Premier vows crackdown on protesters who trespass on farms

Occupation of turkey barn last month sparks plan for new legislation, which critics call overkill

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Provincial justice officials will go after “illegal protesters” who trespass on Alberta farms, says Premier Jason Kenney.

The premier and his justice and agriculture ministers travelled to the Jumbo Valley Hutterite Colony near Fort Macleod to announce tough new penalties for those conducting occupation-style protests like a recent one at the colony’s turkey farm.

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“Some people have called this a protest,” Kenney said to colony members, who stood behind him in an equipment shed as his announcement was recorded on video. “This was an illegal invasion of private property. This was a dangerous act of trespassing. This was harassment of law-abiding, hard-working Alberta farmers… We should not dignify this by calling it some kind of an act of legitimate protest.”

The government plan to pass legislation would impose fines of up to $10,000 for an individual convicted of 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 Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer described as “the organizations perpetrating this, organizing it, facilitating it” — would face fines of up to $200,000.

Kenney said he has asked Schweitzer and Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen “to consider all options, including legislation, to protect livestock producers’ operations and their families from harassment.”

For example, Kenney said, the government proposes to strengthen the province’s Petty Trespass Act to “specifically address trespass on agricultural land.” Another proposal calls for amendments to the provincial Animal Health Act, under which farmers affected by “bio-security 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 also pledged the appointment of a dedicated provincial prosecutor for agricultural offences.

Ag-gag law coming?

Kenney also suggested the province would look at implementing some sort of ‘ag-gag law’ — which makes it a crime to take pictures or shoot video in an animal facility without the owner’s consent.

“We will ensure that there are legal repercussions for individuals who misrepresent themselves in order to gain access to farms and capture images to discredit operators,” he said.

That proposal would “target whistleblowing employees who record and expose animal abuse on farms,” said Toronto-based animal law organization Animal Justice.

Half a dozen U.S. states have passed ag-gag laws, all of which have been challenged in court with some being found to be unconstitutional.

Animal Justice called the proposed fines “astronomical” and the proposed legislation redundant as “trespassing on a farm or elsewhere is already an offence, and anyone engaged in trespassing can be charged.”

The RCMP has been reviewing the Jumbo Valley incident but has not yet said if it is going to charge the three dozen animal rights activists who stole into a turkey barn in the early morning on Labour Day.

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