I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 31 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, March 10 and the motion adopted by the committee on April 15, the committee is beginning its study of Bill , an act to amend the Health of Animals Act.
Today's meeting is taking part in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of January 25. Therefore, members can attend in person in the room and remotely using the Zoom application. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Just so that you are aware, the webcast will show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
I'd like to take the opportunity to remind all participants in this meeting that screenshots or taking a photo of your screen is not permitted.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you are on the video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute your mike. For those in the room, your microphone will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer.
Just a reminder that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
Before we get going, I'd like to remind members that amendments to Bill must be sent to the clerk by Friday, May 7—tomorrow—at 5 p.m. eastern time.
Now I'd like to welcome the witness, who has seven and a half minutes for his opening statement. I'd like to welcome John Barlow, the member of Parliament for Foothills.
Mr. Barlow, you have the floor for seven and a half minutes. Go ahead.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. It's great to be back here with some friends. I'm certainly looking forward to the discussion today. It really is an honour for me to be in front of the standing committee on agriculture and agri-food to discuss my private member's bill, Bill , an act to amend the Health of Animals Act.
Mr. Chair, Bill proposes to amend the Health of Animals Act to make it an offence to enter without lawful authority or excuse a place in which animals are kept, if doing so could result in the exposure of animals to disease or a toxic substance capable of affecting or contaminating them. Simply put, this enactment would apply existing penalties within the act to people who trespass on farm property at facilities where animals are kept. It also proposes to double existing fine amounts for groups and organizations that encourage unlawful behaviour, which put the biosecurity of our farms and food supply at risk.
The new offence, titled “Exposure of animals to disease or toxic substance” would be inserted after section 9 of the act under “Prohibitions”, the heading within the “Control of Diseases and Toxic Substances” portion of the act. Existing penalties within the act are found in section 65 under “General offence”. Bill would apply those penalties to the new offence. The bill would also add subsection 1.2, which, as was mentioned previously, would double existing fine amounts for groups and organizations that encourage unlawful behaviour that puts the biosecurity of our farms and our food supply at risk.
Two key principles were considered when I was drafting this bill. First, I wanted to work within the existing legislation to enhance what was already there and to ensure that the penalty would be a deterrent for unwanted behaviour. Second, I wanted to develop legislation to deal with one specific incident. Rather than the bill, it should have the capacity to address the big-picture challenges associated with trespassing incidents across the country.
Mr. Chair, I also want to be very clear about what this bill does not do.
This bill does not limit individual rights to peaceful protest on public property. This bill also does not prevent whistle-blowers from coming forward when they witness practices that jeopardize food security or the welfare of animals. In fact, farmers and their employees are obligated to report any wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities, as they operate in a highly regulated environment. They must also follow strict rules and codes of conduct to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our farm animals.
Mr. Chair, I certainly know the members of this committee, and they are well aware that there have been numerous protests by animal activists on farms and at processing plants. The situation is not limited to a specific segment of animal agriculture or to a certain part of this country. Members from all parties recounted the situations in their ridings when this bill was debated in the House at second reading. I won't revisit all of those stories today. Instead, I'd like to touch on one aspect of the bill that has no clause for this committee to consider, but will perhaps have the most impact on farmers and ranchers if this bill does become law.
It's a subject matter this committee knows well, and that is mental health in agriculture. It is fitting to discuss this, given that this week is indeed mental health week in Canada.
The idea for this bill came to me as a result of an incident within my riding at a turkey farm near Fort Macleod. I went to visit the Tschetter family after they had about 30 protesters on their farm.
The Tschetter family came up to check the turkey barns at 7 in the morning, as they always do, and were shocked to find about 35 or 40 protesters who had camped out in their barns. When I spoke to Mr. Tschetter and his son, he just couldn't understand why they were targeted and what they had done.
This was a devastating incident for their family, but also for farmers across my riding and across the country who phoned and emailed me—and maybe many other members of this committee. They're concerned. Is this open season on farmers and ranchers? Is this something that we have to endure? Why are they being targeted?
