‘Trojan horse’ bill could have huge impact


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner/Neepawa Press

Last week, farmers, hunters and anglers breathed a collective sigh of relief. The controversial federal bill, C-246, the Modernizing Animal Protections Act, came for second reading in the House of Commons, but doesn’t appear to have the support of government.

The bill was presented as a private member’s bill and according to its sponsor, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches—East York, Lib.), the bill seeks to accomplish three goals: first, a ban on the importation of shark fins; second, a ban on the importation and sale of cat and dog fur and a requirement to label the source of fur; and third, the modernization and strengthening of existing animal cruelty offences in Canada’s Criminal Code.

Every Private Member’s Bill must be debated for two hours at each stage. The first hour of debate took place May 9 and the second hour will take place at some time during the fall legislative session.

The bill would amend the Criminal Code, the Fisheries Act, the Textile Labelling Act, the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act and the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (animal protection). Many worried that its vague wording would open the door to the prosecution of Canadians participating in generally accepted forms of animal use, including hunting, fishing, medical research and farming.

Robert Sopuck, the MP for Dauphin—Swan River—Neepawa, has been a vocal opponent of the bill and spoke during the second reading. “Let me be clear,” he said, “We all support animal welfare, but animal welfare is a far cry from animal rights. Canada has good animal welfare legislation at both the provincial and federal levels. However, Bill C-246 is a Trojan horse that would advance a pure animal rights agenda.”

Sopuck, like most other opponents of the bill, had two major areas of concern.  The first was the addition of the word “recklessly” into the section 182.1, so that it reads, “Everyone commits an offence who, wilfully or recklessly, causes or, being the owner, permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal.” Sopuck explained that the change would expand the kind of conduct that could be criminalized.

The other major area of concern was the addition of two new offices which aren’t currently in the Criminal Code. These include the offences of killing an animal or, being the owner, permitting an animal to be killed, brutally or viciously, regardless of whether the animal dies immediately; and killing an animal without lawful excuse.  Sopuck explained, “This ‘brutally or viciously’ test is completely novel and does not appear to have been previously used in any Canadian statute or interpreted in any Canadian court. This provision does not appear to exist in any legislation in the United Kingdom, Australia or the United States. It would create a new and very broad offence… These two sections, depending on how they would be interpreted by the courts, could have the effect of criminalizing many recreational, agricultural, commercial and scientific activities, such as medical research and religious practices such as kosher or halal butchering.”

Legal activities, such as ranching, hunting, fishing, trapping and medical research aren’t listed in the bill as being exempt from prosecution.

While many have painted Bill C-246 as a rural versus urban issue, that’s not the case, explains Sopuck, “If enacted, Bill C-246 could affect all Canadians… Canadians must realize that most significant medical breakthroughs result from animal-based medical research. Approximately 60 per cent of all cardiovascular research is conducted on animals… I, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians, are alive today because of cardiovascular advancements, which were developed using animal experimentation. If we were to stop performing medical research on animals, we are basically saying that we should stop making life-saving medical breakthroughs. This is not acceptable to me or anyone else.” Sopuck expressed sincere gratitude to the animals whose sacrifice allowed these advancements to occur. 

Sopuck cautioned those considering the bill that it went beyond protecting animals from cruelty. “I do not approve of wilful cruelty to animals,” he said, adding, “however, words are very important, and I fear the language in Bill C-246 will not, in fact, crack down on those who wilfully harm animals, but instead will put legitimate and necessary animal use practices in legal jeopardy.”

While the bill did generate some support from MPs who wanted to see it further debated at the committee stage, it also faced some tough opposition, including from the government. One such comment came from Liberal MP Bill Blair, who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Blair said that while he supported many aspects of the bill, he voiced concern over the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code intended to modernize the animal cruelty provisions.

Blair too was concerned by the lack of exemptions for specific lawful activities. “The bill may inadvertently create a conflict of law, making existing legally regulated activities illegal by the very nature of their existence,” Blair explained. He was also concerned about the possibility that constitutional issues might render heritage and indigenous activities, such as hunting, fishing, trapping and ranching, illegal “because they may be deemed to be brutal or vicious, or they may have an inherent reckless level of activity as part of their very nature.”

While supportive of the stated intent of the bill, Blair said, “I believe that any reform to the animal cruelty offences in the Criminal Code deserves the benefit of broad public consultation and further study.”

Once the second hour of debate takes place in the fall, the bill will be voted upon.  While it looks as though the Liberal caucus and the Conservatives won’t be supporting the bill, should it pass, it will proceed to committee, where it will be subject to further debate.

Following the May 9 debate, Sopuck explained his opposition, saying that the bill didn’t target specific actions and used vague wording. If it were to become law, the bill would have a profound effect on his largely rural riding. “I was very pleased that I was given the lead in [the Conservative] caucus on this bill, I try to do what I can for the constituents,” he said.

Sopuck was encouraged by the debate, saying that it looks likely that the government won’t support the bill and that there appeared to be enough Liberals who also found it distasteful.  He added that he sees it as a “one shot deal”, unlikely to be brought back should the bill be defeated by vote in the fall. 

While the bill seems to be off the table for now, Sopuck cautioned, “We have to make sure it’s well and done and ensure that the government doesn’t change its mind.”

Correction: This story indicated that the proposed wording of the new bill added the word “recklessly” into the section of the Criminal Code dealing with killing or harming animals. The proposed wording, which would be located at 182.1 of the Criminal Code, reads, “Everyone commits an offence who, wilfully or recklessly, causes or, being the owner, permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal.” While the current wording, which can be found in section 445.1 of the Criminal Code, reads, “Every one commits an offence who, wilfully and without lawful excuse, (a) kills, maims, wounds, poisons or injures dogs, birds or animals that are not cattle and are kept for a lawful purpose; or (b) places poison in such a position that it may easily be consumed by dogs, birds or animals that are not cattle and are kept for a lawful purpose.”

While the current wording doesn’t include the word “reckless”, section 429, which deals with the interpretation of the section of the Criminal Code relating to Wilful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property, under which section 445 falls, does include the word. Section 429.1 reads, “Every one who causes the occurrence of an event by doing an act or by omitting to do an act that it is his duty to do, knowing that the act or omission will probably cause the occurrence of the event and being reckless whether the event occurs or not, shall be deemed, for the purposes of this Part, wilfully to have caused the occurrence of the event.”