Ontario court voids animal-protection agency enforcement powers

A recent report calls for animal protection in Ontario to be  brought under public oversight.
A recent report calls for animal protection in Ontario to be brought under public oversight.

Over the years, animal-lovers in Ontario relied upon the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) to police cruel behaviour against our beloved pets.

But an Ontario Superior Court judge recently ruled that the animal-protection agency was behaving unconstitutionally and it must immediately stop.

“The OSPCA appears to be an organization that operates in a way that is shielded from public view while at the same time fulfilling clearly public functions. Although charged with law enforcement responsibilities, the OSPCA is opaque, insular, unaccountable, and potentially subject to external influence, and as such Ontarians cannot be confident that the laws it enforces will be fairly and impartially administered,” wrote Justice Timothy Minnema in his decision.

Unlike other police agencies in the province, such as the Ontario Provincial Police for example, the OSPCA has operated outside the law, said Minnema. “The OSPCA investigators and agents while having police powers, are not subject to the Police Services Act, which has a comprehensive system for oversight and accountability for police. Rather the OSPCA has a policy manual that it has created related to entering homes and seizures of property, and that manual is not a public document. Complaints and discipline are dealt with internally.”

The Ontario government has one year to enact a new regime to protect vulnerable animals but “the Ontario SPCA will continue to provide animal protection services while the government determines how they wish to proceed,” said spokeswoman Alison Cross.

According to a former director of the Ontario Landowners Association who spoke with the Toronto Sun’s Michele Mandel, the agency has long been targeted as “one unfortunate victim after another… targeted by fanatical, overzealous, untrained enforcement officers who treated unsuspecting citizens as criminals because someone with an axe to grind, often an angry ex-spouse, a disgruntled neighbour, a competitor down the road, or some urbanite with no understanding of ‘normal farm practises’ driving by a farm and reporting a perceived transgression.”

And a recent report calls for animal protection in Ontario to be brought under public oversight.

“The review from Zoocheck and Animal Alliance of Canada — titled ‘New directions for animal welfare in Ontario’ — suggests the government launch a commission to oversee animal welfare law enforcement, hire special frontline investigators and expand powers granted to existing conservation and farm inspection officers,” wrote Liam Casey for the Canadian Press.

In Ottawa, the federal government tabled Bill C-84 last October, titled Bestiality and animal fighting that would prohibit “any contact for a sexual purpose between a person and an animal.”

As well, the proposed law would outlaw all activities related to animal fighting. It is currently at the committee level after receiving second reading.

However, some animal advocates argue the Bill barely scratches the surface. “What we’ve seen today on bestiality and animal fighting is literally the very least thing that they could have done,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director at Animal Justice Canada. “These provisions are welcome, but they really should have been introduced as part of a larger package of desperately needed Criminal Code reforms.”

NDP MP in British Columbia, in the riding of Cowichan, Malahat, Langford, Alistair MacGregor agrees. “I asked the minister to take immediate action to put greater protections in place for our domestic pets, but what we got was just a drop in the bucket after a long wait,” MacGregor said to the Cowichan Valley Citizen. “Animal cruelty goes far beyond bestiality and animal fighting, and we need to work together to truly overhaul protections for animals”

The current laws haven’t been updated since the 1950s, according to Labchuk, and they allow for animals to be treated as property.

In the last few years, two previous Bills went nowhere: Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and Liberal MP Nate Erskine Smith both tabled amendments, but Rempel’s remains at first reading and Erskine Smith’s was defeated.

This is a sad legacy of various federal government’s continued inaction, argues Humane Canada, which outlined an effort, that began in 1999, to update laws that were first enacted in 1892. “Humane Canada has been calling on the government to amend the animal cruelty sections of the Criminal Code of Canada for more than 25 years.”

In Montreal, a recent gruesome and public death of a calèche horse (defined as “a type of calash pulled by a single horse, seating two passengers and having two wheels and a folding top”) prompted the city government to ban all horse and buggies by the end of this year.

The local SPCA said it “has always been very concerned about the way carriage horses are treated in Montreal and is eager to see the city of Montreal’s long-awaited bylaw prohibiting the use of horse-drawn carriages on its territory come into effect on Dec. 31, 2019.”

Clearly Canada’s animal-protection regime needs a refresher and Bill C-84 might be the first in more robust package, or so the advocates are hoping.

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