This committee will recall that in its 2019 report titled “Mental health: a priority for our farmers”, you heard testimony from witnesses about farmers being the victims of stigmatization at the hands of activists. For the benefit of people listening and those who have not read the committee's report, I'd like to quote part 3 of that report:
Today, farmers, ranchers and producers come under attack from many different sources. As one witness put it: “Our ancestors only had to worry about weather and prices. Today, we farmers have the added worry of being a target of an extreme activist, something that takes a serious toll on me mentally. ”
Committee members heard extremely disturbing testimony from witnesses relating to how they had been verbally assaulted, threatened and called murderers or rapists over social media channels by environmental terrorists and animal rights extremists. Such social media attacks are not tolerated in most urban setting or among teenagers, yet little has been done to curb these attacks targeted at farmers.
Who do these animal rights activists target? Of course, the first ones in their sight are the producers. As well as being called polluters, today they are accused of being aggressors and rapists, because of artificial insemination, and child kidnappers and killers.
You know, those words have extremely serious consequences. As one farmer told me, when he gets up in the morning and sees that type of thing on Facebook, he's already wondering how he's going to cope. It adds a lot of stress and distress.
Such testimony is troubling and deeply disturbing. Sadly, it is quite common to see many instances of bullying and intimidation towards farmers go unpunished. This section of the report led to the following recommendation from this committee:
Recommendation 4: That the Federal government should take any and all measures necessary to prevent these unprovoked attacks as well as to make sure individuals who perpetrate them face justice.
Bill speaks directly to that recommendation. Imagine waking up and knowing that your farm is the target of some of these individuals and groups, but not knowing if or when they'll show up at your home or your farm, what they have planned for the animals in your care, or what they may do to your property, your employees or your family. Though my bill may not prevent unprovoked attacks on social media, it certainly aims to deter groups and organizations who encourage others to bring this type of aggression onto the doorsteps of farm families and unlawfully trespass onto farm property where animals are kept.
I hope members of this committee can see the importance and urgency of this bill and what it would mean for our farmers, our ranchers and our producers, and especially for farm families like the Tschetters who, unfortunately, have been on the receiving end of this misguided activism. I would encourage this committee to listen to our hard-working families and support Bill .
Mr. Chair, I'm certainly happy to answer any questions from the members of the committee. We'll certainly be talking about many other aspects of this bill, but I really thought it was important, considering this is mental health week, to focus on the mental health side of what is being proposed with Bill .
Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to your questions.
Yes. Thank you, Ms. Rood. Certainly you've touched on one of the most important aspects of this legislation.
Really, we looked at it from two different perspectives. The first perspective was protecting the biosecurity of our farms and our food supply. The second was dealing with the mental health of our farm families and our ranchers and certainly even those who work at the processing plants.
The crisis in agriculture, when it comes to mental health, is real. We have certainly seen that become even more so as a result of the pandemic. Many of our farm families live in isolated communities. Many of their social gathering opportunities have been cancelled—rodeos, family fairs, community dinners, 4H events and those types of things—so we've seen the mental health impact on agriculture become even worse.
My colleague from the Bloc put it very well, I thought, in his speech during second reading. He said imagine you were a homeowner who came downstairs in the morning to get breakfast for you and your kids, and a group of protesters was sitting in your living room saying, “You're mistreating your family dog.” Never would that be appropriate or something that wouldn't face very serious consequences. Unfortunately, though, when it comes to farms and agriculture, this all too often has become just part of the business.
That is unacceptable. There has to be strict consequences for those types of actions. I think the most important thing here is that oftentimes the protesters or the activists don't understand the very strict biosecurity protocols that are in place and they unknowingly may be spreading a disease from one farm to another.
Thank you very much for the question.
