Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based writer, animal advocate and co-host of Canada’s animal-law podcast, Paw & Order.
At Grunthal Livestock Auction Mart in Manitoba, owners of farmed animals unload their unwanted stock for slaughter. By and large, the lots are made up of cows. But sometimes, says animal advocate Jen Allen, there are horses – many of them former pets or racehorses.
Ms. Allen has become a regular at these auctions, where she performs “proxy bidding” on behalf of families who want to give these horses a second chance at life. Those she can’t re-home, end up at her sanctuary, The Good Place. If she didn’t buy them, she says, all “would have went to Alberta. It’s the meat buyer or me.”
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Canadians are generally aware of the expansive and remote Albertan feedlots where cows are housed before becoming the beef that is the pride of the province. But Alberta is also home to a different kind of livestock trade, worth tens of millions of dollars, and one of the few still in existence in the world today: the horsemeat industry. It is fuelled in large part by breeders and dealers in Alberta, and works largely in the dark to ship horsemeat to Quebec, Asia and Europe.
This may be shocking enough for Canadians who may not know this, and who see horses as friends, not food. But the journey is even longer and more torturous for thousands of horses among the ones being killed for consumption. The really big horses, especially draft and draft-crosses intentionally bred on Alberta farms, can end up on gruelling long-haul flights to Japan, to ultimately become a local fresh delicacy, horse sashimi.
Horses exported live to Asia are shipped off from airports in Alberta and Manitoba, under the cover of night. They are allegedly forced to travel for at least 28 hours, standing in tiny crates in their own waste, with no food or water. Some horses arrive injured or dead.
In the U.S., horse slaughter for consumption was effectively quashed in 2007, when activists drew public attention to the trade and helped shift public opinion. This spurred legislators to address the issue in the House of Representatives and prompting a court to close the necessary loopholes in meat inspection. At the time, Republican Representative John Sweeney called the horsemeat trade “one of the most inhumane, brutal and shady practices going on in the United States today.” It would be formally outlawed in 2014.
In Canada, however, the horsemeat trade carried on. In 2018, it accounted for $20-million in sales for Canadian shippers; frozen horsemeat exports brought in $49-million. And U.S dealers are now exporting horses to places such as Canada to become meat.
But ending the horse trade can be achieved here in Canada. After all, most Canadians are already against the slaughter of horses for human consumption. In 2019, a Nanos national poll found that 69 per cent opposed the practice, up from 64 per cent in 2004. They just need to understand what’s happening.
The courts are one avenue for raising awareness. While the treatment of animals on farms is not regulated by law nor overseen by government, and animal-cruelty laws are rarely deployed when it comes to farms, there are laws regarding their transport.
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So last year, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) took the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to court, arguing that cramming multiple horses into single-horse crates and failing to provide sufficient headroom violated their own transport regulations. While the CHDC was unsuccessful, that decision was appealed in January.
The case increased the attention on the industry among a number of Canadians, including Jann Arden, a Calgary-born singer and TV personality, who reacted viscerally to learning about the horsemeat trade. “This horror came to my attention about five months ago,” she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “And like most people in Canada, I had no idea that … these horses are moved, under the cloak of darkness.”
Ms. Arden is using her high profile to agitate for change, even attending a protest at Calgary’s airport last month. "I have a voice, I have a public presence, and I can’t take the cruelty,” she says. “This is not the Alberta I knew.”
This is how Canadian activists can make change: by taking a page from those in the U.S. who shut down the trade by revealing it to the public, and leveraging the courts, media, social media and public figures to do so. “If they get enough heat about it,” she says, “the government will have to do something.”
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