Jessica Scott-Reid is a Montreal-based freelance writer and animal advocate.
In late 2013, a fire at a Quebec kennel killed 18 dogs. Owners were devastated, and animal lovers across the country were appalled to learn the boarded pets had been left unattended at the time of the blaze.
In January, 2016, a stable fire in Ontario killed 42 racehorses. Memorials were held, a crowdfunding campaign set up, and a new barn with better fire-safety provisions was later built.
Since January, 2016, media reports account for at least 30,000 pigs, cows, horses, sheep, goats, ducks and chickens killed in barn fires across the country, mostly in Ontario. And nothing has been done to prevent more.
While most will be disturbed to hear of the tragic death of a pet or a prized racehorse, it seems few share the same sentiment for animals considered livestock, and the law reflects the same lack of concern. Farmed animals in Canada are commonly regarded as commodities, their deaths often measured by weight and financial loss rather than by number of lives. Though destined to be dinner, farmed animals are not mere products. They are sentient beings capable of experiencing fear and pain just the same as our beloved pets, and they deserve to be protected from the terrible fate of death by fire.
Under the Ontario Farm Building Code, barns housing animals are not required to have fire detection or suppression systems of any kind. That means, unlike nearly any private or public building a person might enter in the province, barns housing animals are exempt from needing sprinkler systems or smoke or heat detectors. As industrialized farms become more automated, fewer humans are actually on site, which leads to barns being legally classified as "low human occupancy." With this designation, such structures are seen as similar to that of simple storage spaces, housing insurable, replaceable objects. Under the code, a pig is no different from a tool, a cow no different from hay.
The vast majority of livestock barn fires from the last 14 months occurred in Ontario, and there have been no reports of farmed animals killed by fire in Manitoba during that time. This may change soon: Until recently, the Manitoba Farm Building Code had stricter provisions regarding fire safety than those laid out by the Ontario Code.
But as of January, the provincial government said it will amend those requirements, removing those pesky fire-protection regulations, to make farming in Manitoba more competitive with other provinces and within our general marketplace of cheap meat. By also establishing the "low human occupancy" classification, Manitoba farms can now be built with reduced requirements for fire alarm and suppression systems – in other words, cheaper. This may lead to a boom in farm construction in Manitoba, but it spells possible disaster for countless confined animals. While animals continue to die, it appears some laws are actually going backward in terms of animal welfare.
Philip Rizcallah of the National Research Council says the committee in charge of the National Farm Building Code (a non-mandatory model code provinces can adopt and adapt based on needs) is currently working on updates that will enhance fire safety by 2020. The primary objective of those updates, however, will be the protection of human occupants, he says, adding, "As a secondary benefit, asset protection may be realized." By assets, he means live animals. This is far from good enough.
As long as our culture continues to see farmed animals as nothing more than property, then industry classifications like "low human occupancy" will persist to allow farmers to dismiss animals as unworthy of protection from horrific harms like fire. In a society deemed civilized and humane, this is unacceptable. Cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and ducks are not farm equipment or produce. They are living, feeling beings, the same as dogs and racehorses, deserving of protection from the inconceivable torture of being burned alive.