‘It’s headed in the right direction’: An animal-rights lawyer on the government’s new PAWS bill

TVO.org speaks with Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, about Ontario’s new legislation — and what it will mean for the province’s animals
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 01, 2019
an SPCA worker with a cat
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been enforcing animal-cruelty laws since 1919. (Fernando Morales/CP)

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Earlier this year, an Ontario court effectively ended the way this province had been enforcing animal-cruelty laws for a century. Justice Timothy Minnema ruled that the enforcement powers given to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were inappropriate for a private charity that isn’t subject to basic transparency and accountability rules, as a provincial police force is. For its part, the OSPCA had already said it was willing to get out of the law enforcement game, citing a lack of funding.

Earlier this week, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones announced the government’s next step — introducing Bill 136, the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act (PAWS, get it?), which will create a new government-run and publicly funded animal-welfare inspection branch. TVO.org spoke with Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, a non-profit that advocates for the legal protection of animals, about the new law and what it will mean for animal rights.

TVO.org: For starters, what was wrong about the prior OSPCA model for enforcing animal-cruelty laws?

Camille Labchuk: I would say the way the OSPCA was set up, and the way most similar law enforcement in most of Canada is set up, is an anachronism. Private charities enforcing publicly enacted laws doesn’t really happen in any other area of the law. So when you force a charity to fundraise for that work, and force members of the public who care enough about it to pay for it to support it, animals are being done a disservice. The OSPCA did the best they could with what they had, but there was always a need to move toward a public system.

TVO.org: And is this bill an answer to the problems of the old system?

Labchuk: What we’re seeing with this new legislation is encouraging so far. One of the key aspects of that is there’s going to be a public ministry inspectorate empowered to take actions in various ways to protect animals. There’s going to be transparency and also accountability.

We’re still only seeing a partial picture at this stage; a lot is still to come via the regulations that the government is promising. So exactly how effective the laws will be — including their enforcement — that remains to be seen. But what is see so far, I do really like. Ontario’s the only province to move toward a fully public model of animal-law enforcement, and that’s significant. I think that’s in keeping with where other jurisdictions are going, though.

TVO.org: Is there anything in the bill that strikes you as a potential problem?

Labchuk: There are no serious red flags for me at this point, though it’s hard to evaluate it seriously at the moment because the regulations are still to come. What I am seeing is a lot of interesting new things. It looks like the government is empowering itself to ban certain types of animals. Ontario is the only province that doesn’t have any exotic-animal legislation — the only animal you can’t own under provincial law is a pitbull or an orca. When you’ve got situations like IKEA monkey, I don’t think Ontarians find that to be acceptable. It shouldn’t be a city-by-city process; it should be subject to provincial rules.

Also interesting to me is that the existing legislation exempts “generally accepted practices” in different industries that use animals, and that covers a lot. The new bill only exempts farms in the same manner, so that suggests to me that there could be new restrictions coming for other industries that use animals. I think the way the legislation is set up, they could license and regulate uses of animals like zoos and aquariums, which is something people have long called for in this province. It could also cover rodeos and other uses of animals — they’ve really given themselves a lot of authority to do many things here.

One thing that’s disappointing, but isn’t novel, is that animals used in lab experiments are currently exempt from provincial animal-welfare laws: that continues in the new legislation.

TVO.org: Anything else catch your eye in reading the legislation?

Labchuk: One thing is that they seem to be setting themselves up to allow certain people to break windows to rescue animals in vehicles — like, a dog in a hot car situation. They’re going to prescribe that in regulation, so that could be interesting: It could mean any citizen could do it. It could mean fire departments. It could mean local police. We’ll see where they go.

They’re also hinting they might ban specific practices, and I would love to see various cosmetic mutilations banned — things like cat declawing, tail docking of dogs, cropping dogs ears. They could ban a lot of stuff like that through regulation.

One last point that isn’t in the bill, but was in the government’s press releases, is that they are promising training for Crown attorneys and OPP officers. I think that’s an important part of the picture, because we’ve seen, in many cases, that cruelty charges that should have been prosecuted were withdrawn. It’s difficult to know why in those situations, because we don’t get to peel back the curtains and hear from the Crown why they should be withdrawn, but the case of the Marineland cruelty case comes to mind. There was the other one in St. Catharines where the veterinary doctor was caught on camera abusing cats and dogs — those charges were withdrawn, too. There’s been concern for some time that Crown attorneys need greater training and understanding of these offences, and I hope this new training will help them get that.

TVO.org: And one thing worth keeping in mind is that, whether the current Progressive Conservative government goes as far as you’re talking about, any future government would still have the same legal powers.

Labchuk: Doing these things with regulation is a very powerful tool — it brings a lot of flexibility to this approach. Instead of having to create a whole new statute and get that passed in provincial parliament, a government could get a regulation passed via the cabinet process and issue it. That gives them more flexibility and makes regulations more responsive to public attitudes, which are changing rapidly when it comes to animals.

TVO.org: This is a government bill, so it’s very likely to be passed in something close to its current form. Is this going to be a positive step forward for animal rights in Ontario?

Labchuk: I think the substance of what the bill does is positive, and I’m cautiously optimistic we’re going to see more progress in the regulations. We’ll of course be testifying about this bill when the opportunity presents itself and potentially have suggestions for improvement, but I’m confident it’s headed in the right direction.

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