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.”
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 change.org 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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