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Horses stand in crates on the tarmac at the Calgary International Airport. The horses are headed to Japan for possible slaughter.Canadian Horse Defence Coalition/Supplied

MPs, animal-welfare groups and singer/songwriter Jann Arden are accusing Ottawa of reneging on a promise to ban the transport of thousands of live horses to Japan to make raw horse-meat products.

They fear the Liberal government is backpedalling on a 2021 election pledge to ban the transport of Canadian horses for slaughter to produce basashi, an expensive sashimi delicacy usually served at high-end restaurants in Japan.

In the past five years, more than 14,500 large horses – including draft horses – have been flown from Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg to Japan, with a value of almost $93-million, according to Statistics Canada.

Last December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau to “ban the live export of horses for slaughter,” but no action has so far been taken.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Ms. Bibeau’s department said it was “in the early stages of analyzing the commitment and is engaging with key stakeholders.”

The number of live horses transported from Canada has risen since the mandate letter, with 2,302 horses flown to Japan between January and October this year.

The United States and Britain have banned the export of live horses for slaughter on welfare grounds.

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Ms. Arden, an animal-rights advocate, has started a petition signed by 18,000 Canadians calling on Ms. Bibeau to keep the promise. She said in an interview that the practice is a “stain on Canadian agriculture” and added that it seems Ottawa has “no intention” of fulfilling its pledge.

She said she would like to meet the Prime Minister and say to him “get this done.”

Her petition, sponsored by NDP MP Alistair MacGregor, says that during the flights “horses are deprived of food, water and rest” in the crates, causing them “significant stress.”

The horses are specially bred on farms in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, and transported by road to Alberta or Manitoba airports and then flown by Korean Air to Japan in crates.

Corinne Nykorak, of Blackbird Ranch, a Manitoba equine rescue and rehab centre, said she has seen crated horses waiting for hours on the tarmac at Winnipeg airport before being loaded onboard planes, including in sub-zero temperatures.

“They get scared. They get frightened. They are going to sweat if they are cold. It’s horrible,” she said.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) reports, obtained under freedom-of-information law, show that horses have died in crates, kicked through them or fallen down. In 2014, a draft horse kicked through its crate and did damage to the plane fuselage, forcing it to land in Anchorage. The horse died en route.

Sinikka Crosland, president of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, said the horses are around two years of age when they are slaughtered in Japan so their meat is tender and fresh and can be eaten raw.

She feared implementing the ban was a “low priority” for the government.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said the Library of Parliament had told him a ban could be brought forward with a simple change.

“This could be done very, very easily through regulation and it could have been done yesterday,” he said.

CFIA said its veterinary inspectors are present for each air shipment to verify that horses are transported humanely.

It said that of around 41,000 horses exported to Japan since 2013, only five have died en route, with the last death in 2014.

CFIA said it would continue to verify “that the horses are fit to travel and will be transported humanely” until a ban is enacted.

Pam Corey, an equine vet based in Ottawa, said it was inhumane to transport horses in crates for more than 28 hours without food or water. She said they would become dehydrated within four hours and this could lead to colic, which was worse in draft horses because their intestines are so large.

But Bill desBarres, chair of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada, said he had witnessed how the horses are raised and transported and said they were “treated royally” and “well looked after.”

“The sale of these horses is based on a quality product or it wouldn’t be sold. There’s nothing inhumane about shipping horses by air,” he said.

Korean Air, which flies the horses, said in a statement that it is “committed to safe transportation of our customers’ consignments to their final destination” and adhered to all rules and regulations.

International Trade Minister Mary Ng travelled to Japan earlier this month for trade talks but the export of live horses was not raised, her department said.

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