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For many activists, it just takes one thing — one event, one conversation, one documentary, one something — to put them on a life-changing course. For Camille Labchuk, it was seeing the annual seal hunt on television in her native Canada. She was nine years old. “It was one of the first times I truly became aware that society treats animals in cruel and callous ways,” she says. It also made the seal slaughter very real, because it was happening in her own backyard. “I grew up in Prince Edward Island, in the Atlantic region of Canada. I knew about baby harp seals because they would sometimes wash up on the shores of Island beaches, and to know that they were being clubbed and skinned so close to my own home was unbearable.”

Today, Camille is an animal rights lawyer and the executive director of Animal Justice Canada, a national organization focused on animal law, including law reform, litigation, investigations, and education, and the only one of its kind in the country. Camille represents individuals and organizations in animal law cases, defends animal advocates, and seeks out litigation that enhances the interests of animals. Her work includes false advertising complaints against companies making humane claims; exposing suffering on farms; work on trophy hunting, circuses, zoos, aquariums, shark finning, and puppy mills; and, of course, documenting the commercial seal kill on Canada’s East Coast.

I appreciate Camille taking time from her very busy schedule to answer some questions about her work, animal law in Canada, and her advice for anyone arrested for animal activism there.

Can you give me a sense of how difficult your job is? What is the hardest part? And what is the most rewarding?

I truly believe I have the best job in the world. The law is such a powerful tool for social change, and being at the cutting edge of the new field of animal law in Canada is an honor and a privilege. Sure, constantly watching footage of animal cruelty can be difficult, and it’s always crushing to lose a court case or see politicians vote down an important law. But I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t fighting to end animal suffering and bring our legal system in line with Canadian values.

The most rewarding part of my job is reflecting on the progress we’ve already made, and imagining how much further we’ll have shifted the paradigm in another decade or two. Ultimately, animal activists are on the right side of history, and I predict we will win this battle sooner than any of us can imagine right now.

How would you characterize the state of animal law in Canada? Are you seeing improvements in protections for animals?

Canadians think of our country as kind, polite, and progressive, but those attitudes are not reflected in our animal protection laws, which are widely considered among the worst in the western world. Canada is one of very few western democracies without national animal welfare legislation to set standards for animal confinement, use, and slaughter. The few federal animal cruelty laws that do exist haven’t been updated since the 1950s, and the federal government recently blocked an attempt to modernize these protections to ensure sadistic animal abusers do not continue to escape criminal prosecution for their violence.

The vast majority of animals held captive and slaughtered in Canada are farmed animals (more than 771 million in 2016, not including fishes — their lives are measured in tonnes). Yet the federal government doesn’t regulate on-farm conditions for animals, essentially letting the farming industry set its own standards. Canada’s farmed animal transport laws are 40 years old, and a recent government proposal to update the laws would still allow animals to be transported for days at a time without food, water, or rest, and suffer and die from exposure to Canada’s blistering heat and extreme cold.

There is also disturbingly little oversight of animal experimentation in Canada, with only voluntary, non-legal standards for laboratories existing at the national level. The Canadian public has no meaningful access to laboratory records, inspections, and outcomes, and thus no way to oversee what is happening behind closed doors in animal experiments.

Canada still subsidizes the commercial seal slaughter, the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on the planet, done for seal fur. Encouragingly, the number of seals killed is dropping dramatically as countries around the world close their borders to commercial seal products.

The laws that do protect animals in Canada are chronically under-enforced. Canada largely leaves enforcing animal protection laws to private SPCAs and humane societies — charities that must raise money to cover their operation and enforcement costs.

Yet there are glimmers of hope. Undercover investigations over the last five years have helped expose hidden abuse in the farming industry, in laboratories, and in zoos and aquariums. There is a bill before Parliament that would ban keeping whales and dolphins in captivity; the province of Ontario recently banned orca whale captivity; and the Vancouver Parks Board recently stopped the Vancouver Aquarium from continuing to confine cetaceans. There are also federal bills that would outlaw cosmetic tests performed on animals and ban shark fin imports into Canada.

Animal lawyers are also starting to advocate on behalf of animals in courtrooms, such as in the Supreme Court case of R. v. D.L.W., a disturbing case about the sexual abuse of animals. The Court accepted the argument of intervener Animal Justice and ruled that protecting animals is a fundamental societal value — the strongest-ever statement on animal protection from the country’s top court and an incredible precedent. And in a case involving an elephant named Lucy, imprisoned by herself at the Edmonton Zoo, the chief justice of the Alberta Court of Appeal wrote an incredibly dissenting judgment recognizing the interests of nonhuman animals.

