Alberta proposes heavier penalties for on-farm trespassing

Alberta’s government proposes to discourage future on-farm protests — events in the style of an occupation held early last month at an Alberta Hutterite colony’s turkey farm — on pain of new penalties.

Speaking Thursday at the Jumbo Valley colony near Fort Macleod, Premier Jason Kenney, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen pledged in the next legislative session to introduce rules “designed to punish illegal protestors who invade farms, and to discourage such dangerous activity.”

Kenney said he has asked Dreeshen and Schweitzer “to consider all options, including legislation, to protect livestock producers’ operations and their families from harassment,” and more details would be available “in the weeks to come.”

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The provincial legislative assembly resumes sitting Tuesday morning (Oct. 8).

For one example, Kenney said, the government proposes to strengthen the province’s Petty Trespass Act to “specifically address trespass on agricultural land.”

For individuals, the province said, the proposals include fines of up to $10,000 for a first offence and up to $25,000 for subsequent offences and imprisonment of up to six months.

Organizations involved in such actions — groups which Schweitzer described Thursday as “the organizations perpetrating this, organizing it, facilitating it” — would face fines of up to $200,000.

Another proposal calls for amendments to the provincial Animal Health Act, under which farmers affected by “biosecurity breaches due to unlawful entry” could recover their costs.

That proposal, Dreeshen said, calls for any trespassers or protesters who are found to be breaching biosecurity protocols to be fined $15,000 for first offences, then $30,000 plus imprisonment of up to one year for repeat offences.

The Provincial Offences Procedure Act would also be amended, the ministers said, to increase the maximum amount of compensation awarded by the court from $25,000 to $100,000.

Kenney on Thursday also pledged the appointment of a dedicated provincial prosecutor for agricultural offenses “to ensure that they are properly pursued.”

On a related note, Kenney also said the province would ensure “legal repercussions for individuals who misrepresent themselves in order to gain access to farms and capture images to discredit operators.”

“Farmers shouldn’t have to worry about people entering their workplace, interfering with their lives, or threatening the health of their animals,” Dreeshen said. The turkey barn incident, he added, “made it clear our farmers need stronger protection.”

Mark Tchetter of Jumbo Valley, in the province’s release, said Thursday’s announcement “provides farmers further clarity on what a measured response from the legal system will look like.”

Farmers, he said, will now have “a better understanding of what government is willing to do if situations like this arise in the future.”

‘Outraged’

Toronto-based animal law organization Animal Justice, in a separate release Thursday, described Alberta’s proposed fines as “astronomical” and warned that the proposed law on capturing images would “target whistleblowing employees who record and expose animal abuse on farms.”

The group said Alberta’s proposed new legislation “appears to share many elements of so-called ‘ag gag’ laws, passed in some states, that criminalize whistleblowers who expose animal cruelty on farms.” Such laws, the group said, have been struck down as unconstitutional in “multiple” states.

The group also noted the province’s plans for a prosecutor “to target animal advocates, even though there is no special prosecutor dedicated to prosecuting animal cruelty offences.”

“Instead of this unprecedented crackdown on compassionate citizens, Alberta should create laws to protect farmed animals from abuse and suffering,” Animal Justice executive director Camille Labchuk said in that group’s release.

Besides, the group said, “trespassing on a farm or elsewhere is already an offence, and anyone engaged in trespassing can be charged.”

Citizens, Labchuk said, “are rightfully outraged that governments have failed to police animal welfare conditions in the farm industry.”

That said, at least one activist involved in the Jumbo Valley event was quoted last month in Alberta Farmer as saying the occupying group in the turkey barn was “not advocating for better conditions or a better way of doing the wrong thing.”

Kenney, at Thursday’s event, disagreed with any characterization of the Jumbo Valley incident as a protest.

“If you do a protest, you hold a bunch of signs on public property,” he said. “This was an illegal invasion of private property. This was a dangerous act of trespassing… we should not dignify this by calling it some kind of an act of legitimate protest.

“If people in the public have legitimate concerns about animal health and safety or potential violations of food safety and agricultural regulations, we encourage them to go to the appropriate authorities.”

As for the incident last month at Jumbo Valley, Schweitzer said Thursday he didn’t have any further information yet regarding any possible charges, but added the province is working closely with RCMP and other police forces in Alberta and “it’s for them to investigate right now.” — Glacier FarmMedia Network

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