National Column: Tory bestiality bill a small attempt to improve animal welfare

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by Thomas Walkom

Sometimes something is better than nothing. That’s the case with Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s private member’s bill to expand the criminal code definition of bestiality.

It’s not much as far as animal welfare legislation goes. But it is something.

Bestiality and animal welfare have been linked since a controversial Supreme Court decision in June 2016.

In a 6-1 ruling, the justices said that bestiality as understood under common law requires sexual penetration.

The majority ruling said that if Parliament wanted to expand the definition of criminal bestiality it would have to change the law.

But it was Justice Rosalie Abella who provided the most interesting insight. In her dissenting opinion, she wrote that bestiality is a crime not only against humans but against the animals involved.

“Acts with animals that have a sexual purpose are inherently exploitative whether or not penetration occurs,” she wrote.

She added that it was significant that the bestiality had become a separate criminal code offence in 1955, the same year that animal cruelty legislation was expanded to protect animals from exploitative conduct.

In this, she appeared to accept the arguments of Animal Justice, an animal welfare group that had intervened in the case.

One MP who took the court’s advice about changing the law was Toronto Liberal backbencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. At the time, he was trying to shepherd his own private member’s bill through Parliament, one aimed at strengthening animal cruelty laws in general.

Among other things, his Bill C-246 would have broadened the definition of bestiality.

But the animal industry, which carries considerable weight in Parliament, was staunchly opposed to Erskine-Smith’s proposals. When his bill came to a vote in late 2016, most Liberal MPs – including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – said no. So did most Conservative MPs.

One of only two Conservatives to vote for Erskine-Smith’s bill was Calgary’s Rempel.

On Wednesday, she introduced her own much more circumscribed legislative proposal. Her Bill C-388 is only one sentence long. It would amend the criminal code to define bestiality as “any contact by a person, for a sexual purpose, with an animal.”

In a statement to the Commons, she tied her bill directly to the peanut-butter episode. “This case,” she said, “highlights the need for updated legislation to keep both humans and animals safe.”

She called passage of her bill a “no-brainer” and chastised the Liberal government for not acting itself to change the bestiality law.

Indeed, the Trudeau government has taken great pains to disassociate itself from any animal welfare issue, no matter how anodyne.

The stock answer Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould gives whenever animal welfare questions arise is that she is reviewing the entire criminal code and that reformers will have to wait until she is finished.

She means it. The Trudeau government sandbagged Erskine-Smith’s attempt even after he gutted his own bill in a bid to appease the critics.

Will Rempel’s minimalist bill meet the same fate? She is right about one thing: If common sense holds, her attempt to redefine bestiality should sail through Parliament.

But if common sense held, numerous attempts to strengthen animal cruelty laws over the past 18 years would have been successful.

Instead, every effort has been derailed by hunting, farming, religious and research interests that view any attempt to improve animal welfare as the thin edge of a very dangerous wedge.

We shall see if they make an exception for Rempel’s bestiality gambit.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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Copyright 2017
Torstar Syndication Services

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