Freedom of speech and freedom to protest does not equal the freedom to illegally enter farms, to take animals, to threaten or incite violence or to wreak emotional havoc on farmers.
But that is happening, and farmers have seen repeatedly that they cannot depend on legal authorities to prosecute law-breakers when protesters invade their properties. It is a dangerous situation.
The latest incident, in which 90 protesters entered the Jumbo Valley Hutterite turkey farm in southern Alberta, is an illustration of just how lackadaisical legal authorities are when it comes to this kind of activity.
Several dozen protesters occupied a barn. They had the gall to demand that the farm owners agree not to press charges, to allow the media on the property and to hand over five live turkeys.
If environmentalists invaded an oil refinery or protesters occupied a bank they would be dragged out and jailed.
At the Jumbo Valley farm, the RCMP constable involved accompanied protesters on an inspection of every barn on the property.
What was he thinking?
“We allowed the protesters to protest as their legal right, even though they did occupy a turkey barn, which is a trespass and break-and-enter,” said Const. Ben Stubbe.
Doesn’t the illegality of the act have consequences any more?
Earlier this year, a crown prosecutor in Ontario dropped break, enter and mischief charges against an animal rights activist who sneaked into a hog farm and stole two pigs. The prosecutor claimed there was no reasonable chance of conviction, even though video of the invasion was posted on YouTube.
This situation is not unlike the issue of rural property crime, which has farmers taking up weapons to defend their operations, in one case, with tragic consequences.
In April, dozens of protesters from a group called Meat the Victims occupied a hog farm near Abbotsford, B.C. One person was arrested.
Dairy farmer Julaine Treur, who lives nearby, said farmers are getting “fed up” with illegal entries into their operations. She described this as “a bit of a powder keg situation right now.”
Like many animal farmers, Treur has been targeted on social media with threats of horrific violence and incendiary comments.
Not everyone is able to brush off this kind of harassment. Mark Tschetter, minister at Jumbo Lake Hutterite Colony, said the incident has taken a toll mentally.
Other countries are taking action. The United States passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, which prohibits actions “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” It also criminalizes intimidation.
Australia is looking at harsher penalties against activist groups that invade properties, including online activities such as inciting others to trespass on farms, which is practised with impunity in Canada.
Charges of break, enter and trespass and even extortion for demanding live turkeys are being considered for the Jumbo Valley incident.
The legal system must take this more seriously, starting with arresting the intruders — all of them, not just organizers.
Crown prosecutors must pursue these charges and — since the prosecutor in Ontario thought he couldn’t win — laws must be tightened.
A summary conviction of break and enter currently carries a six-month jail term and a $5,000 fine, but so far, we can’t even manage that.
Politicians and legal authorities are aware of the provocative nature of these illegal protests and the possible effects. Failing to act would be irresponsible.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.