Yes, it would. The idea of this bill was that it would deal with any animal that is in an enclosed area, so a corral, say, at a rodeo, or a barn or holding area, but also during transport. Certainly, I have a Cargill meat processing plant in my riding, as well as Bouvry, but my Cargill plant, as Mr. Longfield will know, is the largest processing plant in the country. There are 4,000 head of cattle going into that facility every single day. That's a lot of transport trucks, so there are a lot of opportunities for some contamination to be spread, for diseases to be moved from one animal to another.
It's also very important that when those animals are in transport, they are also protected. So rodeos, transport trucks, zoos will all be encapsulated within this legislation.
I'd like to thank Mr. Barlow for his remarks. It's clear that this is something he's very passionate about.
Just as an aside, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the sign wars in your riding. I've seen a few of those pictures locally, and I'm getting quite a kick from them, so well done.
The first question I have when I look at this is the following. Mr. Barlow, I know you touched upon this a little bit when you said in response to Ms. Rood that most activists don't understand or appreciate the biosecurity risk. If that is indeed the case, my concern with the legislation—although its intent, I think, is well meaning—is that knowing that, or being reckless too, might be too high a threshold for us to be able to even get any type of conviction to actually deter this type of activity that you're talking about here today. Do you think that might be too high a threshold?
Thank you for the question, Mr. Perron.
You're right. We could have gone the route of the Criminal Code, but we felt we needed a national strategy on this, a national vision.
The trespassing laws are a provincial jurisdiction. There are some provinces that have followed through on strengthening their trespassing and mischief laws around this issue specifically: Alberta and Ontario would be the two. Saskatchewan is going through the process, but it hasn't been enacted yet. Unfortunately, when we were doing work on this, we saw that the vast majority of provinces don't have anything like this in line yet.
We thought that the most efficient way of addressing this was through the Health of Animals Act, focused on the biosecurity issue. Hopefully this will be a learning opportunity for those activist groups or animal welfare groups to have a better understanding that there are some consequences and there is a national standard, or a national level of consequences, let's say, when it comes to protecting biosecurity on farms.
I think what the law does—to Mr. Perron's question—is to put some pretty serious consequences in the act.
To go quickly back to your previous question, the issue with some of the provincial rules is that the penalties are really insignificant, anywhere from a $200 fine, up to the max that I've seen, which is $5,000. We're substantially higher than that.
The second part to Mr. Perron's question is that usually these activists aren't doing this in the dead of night to try to sneak in and sneak out. They want attention. They want to make sure that what they're doing is getting as many eyeballs as possible. That's one of the reasons they targeted Jumbo farm in my riding, which is right on Highway 2—a very prominent farm location. They were just lucky that they had a very understanding farm family who didn't overreact.
I think the essence of your question is that we can never assure that charges are laid or a conviction is found. That process is up to the investigators. I think the most important thing with this legislation and what we're proposing is very significant fines that will hopefully act as a deterrent, rather than the insignificant fines that are rarely laid at the provincial level.
I visited several farms in my day. I referenced them in my speech at second reading. Certainly we know, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, that there are many novel diseases and pests coming across our borders every year.
What I'm trying to dig down to is that federal criminal law power can exist in several forms: to protect public health, to protect autonomy, to protect privacy, and so on.
In in your opening statement, you were talking about the reasoning behind this bill, and I think we're all very sensitive to that. We did the mental health study, as you referenced. In the last Parliament, we also almost concluded a study on public perceptions of agriculture. It seems to me that, in regard to the farmers who were directly impacted in your specific riding case, their first reaction wasn't so much the disease potential to their flock. It was, really, “What are 30 strangers doing on my property, and why do they think they have the right to be here?”
I just want to dig down a bit more. Do you think the Criminal Code, especially its trespass provisions, might also have been a suitable alternative to act as a deterrent in cases like this, if we really are talking about, ultimately, trying to protect the private property of farmers and their right to earn a living in peace?
Good afternoon, Mr. Barlow. Thank you for being here today.
I have a fairly straightforward question for you.
Bill is quite significant. My riding is home to a lot of hog farmers, so protecting biosecurity is certainly very important to them. It's one of the worries farmers have, worries that can easily lead to mental health problems.
