Regan Russell takes a photo with a donkey. (Family photo)

Topics: Justice | Opinion

Amid animal activist’s death, concern mounts over Ontario’s Bill 156

Regan Russell died two days after the province passed legislation critics say will muzzle whistleblowers


For the last five years, Regan Russell spent almost every Sunday morning with a small group of activists, “bearing witness” to the pigs bound for Fearmans Pork slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ont. Russell would reach through the metal grates of the trucks to give the pigs water, speak to them and take cellphone videos to document their condition. For two minutes, the drivers would idle in their vehicles on the road outside the slaughterhouse while the activists tended to the pigs. Then the animals were led inside the facility. There, according to activists, they are gassed, hung up, bled out, dumped in scalding tanks, cut up, neatly packaged in cellophane and styrofoam and shipped to grocery stores. 

Russell’s last vigil with the Animal Save Movement was on June 19, when she was run over and killed outside the slaughterhouse by an 18-wheel transport truck carrying hundreds of pigs. She was 65. It is not yet known if her death was an accident or a homicide. These vigils could be dangerous because some truck drivers displayed aggressive behaviour towards the activists, as seen in this video (warning: contains strong language), taken in the exact spot Russell was killed. 

What we do know is that two days before she was killed, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives passed Bill 156, the “Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act.” Critics have nicknamed this agricultural legislation “ag-gag,” claiming it stifles whistleblowers, including activists, journalists and employees, by making it a criminal offense to document and expose unethical or illegal practices—including animal abuse—at farms, slaughterhouses and during transport.

What I also know is that Regan Russell was my friend. 

A life dedicated to animal welfare

Russell was one of those people I imagined growing old with. We even talked about living together in the same co-housing setup one day.

Her Sunday vigils was her form of church. The other protesters were her community. Witnessing was her way to worship.

She devoted her life to bringing attention to the harmful treatment of animals. In 1977, when she was 22, she learned about the slaughter of Canadian baby seals who are clubbed to death. She made a sign, marched to the legislative building in downtown Winnipeg on a cold winter day and stood around for several hours. It was the start of more than 40 years of activism with animal advocacy organizations.

More on Broadview: The secret lives of cows, chickens and pigs

I’d known her for a decade, but we became close five years ago when she was the first person to respond to a call I put out asking if anyone was interested in staging an indoor protest during Bill Cosby’s appearance at Hamilton Place, on the final leg of the comedian’s “Far From Finished” tour. At the time, 30 women had accused Cosby (the number would eventually increase to 60) of drugging and sexually assaulting them. Russell blew the rape whistle that pierced the air 15 minutes into Cosby’s show, our cue to stand in unison, unfurl our posters and rise up chanting “We Believe the Women!” over and over while we slowly walked out of the theatre under the watchful eyes of police officers and security guards. The next day, our small act of defiance made headlines. This was a big deal for me, but not so much for Russell, who’d been arrested 11 times for acts of civil disobedience. 

The night before she died, Russell, her parents and her partner, Mark Powell, discussed Bill 156. “Honey, maybe it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation,” Powell suggested. But the next morning, she got up at 8 a.m. to make the trek to Fearmans. She kissed Powell goodbye before she left. Two hours later, she was dead.

“I don’t know if it does any good,” Russell once said of her activism. “But I know doing nothing does no good.”

Russell’s parents, Pat and Bill Russell, and her partner, Mark Powell (right in photo), at a vigil for Regan. (Photo: Anne Bokma)

A ‘chilling’ bill

Trespassing on farms is already illegal, but Bill 156 goes further by prohibiting citizens from entering livestock areas “under false pretenses” and approaching animals in transport trucks, as well as dramatically hiking fines in newly created “animal protection zones” and protecting farmers from criminal liability if someone is hurt while trespassing on their property. 

The first “ag-gag” law arrived in Canada last November, following similar laws in a number of U.S. states (although some have been overturned as a violation of the constitutional right to free speech). Alberta passed Bill 27 a month after 30 protesters—whom Premier Jason Kenney referred to as “anti-farming militants”—held a sit-in at Jumbo Valley turkey farm near Fort Macleod. Other provinces are looking at introducing similar legislation.

The effect of these new laws is chilling, say animal rights organizations.

“Animal farming is already highly secretive,” says lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, a national animal law organization which plans to challenge Bill 156. 

“Whistleblowing employees are often the only way the public has to see what conditions are like on farms.”

