As an animal activist, I am continually surprised by how little protection there is for animals in Canada against extreme acts of cruelty. Even if people try to obtain justice for animals that have been mistreated, it is extremely difficult for the current laws to make any credible difference in court. Animals deserve to be treated with respect, and updating Canadians laws is necessary to do just that.
That’s why Beaches-East York Liberal MP Nathaniel Erksine-Smith has introduced a private member’s bill called the Modernizing Animal Protections Act.
Bill C-246, also known as the Modernizing Animal Protections Act, was introduced on Feb. 26, 2016 and focuses on three main elements. The act looks to tighten shark finning laws, ban dog and cat fur in Canada, and, most importantly, to change the criminal code concerning animal cruelty. Section 446 of the criminal code currently states that a person cannot “willfully neglect” an animal, but this can be difficult to prove in court because of the vague language used. Prosecutors often have a hard time proving willful neglect, meaning that an animal abuser can commit egregious acts of cruelty and go unpunished if they can prove they didn’t “wilfully” do it.
“The most significant component is modernizing the provisions to the criminal code. They were slightly modified in the 1990s but it is necessary to close loopholes related to severe negligence conditions,” Erksine-Smith says. “Crown prosecutors have said on a number of occasions that it is harder to secure convictions on the criminal code because of the language used. One of those terms is “willful neglect”. The willful component can be hard to prove”.
Animals became protected under the criminal code in 1892 and that section of the legislation has not been greatly changed since 1954. There have been several attempts to amend the criminal code in the past that have been met with limited success, including proposed reforms by former Justice Minister Anne McLellan in 1999 that were shot down. Current Liberal MPs Mark Holland and Hedy Fry have also tried to champion legal reforms in the criminal code. In the last 16 years, there have been 13 attempts to change animal rights laws in Canada that have been denied, despite the fact that 92 per cent of Canadians support changing the criminal code for animals. This lack of success in parliament is confounding.
Erksine-Smith also noted that Canada’s animal rights laws pale in comparison to other countries worldwide, such as New Zealand who has gone as far as to declare all animals sentient beings. “I refer to it as helping to bring our animal protection laws into the 21st century. Other countries are moving well beyond what we are doing,” Erksine-Smith says. “I choose these three issues because I thought I was selecting three issues I thought everyone could get behind.”
The Humane Society International, among other supporters, stand behind Erksine-Smith’s bill, but he has yet to convince Parliament to bring it to committee. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has even gone as far to reject liberal support for the bill because of pressure from the hunting and fishing communities. “We had the opportunity to meet Nathaniel and he is a strong advocate for supporting our work in Canada,” Humane Society International Political Officer, Michael Bernard says. “We are surprised and disappointed the government isn’t supporting it. We had at least hoped they would send the bill to committee. This bill goes after the most brutal offenders and worst cases. It is really just modernizing and giving protection to animals across the country.”
Erksine-Smith also pointed out that the bill doesn’t threaten hunters and fishers to any capacity because regulations concerning those parties fall under different jurisdiction and wouldn’t be applicable to the amendments proposed to the criminal code. The newly-appointed MP also expressed frustration at turning a private member’s bill into a forum for political gain, instead of looking at the bill as a way to create a new and much-needed standard of ethics for animals in Canada.
“These practices are frustrating as a new MP. I’m open to changes, I just don’t want to lose the good elements of the bill,” Erksine-Smith says. “I’ve gotten no uptake on that front unfortunately. The government has allowed the political pressure to get to them. People need to contact their MPs and the Minister of Justice.”
Erksine-Smith and supporters still have the summer to influence other members of the house as the MPs can vote independently of their respective parties because it is a private bill. The second reading is set to occur on September 21 2016 and if the bill is approved, it will then go to committee. Erksine-Smith encourages people to write to their MPs, the Prime Minister’s office and the Justice Minister to show support for the bill.
“I never like to give up hope. We need to engage with politicians and for Canadians to engage with this bill. Over the summer, we hope they look at changing their position,” Bernard says. “Realistically I know there is some opposition to it. Our job is to communicate with people and get the law passed.”