Governments work to curb farm trespassing

By Treena Hein

Growing calls for anti-trespassing laws to protect producers

The Government of Alberta took swift action last year following the invasion of a turkey barn. Premier Jason Kenney showed his support in a press conference hosted at the affected farm.

In December 2019, CTV News reported that 11 animal rights activists had occupied a pig breeding barn in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec “demanding full access inside the agri-business operation and a meeting with Quebec Premier Francois Legault to discuss animal rights.” The activists had entered the barn before dawn, and they kept a live video stream going of the entire event on social media.

Earlier last fall, this barn occupation was preceded by an incident near Fort Macleod, Alberta, where 30 activists entered a turkey farm. This spurred quick action by Alberta’s provincial government, which passed the Protecting Law-abiding Property Owners Act and brought it into force in December. Last year, Saskatchewan also strengthened its anti-trespassing legislation, but the changes have yet to come into force.

The Alberta law provides more protection for “law-abiding property owners” from civil liability related to injuries to trespassers where the owner has reasonable grounds to believe the trespasser is committing, or about to commit, a criminal offence. The law also boosts the consequences for trespassers, increasing maximum fines to $10,000 for a first offence and $25,000 for subsequent offences, along with possible prison time of up to six months. It also includes a maximum fine of $200,000 for corporations that help or direct trespassers.

In the view of national animal welfare advocacy group Animal Justice, however, this law “seeks to intimidate people who want to call attention to animal abuse.” Executive Director and lawyer Camille Labchuk added that “Alberta’s ‘ag gag’ law violates the Charter protection for freedom of expression, because it prevents whistleblowers from exposing unethical and illegal acts on farms. It is my view that Alberta’s ag gag law will likely be challenged in court.” She points to a letter signed by more than 40 constitutional and criminal law experts, outlining outlines the reasons why similar legislation in Ontario is unconstitutional.

For his part, Patrice Juneau, Communications Director, Quebec Union of Agricultural Producers (UPA), believes that, “When it comes to breaking and entering on farms, these are no longer demonstrations to raise public awareness. Breaking and entering is a Criminal Code offense. These acts aim to impose an ideology through defamation, propaganda, threat and fear. This type of behavior is strongly condemned by society and must be reprimanded.”

Entering and occupying barns, said Juneau, can cause stress to the animals, creates disease transmission and other biosecurity issues, risks the herd’s health status, harms farm business by hampering market access and can negatively impact farm employees and the targeted farm-owning family. They can even affect the insurability of the farm. Juneau added, “Depending on the damage, the costs can be enormous.”

Ontario’s Bill 156 follows Alberta’s lead

Organizations including Ontario Pork have strongly advocated for better protections for producers.

The rationale for the Ontario government’s proposed legislation, the Security From Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, is described by the government in safety terms. In the press release, Ernie Hardeman, Minister, Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs stated: “We’ve heard from farmers who no longer feel safe in their homes, who have expressed concerns with increasing on-farm trespassing and the safety of their families, employees and livestock.”

The Act proposes a first-time fine of up to $15,000 and $25,000 for subsequent offences. It also prescribes “aggravating factors” that would allow the court to consider increased fines and also allow the court to order restitution for damage in prescribed circumstances, which could include damage to a farmer’s livestock or from theft. It also increases protection for farmers against civil liability from people “who were hurt while trespassing or contravening the Act.”

There is also an added dimension in the bill of prohibiting interference with a livestock transport vehicle such as stopping, hindering or obstructing its movement – and the animals in the vehicle without explicit prior consent.

This aspect of the bill no doubt stems from the now-famous event from four years back when a woman named Anita Krajnc was criminally charged but later acquitted for giving water to pigs on a livestock truck in Burlington, Ontario that was heading to a slaughter plant. Krajnc’s group, Toronto Pig Save, held a protest in December against enacting Bill 156.

However, a spokesperson for Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said the government has received hundreds of letters calling on it to do something about trespassing on farms and obstruction of livestock transport trucks. In addition, more than 130 municipalities have passed or supported calls to strengthen protections for these operations.

In mid-June, Bill 156 was passed with support from Ontario’s majority government. The government will continue to seek input on the legislation, as legal challenges from opponents are likely forthcoming.