Mr. Barlow, talk, if you would, about the bill's deterrent effect. When it comes to break-ins, are the fines stiff enough to deter would-be perpetrators?
Thank you very much, Mr. Lehoux. It is so good to see you again. I do miss being able to see many of you in the House.
Really one of the reasons we looked at this bill was that we had met with hog farmers and the processing industry. One of the next big things they are worried about is African swine fever unfortunately planting its roots here in Canada. We have seen the devastation it has had on the Asian hog industry. As I mentioned earlier, more than a million animals have been euthanized in China. Many in the hog industry specifically do not think we are prepared to handle an outbreak of African swine fever here in Canada.
Ironically, we all talk about COVID-19 right now, the impact that has had on our economy and how in many ways we were ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic. One would argue that we are equally as unprepared to deal with an outbreak when it comes to animal viruses and diseases, so the idea behind this was to really, in many ways, raise awareness about the risk that our food supply is at and the very critical role that our farm families play as frontline protectors of our biosecurity, and the idea that this must be taken extremely seriously. That is why we set the fines of $250,000 for an individual and up to $500,000 for an organization, because if it is a specific organization that is directing this unlawful behaviour, those protestors may receive a very small fine, but that organization is free to move on with no consequences. In many ways it is using this as a fundraiser, so if anything is benefiting it, we need these harsh consequences in there.
Chair, it's great to be back in the ag committee with Mr. Barlow, Mr. MacGregor and you.
I remember the studies, and I remember in particular the mental health study and the impact on mental health of farmers and ranchers when they're not only targeted by people invading their property, but also by being portrayed as murderers, as Mr. Barlow said in his opening statement.
I also remember the safe handling of animals during transport where this was also an issue, where farmers and ranchers are really there to protect and steward the animals that are under their care, and all the protesting goes directly against what the farmers are trying to do to bring animals safely and healthily to market.
The act itself is something that I'm struggling with a bit in terms of the offences. Currently, there are strict liability offences, and I wonder how straightforward it would be for the CFIA to enforce this bill where they would have to show that the intent was for the perpetrators to cause a disease outbreak. It seems that this is a significant piece, because it really changes the way that the CFIA operates.
Mr. Barlow, could you maybe comment on your sense of what additional resources would be needed? You just mentioned that in your closing there. How would this work through the CFIA and the need for them to prove some type of intent under the law?
Yes, and I remember also making that point during the committee as we looked at how to protect the health of animals primarily from people who are supposedly trying to protect animals, but in doing what they're doing, they're actually putting the animals and the farm families at risk.
That role of the CFIA is one piece that is a bit outstanding for me, because I know that the CFIA's role changed over the years, where they used to also be involved with helping with marketing, but then everything fell under Health Canada.
Part of our frustrations with committees is that sometimes it was something that had to go to the health committee, and this one might be something that has to go to the justice committee. I think there might be some clarification that the committee could look into there.
Also, with the civil rights, the trespass rights that you mentioned as being provincial jurisdiction, we do have the national law enforcement in many cases. In Ontario, we have the OPP.
In terms of how the provinces would see the federal government going into provincial jurisdiction and saying, now we're going to take over this, what would we say to the provinces there?
I want to touch on another issue. It's close to my heart.
I grew up on a dairy farm. We had show cattle. We showed them from the World Agricultural Fair in Toronto to the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, to Agribition and to the fall fair in....I don't think people realize how well producers take care of their animals.
This goes to the comments Mr. Blois made about sometimes not knowing what happens on a farm or what could happen.
Could you give us some examples where strangers do actually enter farmyards, do shock the animals and do create a stimulus in the environment that the animals are not used to? If this happens, there could be dire consequences.
Animals are used to people coming into their pens and taking care of them, but having strangers on a farm or in a barn can have a devastating effect on animals and herds, as well as on the people who have taken great care of their animals. The animals just can't recover from that shock.
Thank you, Ms. Bessette.
Again, Mr. Barlow, thank you for your time here today.