But proponents of Bill 156 praise it for protecting farmers. “Trespassers are invading farm properties, barns and processing facilities, harassing families and workers, frightening and stealing animals, and threatening food safety by ignoring biosecurity protocols,” stated the Ontario Federation of Agriculture in a news release dated June 17. A statement from the Chicken Farmers of Ontario reads: “Farmers should not have to live in fear of trespassers threatening our animals, our families, and our way of life — without facing legal repercussions.”

“I don’t know if it does any good. But I know doing nothing does no good.”

In Canada, a number of animal rights groups have documented horrific abuse, with some discoveries leading to animal cruelty convictions. In one of the most notorious cases of farm animal abuse, B.C. Chilliwack Cattle Sales, one of the largest dairy farms in the country, was fined more than $300,000 after an undercover employee with Mercy for Animals Canada obtained footage (warning: graphic content) of employees repeatedly beating cows, ripping out their tail hair and lifting a cow by a chain around its neck with a tractor. Some employees can be seen laughing and cheering with one saying, “This is way more fun than milking.” Eight workers were fired in connection with the case. “Ag-gag” laws would make it illegal to obtain this kind of footage.

Speaking out against the Ontario bill, NDP agriculture critic MPP John Vanthoff, a former dairy farmer and, ironically, the nephew of Ontario agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman, who first proposed the bill, sounded the alarm: “People are going to get hurt because of this,” he said. 

His words are prescient, given Regan Russell’s death. 

There were already fears that someone could get hurt. Two years ago, Toronto Pig Save collected nearly 10,000 signatures on a petition asking for a safety agreement with Fearmans Pork owner Michael Latifi. They were concerned about numerous “close calls” over the years with peaceful activists “nearly being severely injured” by truckers.

Russell’s death has galvanized activists around the world who have held vigils in her honour and are carrying out a range of creative actions in her name, from “liberating” 50 turkeys from a farm in the U.K. and negotiating the release of two pigs (now named “Regan” and “Russell”) from a factory farm in Iowa to gluing themselves to the road outside the Canadian embassy in London, England.

High-profile advocates have made statements about her commitment to animal rights, including PETA president Ingrid Newkirk and Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson. More than 200 people have responded on Facebook that they plan to march in Russell’s name this Friday, travelling from CBC headquarters in Toronto to Queen’s Park. Toronto Pig Save, which made headlines when its founder, Anita Krajnc was charged with mischief after giving water to the pigs outside Fearmans, vows to repeal Bill 156. In its place, Krajnc wants a “Regan Russell Bill of Animal Rights.”

For now, the vigils outside Fearmans are continuing — at least until Bill 156 comes into force. The massive factory, the size of several city blocks, doesn’t appear to have a single window. It’s set a long distance from the road, yet you can still hear the far-off squeals of terror from the desperate pigs. 


Anne Bokma is a journalist and author in Hamilton.

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  • says:

    When I read about theses activists, I wonder how they would react if the Israelite's rebuilt their temple and started their daily sacrifices? Can you imagine the turmoil during Passover? (Remember they used the cutest lambs)
    I don't understand how one's life is worth pitying an animal on its way to slaughter (but I've been called cold hearted before). I'm sure if we knew how our vegetables were truly processed, we'd all eat meat.
    I'm sure there are more humane ways to obtain our meat, but it would be far more expensive and harder to find.

  • says:

    Jocelyn Bell.
    I am absolutely appalled at this biased, one-sided view being posted as an article in your magazine. I thought politics and faith were separate issues. This is not an informative, fact-based article. It is rhetoric from one side of the argument. You obviously fail to remember that many of your subscribers are the very people denigrated in this article. By the way, I consider myself to be part of the "niche audience of progressive Christians" you serve. I grew up on a family farm and eat meat. I do not shove my ideals down other people's throats. I am herewith cancelling any contact I receive from your magazine and will suggest my local United Church do the same.


    • says:

      Anyone who eats meat from factory farms is complicit in cruelty to animals. That is a simply fact.


      • says:

        If so, please provide Biblical references to support you statement. You can kill animals in humane ways.

    • says:

      Agreed, but you can't make a martyr out of someone, if you show truth from both sides of the story.
      Although God sees our lives worth dying for, we now have elevated animals to our level (or lowered our lives to theirs) by dying for them.
      Perhaps we should throw ourselves in front of a flour tanker, to protest the processing and contaminants in it.

  • says:

    She was in the wrong standing in front of a vehicle that clearly had the right of way.