Animal law issues are constantly in the news in Canada and are becoming a real part of the national conversation.

How important do you think it is for animal cases like these to get exposure in the media?

Getting media attention for animal law cases can sometimes be just as important as the outcome of the case. For instance, Canadian activist Anita Krajnc was recently charged with criminal mischief for giving water to thirsty, dehydrated pigs on their way into a slaughterhouse. The charges were laid at the behest of the meat industry, but their tactic backfired: the intense media exposure and international interest in the case educated millions of people about the horrific cruelty suffered by animals in the food system. Anita Krajnc was acquitted following a trial, but the real victory of the case is that she succeeded in putting the meat industry on trial for unimaginable animal abuse.

Media attention can also influence the outcome of a case. In one recent Canadian case, a compassionate police officer was charged with misconduct after rescuing a kitten from a bad situation in drug den. Why? Because the kitten was property, removed without the owner’s consent. Animal Justice filed an application to intervene, and we helped turn the case into a major media story. When we showed up to argue our case, the prosecution agreed to settle, confirming that police have an obligation to rescue animals as part of the general police duty to preserve life. This helped ensure there won’t be a chill effect on animal rescue.

Does the law reflect the way society views animals?

I’m a firm believer that society leads the law — not the other way around. In other words, politicians and judges will only create new legal standards that reflect attitudes the public already holds. In the case of animal protection, there has been a massive shift in public consciousness over the last few decades about the way society should be treating animals. People know more than every before about the horrific suffering endured by animals used for food, fashion, experiments, and entertainment, and they want this to end. The law hasn’t yet caught up to societal attitudes about animals, but animal advocates and animal lawyers are beginning to make progress. Our job is to enshrine these values into court judgments and legislation.

What advice do you have for activists who would like to practice animal law in Canada?

Animal law in Canada is still a very new field of practice, and would-be animal lawyers must be bold in charting their own courses and seeking out opportunities. My own path led me to practice criminal law for several years before starting up my own animal law practice. I volunteered part-time with non-profit animal law organization Animal Justice at the same time, and helped build the organization up from a small team of volunteers into a larger, national organization. This eventually led to full-time employment in animal law.

There are still very few paid animal law positions in Canada, so I recommend having a back-up plan in the early stages. Find an area of legal practice that pays the bills, and volunteer your spare time by doing pro bono legal work for animal protection organizations. I made a point of volunteering for as many animal protection organizations as possible before, during, and after law school, and it was these contacts that helped me get enough work to pay the bills while I had my own animal law practice. If you can make the jump to full-time animal law practice or working for a non-profit, go for it!

You’ve also represented animal rights activists. Do you have any advice for people who find themselves arrested for engaging in activism in Canada?

First, don’t talk to the police — I meant it, not a word! Second, call Animal Justice. We vigorously defend the rights of animal advocates; without people to speak up on their behalves, animals won’t have a voice in our political and legal systems. Activism is essential to animal protection. We help connect activists with top-notch criminal lawyers who can help defend against activism-related prosecutions.

Lastly, do you have any advice for animal lovers who want to lobby their legislators on animal issues?

Lobbying our political representatives is essential to helping animals. Politicians are under immense pressure from the billion-dollar industries that harm animals, and unless politicians hear loudly and clearly from constituents who care about animals, nothing will ever change.

Meet with your legislators often — that’s federal, provincial, and municipal — and bring as many friends or family members from the community as you can. Come armed with facts and a specific ask, such as supporting or introducing a piece of legislation. Make sure your legislators know they won’t get your vote unless they support animal protection issues. After a meeting, a phone call is your second best option, followed by sending an email. Political staff track the number of phone calls and emails they receive on an issue, and most politicians pay close attention to the mood of their constituents. And don’t do this just once: make a point of reaching out regularly to legislators.

During elections, it’s important to find and support animal-friendly candidates — volunteer to knock on doors, make phone calls, and donate! Legislators remember the people that help them get elected, and you can use this goodwill to ensure they do the right thing once in office.

 

To follow Camille’s work, please give the Animal Justice Canada Facebook page a like!

 

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