I would agree with the lion's share of what you said today, particularly about mental health.
I had the chance in the House to recognize the Do More Agriculture group last week. You're spot on.
I want to go back to some of the questioning by Mr. Perron and Alistair, because when I read this legislation I looked at the summary, and it says, “exposure of the animals to a disease or toxic substance”, and Mr. MacGregor presented a situation where a protester could come on a farm and take some due diligence to try to avoid the disease or toxic substance. You said that as soon as they walk onto that farm without lawful authority, essentially this is going to trigger them. Do you see that as the only piece? When I look at proposed section 9.1, I read it all the way through to the point where it becomes “could result in the exposure of the animals to a disease or toxic substance that is capable of affecting or contaminating them”.
My worry is that, although the intent of this legislation is strong, I don't know if the CFIA, or whoever would be responsible for administering it, will be able to impose these penalties because there is a strong requirement on someone to not only have shown recklessness, but also a knowing intent to do exactly what they did.
What are your thoughts on this, because you're really just talking about lawful authority and nothing really on the rest of that statement?
I call the meeting back to order. Welcome back.
For the second hour, from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, we have back again on our panel Mr. Jaspinder Komal, who has been here many times.
He is the vice-president of the science branch and chief veterinary officer at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as well as the World Organisation for Animal Health delegate for Canada.
Welcome, Mr. Komal.
We also have Kelvin Mathuik, director general, western area, operations branch, and Mary-Jane Ireland, executive director, animal health directorate, policy and programs branch.
We will start with opening statements.
Mr. Komal, you may go ahead. You have five minutes.
My name is Dr. Jaspinder Komal and I am Canada’s chief veterinary officer and the vice-president of science at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. With me today is Dr. Mary Jane Ireland, who serves as the executive director of animal health, and Mr. Kelvin Mathuik, director general of our operations in the western area.
We are pleased to lend our expertise to assist you in your consideration of private members’ Bill an act to amend the Health of Animals Act.
The CFIA is a science-based regulatory agency, and its broad mandate encompasses animal health, plant health, food safety, and international market access. The proposed bill contains elements that greatly impact how the CFIA currently delivers on its mandated activities due to the bill's proposed changes to the Health of Animals Act.
The CFIA has programs in place that are designed to protect animal health and support biosecurity. In a nutshell, CFIA’s animal health program protects Canada’s animals from disease, including aquatic animals; manages animal disease events; promotes and regulates certain aspects of animal welfare; verifies that animal feeds and vaccines are safe, effective and of high quality; collaborates to develop voluntary biosecurity standards; and facilitates trade and market access for Canadian animals and products.
The CFIA administers and enforces the Health of Animals Act and regulations, which address diseases and biological, chemical, or physical agents that may affect animals or be transmitted by animals to persons and, in the same vein, to protect animals from these risks. The CFIA takes the lead in responding to reportable diseases, such as avian influenza, African swine fever, and Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
There is also the issue of biosecurity, which is a foundational piece in the proposed legislation. The CFIA has a long history of working closely with industry and producer organizations, provincial and territorial authorities, academia, and consulting with international partners to support biosecurity for the regulated parties we inspect.
Under the Health of Animals Act, in the course of their work, CFIA inspectors and officers may require that animals be presented for inspection, require documents be produced, conduct tests or analysis, as well as enter a dwelling place with a warrant, among other authorities officially granted.
However, CFIA inspectors and officers are public officers. They're not peace officers. Public officers are defined as any officer engaged in enforcing the laws of Canada relating to revenue, customs, excise, trade or navigation. Their powers stem from the acts and regulations they enforce—in this case, the Health of Animals Act—and they are given limited additional powers under the Criminal Code. In contrast, peace officers are generally police officers. Their powers include the ability to detain or arrest individuals. Peace officers may also be armed, whereas public officers such as inspectors may not be.
