We must see our laws through the lens of stewardship and sentience
To protect animals effectively, we need to do three things. We need to understand animals as sentient, take a stewardship approach to animals under the law and include animal protection issues in access-to-justice conversations.
It is past time to move away from the outdated and harmful idea that non-human animals are mere property, disposable commodities available to humans to be used as things, treated as inferior. So how did we treat animals under the law in 2022, and will we do better in 2023?
In 2022 in Canada, we still had “killing contests” for wild animals. We continue to have a fur farming industry dealing in fur as a luxury item where thousands of animals are purpose-bred and slaughtered. Despite viable alternatives, we use millions of animals in testing and display them as entertainers in zoos and aquaria. Live horses are shipped overseas to be eaten as an opulent delicacy, and some farm animals live for just a few days before being killed for food.
Animal cruelty is still pervasive. Canada is still working on animal welfare basics in many cases and though we are making inroads for animals, there is a very long way to go. We have a long way to go to actualize animal protection or legal animal entitlements.
Once we assiduously treat animals as more than property, incorporate stewardship and sentience in our considerations of animals and the law and put animals’ needs in the animal justice picture, we will improve the Canadian animal law scorecard.
Animal sentience and stewardship
Recognizing animals as sentient in our legal systems is much less of a stretch than some may think. Science has arrived at the understanding that animals are sentient beings. Pigs can not only do puzzles, but they can also show empathy. Elephants form kinship groups. Octopuses display excitement. Arguing animals can’t feel has no reasonable traction.
When we employ sentience principles in law-making, they elevate animals from commodification for human use to feeling beings that matter. A prime example is the 2021 case of R. v. Chen ABCA 382, where animals were referred to as sentient beings who could be living victims of violence. The Alberta Court of Appeal asserted that animals are: “... sentient beings that experience pain and suffering, must be treated as living victims and not chattels....”. The seeds of this powerful statement were sown by the Alberta Court of Appeal 10 years earlier in Canada’s cutting-edge animal law dissent in Reece v. Edmonton (City), 2011 ABCA 238.
Animals form a crucial part of the world in which humans live. We need to take a stewardship approach as the basis for their protection. Under a stewardship model, humans would take care of animals rather than use them for their purposes. Treating wild and domestic animals as “relations,” as is done in many Indigenous cultures, should inform our future laws. The notion of animals as kin provides a framework for better treatment than our colonial legal system, which relegates animals as mostly automatons, something owned rather than someone.
Animal sentience is already formally recognized by dozens of countries worldwide, from Chile to Austria and notably under UK legislation under the 2022 Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act. Sentience legislation accounts for animals as bearing capacity for joy, fear, pain and other emotions. It is vital to have such legislation in Canada.
The Jane Goodall Act, a ground-breaking bill introduced by animal law powerhouse Murray Sinclair while he was a senator in 2020 and then reintroduced in 2022 by Senator Klyne, is an excellent example of how we can move the dial forward. The preamble to the bill states: “ ‘All My Relations’ expresses an Indigenous understanding that all life forms of Creation are interconnected and interdependent...” ...Should this bill pass into law, it will make Canada a world leader in animal protection.
Drawing vital connections between humans, the earth and animals is critical to appraising how well animals are faring in the justice system. “One Health, One Welfare” conceptualizes animals, the environment and humans as linked. We must consider all species and their habitats to move forward. I read a legal keystone report with great interest, Toward a Humane Justice System by Humane Canada, about incorporating notions of sentience in Canadian animal legislation to protect animals and consider their interests and experiences.
Including animals in access to justice conversations
Recognizing animals as sentient and protecting them with stewardship principles is helpful, but they must also have access to justice. To comprehensively improve Canada’s animal law scorecard in 2023, animals must have their interests voiced. We should include them in access-to-justice conversations.
We need to connect the dots between animals, the earth and humans. BC’s chief justice, the Honourable Robert Bauman, neatly summarized how animals are part of our lives:
“It has to be acknowledged that animals are deeply entwined in our cultural, social and economic lives--whether we are talking about animals as pets, animals as part of our industrial food supply system, animals as sentient beings in need of protection from inhumane treatment or even animals involved in criminal offences.” (Shroff, V., Canadian Animal Law, Lexis Nexis 2021)
As society evolves, so should our laws affecting animals. Understanding, applying, enforcing and reviewing laws through the lens of stewardship and sentience is taking root. Still, we must diligently water these roots to effectively protect animals in 2023 and beyond.