supported by the NDP and Greens).
- Working with partners to curb illegal wildlife trade and end elephant and rhinoceros tusk trade in Canada.
- Introducing legislation to protect animals in captivity.
- Banning the live export of horses for slaughter.
- Working with partners to help women and children fleeing violence stay united with their companion animals.
- And, as Erskine-Smith added, ensuring that the five-year, $1-billion investment in developing a national school food policy focuses on a plant-based diet featured in Canada’s latest food guide.
The NDP promises to launch a 10-year “nature plan” to reverse species loss and would curb the import and domestic trade of wild animals. But MacGregor, who is seeking a third term in the B.C. riding of Cowichan–Malahat–Langford that he has represented since 2015 and runs a small farm in the Cowichan Valley, advanced more ideas beyond the party’s platform.
He would like the federal government to provide dedicated funding rather than grants to the National Farm Animal Care Council and equip it with the authority to enforce national standards.
Former federal Green leader Elizabeth May — running again for Saanich–Gulf Islands — would like the Criminal Code amended to provide further protection for animals, such as those on farms, which fall under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. The justice system, she said, should stop viewing animals as “property.”
“People who torture animals are dangerous to society,” she explained. “Police will tell you that somebody who’s going to be found guilty of the murder of a human being probably was also involved in the torture of animals.”
However, MacGregor cautioned that the Criminal Code is a “reactive piece of legislation that only comes into effect after an offence is committed” and said that Parliament also needs “proactive” legislation to protect animals.
The Greens’ 2021 election platform calls for the adoption of “comprehensive animal welfare legislation to prevent inhumane treatment of farm animals. This will set minimum standards of treatment, housing density, distances live animals can be transported, and conditions for animals in slaughterhouses and auctions.”
Much like the stance taken by Erskine-Smith, a vegan, the Green party commits to encouraging “Canadians to reduce their animal protein consumption” as recommended in Canada's Food Guide.
“We are seeing a major, major evolution in people’s awareness of the importance of plant-based diets,” said May, who has been a vegetarian since she was 10 years old. “We are seeing an amazing response. I never thought McDonald’s or A&W would be offering up meatless food.”
“The transition in the way people are voting with their pocketbooks in grocery stores is amazing. Government can encourage this by taking away subsidies and working to end industrial-livestock operations, which are horrific on so many levels, but significantly as the third-largest source of greenhouse gases after oil and gas and transportation.”
A big role for the feds
Erskine-Smith, who’s served in the House of Commons since 2015, has promoted non-partisanship as a way to bolster legislative advances in animal welfare.
He has called for a special all-party parliamentary committee established — an idea, he said, which has received support from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture — to modernize federal animal-protection legislation.
During Sunday’s virtual discussion, Erskine-Smith also said that individual MPs introducing private member’s bills can also be effective in advancing animal rights at the federal level.
In early 2016, he tabled Bill C-246, also known as the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. It was defeated at second reading; 117 Liberal MPs, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, voted against it. Only 39 Liberals voted for it.
Had Erskine-Smith’s bill passed, it would have given Canada’s animal-welfare legislation its first update since 1892 when animal-cruelty offences were added to the Criminal Code.
“Even while it wasn’t successful, it promoted a conversation in my caucus and then the government was seized with change,” said Erskine-Smith during the online animal-protection forum.
Some of the provisions from C-246 later ended up in law, such as a ban on both animal fighting and importing shark fins. And as Erskine-Smith told The Tyee in June, his bill also prompted the creation of a Liberal animal-welfare caucus, a group that since expanded to an all-party caucus in the Commons.
A split on ‘ag-gag’ laws
Some differences among the virtual panellists emerged, such as on the discussion regarding so-called ag-gag laws.
A private member’s bill, C-205, introduced by Alberta Conservative MP John Barlow in the last Parliament and which made it to second reading, sought to amend the federal Health of Animals Act to make it an offence to “enter a building or other enclosed place in which animals are kept, or take in any animal or thing, knowing that or being reckless as to whether entering such a place or taking in the animal or thing could reasonably result in the exposure of the animals to a disease or toxic substance that is capable of affecting or contaminating them.”
MacGregor’s concern was that the bill, which died on the order paper when the election was called, was not focused on the animals the legislation is intended to protect from disease outbreaks — but also felt that a farmer’s right to protect his or her property trumps someone trespassing on a farm to protest its animal husbandry practices.
“I don’t agree with the idea that you can’t protest on private property — you have to continue to oppose things that are wrong,” countered May, who noted that she was arrested along with Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, at the gate of a Kinder Morgan work site in Burnaby. Both MPs were part of a group opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that the company led prior to the federal government’s acquisition of the project.
May expects the Supreme Court of Canada will eventually hear a challenge to ag-gag laws that have been passed in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island and which she said target freedom of speech by making it illegal to gather information — typically by way of undercover video — of animal abuse.
Erskine-Smith, who voted against C-205, said the bill was redundant as there are laws on the books prohibiting trespassing.
Curbing wildlife imports, fur and fish farms
There was unanimity among the three re-election-seeking MPs on banning the commercial wildlife trade, which moderator Holly Lake — a recent University of Ottawa law graduate articling with Ecojustice in Halifax — pointed out involved the importation of 1.8 million wild animals from 76 countries, including emerging-disease hotspots, 93 per cent of which involved no pathogen-screening or issuing of permits, between 2014 and 2019.
May suggested that action needs to be global and follow the model of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and create a new convention addressing wildlife.
The Green MP also called for an end to fish farms that she characterized as “toxic fish factories” — and which she said the federal Liberals promised to ban two years ago — and animal-welfare initiatives need to respect the Indigenous right to hunt and fish, “but with a consciousness around compassionate treatment of all life.”
“We have to confront that fact that the Government of Canada continues to massively subsidize the industrial slaughter of seals, and we could find a way to work with Indigenous peoples to ensure sustainable and compassionate pursuit of wild fur, but shutting down fur farms,” which May said are linked to disease transmission.
“The fur-farming industry is increasingly small in Canada, and for good reason. The federal government should put an end to this industry once and for all,” said Erskine-Smith, who noted that he has a private-member’s bill that would do just that, waiting in the wings.
All three candidates recognized that more works needs to be done to protect animals.
Erskine-Smith promised to press what he hopes will be a re-elected Liberal government to revive the spirit of Bill S-218, also known as the Jane Goodall Act, which then-Manitoba senator Murray Sinclair introduced last November and would largely prohibit the new captivity of whales, dolphins, porpoises, great apes and elephants in Canada, while banning trade in elephant ivory and the collection of elephant hunting trophies.
May would also end chuck-wagon races and calf roping at the Calgary Stampede — events, she said, that involve animal cruelty.
Safeguarding companion animals
The issue of companion animals, which many Canadians have acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic, was also raised. MacGregor offered how studies have illustrated the importance of how a dog — or even a parrot, which could outlive its human companion — provides “incredibly beneficial effects to people who are suffering some past trauma.”
But he added that people breeding dogs should be licensed to do so and face regular inspections to avoid incidents, such as one that occurred in his riding earlier this year in which a dozen dogs were seized from a Duncan-area breeder.
As May summarized: “The measure of our society as Canadians — our sense of who we are, our compassionate selves at our heart level — is that we know we need to do better to take care of the non-human beings with whom we share this planet in every way we possibly can.”