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Ag-Gag, Animal Rights Activism, farmed animals, freedom of speech


Forthcoming in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal (2022).

It is a troubling time to be an animal rights activist in Canada. Recently, Alberta adopted legislation to create harsh penalties for trespassing onto private property, for obtaining permission to enter private property based on false pretences, and for interfering with vehicles on public highways. These laws relate to agricultural lands, to private property generally, and, where roads are concerned, to public property. Ontario, for its part, has adopted similar legislation aimed specifically at agricultural property. The legislation in both provinces purports to protect the security of farmers, their families, and rural property owners generally, as well as the safety of the food system, by preventing contamination of farmed animals by trespassers and those who would interfere with farmed animal transport. In truth, these laws, known as ag-gag (or agricultural gag) laws, aim to suppress animal rights activism and prevent undercover investigations of industrial animal agriculture. New in Canada, ag-gag legislation has been adopted and subsequently struck down in the United States as an unconstitutional limit on freedom of speech. This article suggests that Canadian ag-gag laws are likewise unconstitutional. They limit high-value, constitutionally protected expression, interfere with the public’s right to know how their food is produced and how the law fails to protect farmed animals, and cannot be justified under section 1 of the Canadian Charter.

Doctrinal in nature, this article fills a gap in Canadian legal scholarship on the constitutional dimensions of animal rights activism as well as the legality of limits on the activities of activists. It contributes to our understanding and interpretation of section 1 of the Charter and the permissible scope of government interference with fundamental freedoms. Its relevance also goes beyond the activities of animal rights activists. Public attention to animal agriculture and meat production is at an all-time high, not only with respect to the treatment of farmed animals, but also regarding working conditions for humans in light of the high incidence of COVID-19 infections in slaughterhouses in the US and Canada, and the demonstrated connections between industrial farming, animal confinement, and the spread of zoonotic diseases, as well as the environmental degradation caused by intensive animal farming. Finally, the article makes a small, but much-needed intervention into to the growing Canadian literature on agricultural exceptionalism and challenges the historic privileging of the agricultural industry by legislators and policymakers.