I would also like to point to the fact that existing legislation already clearly defines and deals with issues related to private property, and its enforcement largely rests with provincial authorities, including peace officers. There are also existing federal provisions under the Criminal Code that deal with trespassing, as well as specific prohibitions on animal cruelty and abuse. What Bill proposes represents a significant shift from what the CFIA has been mandated to do, and therefore would require an investment of additional inspection resources, further training, and increased legal authorities to assume these additional responsibilities. Given the combination of Criminal Code provisions, provincial trespass and animal health legislation and producers’ commitment to on-farm biosecurity that already exist, the proposed amendments would provide limited additional protection to farmers and producers.
However, I feel I can only speak to my expertise in animal health, especially as it pertains to CFIA’s mandate and activities. I trust that this testimony can help inform your study of this proposed legislation, and I am very happy to be back at this table, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to all of our panellists and witnesses for being here, and thank you for your work.
I know that we're talking today about the CFIA being responsible for the enforcement of the Health of Animals Act and regulations, and I know we all agree that strong biosecurity measures are essential to protect our farmers, our food supply and our animal health and well-being.
As we've mentioned in the past year and today, protecting animal welfare is a shared responsibility between governments, and I believe you mentioned that provinces have jurisdiction on the farm. Existing legislation, whether it's under the Criminal Code, as we discussed, or provincial law or civil law that already exists for trespassing and unlawful entry.... Laws are usually meant to change things, so I'm not sure how it's clear what gap we're trying to fix, because a number of provinces—including mine, Ontario—have these laws. Would federal law, in your opinion, then supersede the existing provincial laws and also supersede the local and regional laws that exist?
The federal laws are there when there is an issue of interprovincial or national or international jurisdiction that we need to look at in the context of trade.
When it comes to things within the province, especially in agriculture on the farm, it would be provincial jurisdiction, as you mentioned, and as I mentioned before.
Enacting these provisions in the Health of Animals Act would not supersede the provincial law. I am not a lawyer and I stand to be corrected, but the way it is written, the strength will not be there because we'll have to prove beyond doubt that somebody has committed an activity that caused the disease and breached biosecurity.
In that context I think it's better that the trespassing laws are there from the provincial perspective to protect those kinds of activities.
My question is for Mr. Mathuik or Ms. Ireland.
Mr. Mathuik or Ms. Ireland, you talked about the requirements and the significant resources it takes to respond quickly. We also talked about partnering with local law enforcement. Can't we simply count on the police to demonstrate that the individuals in question penetrated the area where the animals were kept?
That's my first question. I think it's possible to do that.
You said it would be very difficult to prove the intent of the individuals. However, John Barlow, the sponsor of Bill , told us such proof would not be necessary, as he understood the bill. He indicated that the individuals could be penalized simply for trespassing.
That brings me to my questions.
What is the real story?
If the offence is very difficult to prove, what changes need to be made to the bill?
The committee has the power to propose amendments to the bill. What changes would you suggest we make to lower the burden of proof?
I'll take this question. It is a very good question.
In the current Health of Animals Act, we have these provisions. If there is a disease outbreak on a farm, and CFIA inspectors find out that there is a disease happening, and it's a regulated disease under the Health of Animals Act, they will go and do the investigation. That investigation, under emergency management, would look at how much the disease has spread, what the cause was and where the disease came from. As we did recently with a tuberculosis outbreak and even influenza, we'll investigate. We will take samples. We'll do tests, and we'll go to farms where the animals have come from or the animals were bought, and trace backward and forward to find the cause.
We do everything to look at the cause, and if we know what the cause is, we zero in on it and eliminate that cause, and if there was an illegal activity, we may also have assistance from peace officers to help us.
In order to do this investigation, we have provisions under the Health of Animals Act and regulations to provide compensation to the producers for the destruction of these animals, because we'll have to destroy these animals to stop the spread of the disease.
The Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food also has provisions to help producers if we have put animals under quarantine or if they have to put down healthy animals for some reason. They can also come in and implement some of the provisions of their funding to the producers, so there are provisions in the Health of Animals Act already that enable us to investigate, find the cause and eliminate the cause of disease.