17 November 2016

WELFARE - Why Does Canadian Animal Cruelty Legislation Keep Failing?

Canada’s animal cruelty laws are far behind the global standard, and in fact Canada received a “D” on the global animal protection index.

A private member’s bill attempting to modernize Canadian animal cruelty legislation recently failed, the latest in a long string of proposed updates to the law that have failed to pass.

Why do proposed bills to update and modernize Canadian animal cruelty laws keep failing?

Canada is a country that prides itself on being progressive.

A recent Globe and Mail article said that, “The Canadian mandate that might have been called passive is now recognized as a policy of deliberate kindness and inclusion. Polite, maybe, but not without purpose.”

But this kindness seems not to extend to animals, a fact that stands in stark contrast to Canadian values in other areas.

According to the Canadian Federation of Human Societies, Canadian animal cruelty laws are positively Victorian, with current legislation that has not kept up with global standards since its introduction in 1892.

Cathy Thomas, past Executive Director of the Calgary Humane Society, worked with the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies for over a decade while they attempted to spearhead an initiative to update the legislation.

She remembers struggles finding a champion in the Justice Minister, and bills dying during parliamentary prorogation or being caught up in omnibus bills.

But it wasn’t just process and procedure that got in the way.

Thomas says, “[One] issue was finding wording that would recognize the use of animals by all the various user groups - livestock, research, hunting, competition, etc. If you think of things like trapping, laying hens, feed lots, transportation, veal crates, gestation pens for sows, research practices (think of all the rats and mice), zoos, chuckwagon racing and rodeo, movies, show jumping, and more, a huge range of interests. [As well as] regional differences across the country, and the urban/rural divide.”

Even this doesn’t capture the full extent of complexity and resistance, or explain why bills continue to fail despite the fact that, according to Animal Justice, 92% of Canadians polled support updating the animal cruelty legislation.

Particularly given the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, strengthening these laws would help Canadians in multiple ways.

A 2012 study, by Antonio Verbora, of the politics of animal cruelty legislation in Canada found “the Canadian legal system continues to struggle in terms of how animals should be conceptualized in the law (i.e., as property or as sentient beings)” and this difficulty in conceptualization became a polarizing issue between political parties.

Resistance to animal cruelty legislation seems to frequently hinge not just on the concerns noted by Thomas regarding diverse stakeholders, but also a more visceral anxiety about the humanization of animals if legislation moves more towards treating animals as sentient beings rather than property.

This theme was, according to Verbora’s study, apparent in the majority of the parliamentary debates regarding bills to modernize the legislation.

Perhaps federal legislators can follow in the footsteps of the province of Quebec where, in 2015, legislation declared animals sentient beings with biological needs. 

While this is a giant step forward for Quebec, the law does have some weaknesses as it
completely excludes wildlife in captivity, farm animals, exotic species and zoo animals.

Whether the resistance comes from industry groups, parliamentary processes, or existential anxieties, if the majority of Canadians support change is it time for Canada to catch up when it comes to animal cruelty legislation?

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles. 


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