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A bull grazes in a pasture on a farm near Cremona, Alta., on June 26, 2019.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and animal advocate.

In 2016, popular restaurant chain Earls momentarily dropped Alberta beef from its menu. The company announced it was switching to a “certified humane” brand from the United States, correctly, although maybe prematurely, citing shifting consumer preferences. The move caused massive public outrage in Alberta, and calls for Albertans to boycott the chain flooded social media. Within a couple of months, Earls backtracked and brought back the Alberta beef, calling it all a big mistake. The whole debacle sent a very clear message to the food industry and to Canadians: You don’t mess with Alberta’s meat.

Meat production and consumption is intrinsically linked to cultural identity and provincial pride in farm-filled Alberta. The province, known for having the greatest number of cattle in the country, is one of the biggest exporters of beef in the world. Beyond beef, the meat, dairy and egg industries all amount to major money for Alberta, and each year the Calgary Stampede celebrates this robust cowboy culture. Thus, it comes as little surprise that Alberta would become the first province in Canada to pass what is known as ag-gag legislation, to prevent activists, undercover investigators and whistle-blowers from exposing conditions on its sacred farms.

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Or, perhaps it is odd. For a province so proud of its meat, why is Alberta so quick to run and hide? Shouldn’t the province’s farmers be more than willing to show off the production of one of their province’s top products? What is it about the wholesome agricultural culture that they don’t want the world to see?

Sarah Gill was one of the activists who entered an Alberta turkey farm in September, with the group Liberation Lockdown. What she experienced, she says, was “unimaginable.” Most noticeable was the smell, she says, an overwhelming odour of ammonia that led to police having to open the doors. Then there was the treatment of the animals. “We witnessed the workers grabbing, killing and burning sick birds,” she said. There is footage allegedly showing a worker shoving limp birds into an incinerator. Ms. Gill says some of the birds were still moving.

Trespassing on farms – private property – is very much illegal. Activists feel forced to take this risk though, owing to a lack of government oversight to stop widespread animal abuse. What activists witnessed and recorded on that turkey farm may have been disturbing, but none of it is really considered beyond industry standards. Alberta’s Animal Care Act excludes “generally accepted practices of animal management, husbandry and slaughter.” Thus, for people who believe that no animal, whether it’s pig who will be eaten or a dog we cherish as a pet, should be treated cruelly, it can feel as though there is no other choice. So they trespass, and so Ms. Gill and her fellow activists get arrested, while the farm owner receives no penalty.

This scenario is exactly what has inspired activists across Canada (and around the world) to trespass on farms in recent months, in efforts to expose the long-hidden, sanctioned neglect and inherent cruelty rampant in animal agriculture. “We have a crisis in consumer confidence in farms because the industry is so not transparent and is not monitored or overseen by the government,” said animal-rights lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, Camille Labchuk. "That’s leading people to take these matters into their own hands, out of desperation. And the response from the industry and government, instead of cleaning up their act, is to try to further conceal it.”

That further concealment comes by way of the rapidly passed Bill 27 in Alberta, and pending Bill 156 in Ontario, which greatly increase fines for anyone trespassing on farms, including those gaining access under false pretenses, meaning undercover.

That’s where Ms. Labchuk says Alberta’s ag-gag legislation starts looking unconstitutional. “That restricts people’s freedom of expression, which is guaranteed under section 2(b) of the Charter,” she said. “It would force somebody to provide information when they don’t want to,” for example on a job application, if they were part of an animal-protection group or even a journalist, applying for work on a farm. “It’s compelled expression,” which restricts one’s freedom to not express.

Similar laws have been struck down, or are currently being challenged, in several U.S. states, on the grounds of being unconstitutional.

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Additionally, a 2016 study published in the journal Food Studies, showed ag-gag laws only erode public trust further regarding animal agriculture.

With the passing of Bill 27, it would appear that Albertans may not be so proud of their meat after all. Live-streamed footage of farms and trending images of animals would be welcomed advertising if that were the case. Instead, the Alberta government has pushed animal agriculture further into the dark, as if ashamed, and pushed consumers further from the truth. This is not meat-loving culture; this is concealment culture. And that’s nothing to be proud of.

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