  • says:

    Well this 'story' is definitely one-sided. Those animals are going to be killed. Period. FULL stop! Any attempts at protesting will not and have not succeeded. Pig farmers and processors are legitimate businesses operating in this province. Time for these 'activists' to go after the real criminals - the illegal dog breeders.

  • says:

    This is the first I have heard of her death. Who killed her? It is most disheartening to know in this Country we are not so rich after all.
    How we treat the lowest is who we are and its frightening to know Conservatives are more regressive than ever. The meat these poor animals have now given will not be healthy meat. Fear creates toxins in the body as people know fear causes huge amounts stress.
    That drops the immune system and that can lead to illnesses such as cancer, as it did in me. Any animal that lives in such torturous conditions cannot have good meat to offer. Think of it starved of goodness by force feeding, dehydrated for convenience, how can that meat be offered as nutritious to any living creature including us?
    And I thought we had some common sense and compassion, but it seems we have yet some grave lessons to learn about becoming human, Why governments are shushing up good people makes me wonder if you have abandoned God's creation and think we can do whatever we want. Freedom lives only when people are responsible. I see no love, respect for Creation, or health in any torturing of any living thing, Are we going back to the cave?
    Or to equity? This road is not to Equity, but this good loving woman was leading us to the road of equity in honouring Creation and the Life it offers. To put it differently how can we allow such willful neglect causing such harm. This is more psychopathic behaviour than anything else. Thank God for people who stand up for what is both human and holy.

  • says:

    It’s sad that she died as this world needs people like Regan. I grew up with large animal vets in the family, been to so many farms and most farm animals suffer, just because it’s been done for years and some people are okay with it doesn’t mean anything. the new bill is “ag-gah”. Thank you Broadview for publishing this article. I don’t enough has been published on the conditions and treatment of farmed animals.

  • says:

    I notice since my comment, you have changed the article heading to "opinion".
    My "opinion" is further proved. Biased and rhetoric.


    • says:

      Suzanne, the driver in this incident has since been charged in her death, quite unjustly. There is an effort afoot to help raise money for their defense. You might, perhaps, put the money you might have sent Broadview (ironic title in this instance) to that effort instead. Look to Brussels Transport on facebook for more information.

  • says:

    Anyone who would reach through the metal grates of an 18-wheel transport truck idling on the road should know they are risking life and limb. How does creating a heart-stopping road hazard for the truck drivers help the pigs in any way?
    And why the perception that animal farming is "secretive"? The livestock producers in my area offer occasional open house events and tours; you may not be able to handle the animals, but the biosecurity protocols are there to protect them from the germs YOU may be spreading. Canada's livestock industry is highly regulated and regularly inspected. Read Broadview's own article, "The secret lives of cows, chickens and pigs" referenced within this one.
    The new legislation is for the protection of farmers, their families and property from over-zealous activists. 98% of Canadian farms are family owned; the farm is also the family home!

  • says:

    It is both a eulogy, opinion, and personal accident report. The author is clearly an animal rights supporter. Animal rights persons are the alt-right of our agri-food biology culture. Their evangelical zealotry is war like and fanatical. Animal welfare, is the label of the aspects of (mostly) food animal community where all are engaged in identifying and supporting humane standards of care and handling. And as in all areas of human work and activities, stuff happens that is criminal and inhumane. The animal rights crowd have little interest in the productive efforts of the animal welfare interests. They are simply anti-food animal other than pets, fans. Their simplistic fanaticism has and will take them into literal situations of great risk for personal injury and fatalities. It's like playing along the train tracks amongst the train traffic. The Darwin Awards gives a list every year.
    The Ontario Fed of Ag and the Chicken Farmers statements summed it up quite distinctly and responsibly. Food animal culture and consumption is legal and as such deserves to be free of harassment and food safety violations.
    Anne's beliefs eulogy is a mixture of who Ms. Russell was, sprinkled with some reality of our food production and consumption culture but in a way to view it from the "nice" side. She uses the approach " according to activists... - gassed,,., hung up, ", etc., etc. It is not rocket surgery that animal protein is processed to end up with the burgers, drumsticks, filets and bacon and I sure wouldn't cite the "activists" to describe the steps.. The processing of food involves many steps, many employees, machinery and nutritious meals prepared for our tables.
    Broadview can publish animal rights provocative pieces if it chooses but I still respect the efforts of those thousands who go to work every day to provide us with meat protein foodstuffs that omnivore me enjoys. Maybe you should have an Obituary or Memorials section to the mag.