Other provinces mulling similar anti-trespassing campaigns

In Quebec, the UPA believes similar farm-specific legislation should be passed.

“In the meantime, in February, the UPA obtained from the Quebec Superior Court a temporary injunction to prevent any further illegal intrusions on farms and is looking to render it permanent,” said Juneau. “But this type of legal proceeding can take a long time.”

As in Quebec, there was a protest on a pig farm near Abbotsford, B.C. last year. The 50 activists present claimed to be there because video footage taken previously at the farm demonstrated abuse of pigs. Charges for break-and-enter and mischief were laid against one of the trespassers.

In a statement responding to situation, B.C. Pork noted that while the video “has been edited and lacks context and understanding, some of the scenes are of concern.” Following the incident, a swine veterinarian was sent to the farm to investigate animal welfare.

Talks in B.C. for farm-specific anti-trespassing laws are proceeding. At least one meeting with the province’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture has been held, and another is planned, said Jack Dewit, Chair, B.C. Pork.

He added that, “We do realize that the animal activists are still quietly working behind the scenes as we focus on other things. We need to be prepared should another farm become the target of another protest, and we need to continue working with the authorities to protect producers.”

In eastern Canada a few months ago, trespassing on farms was addressed by Christian Michaud, President, Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick in an article published in Atlantic Farm Focus. His organization is looking to engage the provincial government and other stakeholders to develop meaningful mechanisms of deterrence against trespassing on farmland and significant penalties for doing so.

“There is currently no legal recourse in this province, because legislation requires the perpetrator to be caught in the act or with ‘sufficient’ evidence,” stated Michaud. “Enforcement has been very weak, leaving producers with no meaningful legal options for protection. The onus of liability or permission remains in the hands of producers.”

Political support for anti-trespassing on the national level

To address the issue on a country-wide level, John Barlow, Member of Parliament, Foothills (Alberta) & Shadow Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, has introduced a private member’s bill to amend the federal Health of Animals Act.

The Act currently features nothing to address the impact of trespassers on animal health. This amendment, says Barlow, will make farm trespassing a more serious crime in order to better protect livestock health, but it will also help protect farmers and their mental health. In creating this bill, Barlow wants to recognize the extreme stress faced by farmers who have had to wake up to intruders in their barns.

He further explains that while the bill, if it becomes law, will see increased penalties for groups and organizations who encourage individuals to threaten the biosecurity of animals and security of workers, it does not in any way limit the individual right to peacefully protest on public property.

“We want to send a strong message that entering farm properties will not be tolerated,” said Barlow. “And we want people to understand the risk in terms of disease transmission.”

The bill has gone through first reading, and Barlow hopes it will be debated this fall.

Undercover employees can deceive producers

Activists are emboldened when strong action against them is not taken. Sympathetic journalists use major platforms to mislead the public and spread falsehoods about producers and their partners.

While these new and proposed laws on the provincial and federal levels may do a lot to deter trespassing on farms, none of the legislation touches on prevalence of “undercover employees” – legal trespassing, if you will, by activists who are hired by farmers and later attempt to expose negative conditions relating to animal care through photographs or videos. In Ontario a few years ago, for example, CTV News reported on undercover video taken at a farm, showing questionable pig handling practices.

In the U.S. over the last few years, several state governments have passed laws which prohibit capturing livestock images without farmer consent. Some of these have been challenged, and in Idaho so far, overturned. But even if illegal, attempts by activists to capture images are likely to continue. So, that leaves prevention – in other words, making sure you do not hire activists.

There are many tips available on the internet, but here are a few of the best: Have each applicant sign a document swearing the application is accurate and beware of applicants with things like high levels of education and no ag experience. Require references and follow through to check them, making sure to contact references through their company offices. Do a thorough social media search as well.

In taking on new hires, state in the employment contract that cell phones must be left in vehicles or lockers. Red flags in new hires include being where they should not be, coming in early or staying late for no reason and other strange behaviour.

With care in hiring, adherence to animal welfare standards and further expansion of anti-trespassing laws, it seems that Canadian farmers are becoming better positioned against the risk of waking up to a barn full of protesters. Time will tell.