Justin Kroesbergen is a third-generation hog farmer in St. George who says he’s looking for a little more safety in his workplace.
He was among a group of local farmers gathered for a sit-down conversation at the Brantford tourism centre on Thursday with Ernie Hardeman, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural affairs, about Bill 156: Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act.
Hardeman has been travelling around the province touting the bill he introduced last month, which is now in its second reading.
The proposed legislation would protect farmers and agricultural workers from animal rights activists, who trespass or impede their business.
Kroesbergen said there has been no trespassing on his family’s farm but there is always concern.
“Every car that drives by you take a double look,” he said. “It has definitely become more of an issue in the last few years. This is a fantastic bill. It will make us feel safer.”
Hardeman said he drafted the bill after talking to farmers, including those in Brant County, about their experiences.
“I’ve heard firsthand about the concerns our farmers have faced with the increased risk and dangers of on-farm trespass,” said Hardeman. “Everyone in the province has the right to a safe workplace. This is especially true for farmers whose homes and work are often the same place.
“At the same time, people have the right to participate in legal protests but that right doesn’t include trespassing on farms and agricultural businesses or interfering with livestock in transport.”
If passed, the bill would increase fines to as much as $25,000 for anyone caught trespassing on farmland and at food processing plants, and introduce new measures against interfering with animal transportation.
The law also would allow the courts to award restitution for damage that farmers and food processors may suffer, and make it illegal to gain access to a farm under “false pretenses” — effectively making undercover filming an offence.
“It’s no secret some of the greatest challenges are focused on pork producers,” John de Bruyn, board vice-chair for Ontario Pork and a pork farmer in Oxford County, said after Thursday’s meeting.
De Bruyn said people can show up at farms unannounced and impede the delivery of pigs to processing plants.
“It risks the safety of animals and the food they represent and the safety of drivers.”
Brantford-Brant MPP Will Bouma arranged Thursday’s round-table discussion. Agriculture is the single biggest industry in Brant.
Bouma said people who enter a farm or processing facility without authorization are unlikely to be aware of the safety protocols and could unknowingly contract and spread diseases between humans and animals.
Animal rights activists are protesting the proposed legislation, fearing it will halt activism and stop people from seeing animal suffering.
Activists opposed to Bill 156 walked the streets in Brantford carrying placards in the spring of 2018.
In a media release Thursday, Animal Justice, an animal protection group, called Bill 156 Ontario’s “ag gag” bill. They say the proposed legislation would make it illegal for whistleblowing employees to expose animal cruelty on farms.
Animal Justice representative Kaitlyn Mitchell said the bill gives owners of farm property sweeping powers to arrest people on their properties and restricts the public’s ability to gather outside slaughterhouses to document the conditions inside transport trucks as animals arrive to slaughter.
Animal Justice sent a letter on Thursday to Hardeman and Attorney General Doug Downey demanding the bill be amended to protect “citizen’s basic human rights.”
“The public cares strongly about protecting animals, including animals kept behind the closed doors of industrial farms,” said Mitchell. “Laws that shield those who commit egregious abuse at farms and slaughterhouses by silencing journalists and animal advocates have no place in our free and democratic society.”
Hardeman said on Thursday that “our government has a zero-tolerance approach to animal abuse so, together with the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act, or PAWS, Ontario will have some of the toughest animal welfare laws in the country.
“We can protect the welfare of farm animals while, at the same time, protecting and improving working conditions for the agri-food sector and ensuring Ontario farmers feel safe in their homes.”