National Column: Senate bill to free whales faces a long, rough ride

by Thomas Walkom

It’s hard to strengthen animal welfare legislation in Canada. Attempts to mildly improve such laws routinely fail.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, like that of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, has shown little interest in animal issues.

This has left private members’ bills, either from the Commons or the Senate, as the only path forward.

Another of these private bills is wending its way slowly through the Senate. Labelled Bill S-203, it is a moderate piece of draft legislation that would, if adopted, hardly shake the world.

Its aim is to phase out, with some crucial exemptions, the practice of keeping in captivity – or breeding – cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The bill’s original sponsor, Nova Scotia Sen. Wilfred Moore, argued convincingly when he first introduced it back in June 2015 that confining these highly intelligent marine mammals to small enclosures amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

But it was not cruel and unusual enough to get Parliament to move with any alacrity.

The upper chamber took so long to consider this measure that by the time it got to the fisheries and oceans committee late last month, Moore had already reached the Senate’s mandatory retirement age of 75.

On the face of it, the anti-captivity bill should be a slam dunk.

Only two Canadian facilities, Marineland in Niagara Falls and the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, keep cetaceans.

And regardless of what happens in Ottawa, the Vancouver Aquarium has been told by its landlord, the Vancouver Parks Board, that it will no longer be able to display whales, dolphins or porpoises.

In any case, the aquarium currently holds only three cetaceans and plans to voluntarily end its captivity program by 2029.

Marineland, meanwhile, is already subject to a 2015 Ontario law prohibiting the purchase, sale or breeding of orcas. According to federal officials, the amusement park currently holds fewer than 50 beluga whales and dolphins, as well as one orca already in place before the Ontario legislation took effect.

Given all of this, an observer might wonder why anyone would oppose Bill S-203. If anything, it seems redundant.

But opposition is fierce. Marineland has called Bill S-203 a “bicoastal” attempt by Moore and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, its most prominent supporter in the Commons, to harm the Ontario economy.

Marineland’s reasoning, set out in a rambling press release on its website, is that B.C. MP May and former Nova Scotia senator Moore are conspiring to boost the whale-watching tourist trade in their respective provinces.

“This bill is all about promoting tourism for Sen. Moore’s and Ms May’s constituencies and eliminating any competition,” the release reads.

“It is clear that the purpose of their bill is to eliminate any opportunity for any Canadian (particularly Ontarians) to view or visit any whale or dolphin in Canada anywhere except in their ridings on the West or East coast.”

The proof for this, the release says, can be found in statements from Moore and May suggesting that “the best way to see any whale or dolphin is to do it from a boat.”

The Vancouver Aquarium is also opposed.

But so too are some senators. Conservative Sen. David Wells told the upper chamber last October that the bill would interfere with vital research attempts to classify Beluga whales.

Another Conservative, Sen. Don Plett, has made it clear he doesn’t like anything about the bill. Independent B.C. Senator Larry Campbell has also spoken against it.

Exactly what they have against this remarkably mild measure is baffling. The bill would allow existing facilities to keep the animals they already possess and use them for research. It would also allow the capture and containment of cetaceans in distress. They too could be used for research.

There are many hurdles before S-203 has even a chance of seeing light of day. It must make it through the Senate. Then the procedure must be repeated in the Commons.

Hanging over all of this is the attitude of the Trudeau government. A senior Fisheries official told the Senate committee this month that the government has not yet taken a position on the bill. It wants to find out first if there might be “unintended consequences.”

Translation: It wants to see what the polls say. Are whales and dolphins still popular? Or have they been replaced in the public’s affections by something else?

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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