In late February, rookie Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith stood in the House of Commons to deliver a chapped and disjointed announcement. Clothed in a maroon tie draped over an oversized Tory blue shirt, Erskine-Smith—a pet-less, 31-year-old vegan from Toronto—introduced the Modernizing Animals Protection Act. Bill C-246, he said, would bring Canada's animal welfare laws into the 21st Century. It sounded about right.
Only, opponents argue the bill's three "specific and achievable" goals range from the sensible to the ridiculous, with little logical middle ground. C-246 looks to ban the sale of cat and dog fur in Canada and aims to end the cruel and unusual practice of shark finning. It also hopes to strengthen criminal laws related to animal sexual abuse and introduce a gross negligence penalty for animal cruelty.
The Modernizing Animals Protection Act could mean fines as high as $10,000 or 18 months in prison for storing a catch in a livewell or baiting a hook with a minnow, nightcrawler, or leech. Short of fanning the age-old flames of Canada's ugly rural-urban divide, Erskine-Smith, MP for the bougie Toronto inner-suburb riding of Beaches-East York, has placed himself in the crosshairs of every outdoorsman from Prince Rupert to St. John's.
One of them, Robert Sopuck, Conservative critic for wildlife conservation and Parks Canada, says the passing of this act would move animals out of the property section of the law and into the area dealing with morals and offenses. A 40-year fisheries biologist who called me from a log home set on 480-acres south of Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park, Sopuck believes Erskine-Smith is hiding his true agenda—the elimination of all animal use in the country.
"He wants to move animals to the section of the Criminal Code dealing with offenses against persons, which gives rise to the idea that animals are no longer a special type of property, but are beings entitled to rights similar to persons," Sopuck told VICE.
Last month, a press release by the Canadian Sportfishing Industry Association crashed the (fairly wimpy) servers at keepcanadafishing.com, an industry organization that bills itself as the national voice of the country's anglers. The post's intentionally hyperbolic heading—"Go Fishing, Go To Jail"—ran alongside the photo of a young girl reeling in her line under the dutiful eye of a loving mother. The release drew over 100,000 unique views in a week.
Marcel Lafferiere, a fisherman and first-time activist from Mitchell, Manitoba, reacted to the news by starting a change.org petition that now has shy of 1,400 signatures. A 19-year-old student of UOM, Laferriere says that any attempt to legislate the finer points of something as traditional, ancestral, as fishing and hunting is to Canadians—a nation founded on the fur trade—absurd.
"To people who don't angle and hunt, it may not be that big of a deal to them. But what they don't understand is that it's heritage and culture for a vast majority of people," he says. "Very few people do these activities because it looks like fun. It's because their fathers and grandfathers got them into it."
A member of the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame who co-hosts the Real Fishing Radio Show with Bob Izumi, Gord Pyzer says if the bill was only about fur and fins, it would be hard to find anyone against C-246. Pyzer questions why a negligence penalty—the only real point of contention to the outdoorsmen concerned—is included alongside the other two noble items.
"It's motherhood and apple pie and who could not support it? Who in their right mind wouldn't support cutting fins off an animal and dumping it overboard?"
Pyzer, who spent 30 years as senior manager with the Ministry of Natural Resources, says when he first wrote about the private member's bill for Outdoor Canada, he purposefully excluded any mention of Erskine-Smith for fear of turning an important issue into a partisan debate.
"One needs to look at the legislation purely as a piece of legislation, and it is badly flawed. It would be badly flawed if it was written by Conservatives, NDP, Liberals or the Communist Party" he says. "I never once mentioned [the] Liberals, I never once mentioned the member who proposed it. It is simply bad legislation."
Sopuck agrees. He maintains Erskine-Smith's crusade is a ploy to eliminate animal use in Canada, a fact he believes would have dire implications for medical research (he says 60 percent of heart and stroke research is done on animals) and consequences in communities that rely on hunting, fishing, and farming. Sopuck, whose Parliamentary office is stocked with a trove of hunting trophies—wolf and coyote skins and skunk mittens—says the issue is raising concerns across party lines.
"This whole thing is not just about hunting and fishing, like many people think it is, or rural and urban. I do accuse him and his supporters of a hidden agenda and the devil's always in the details with these things," he says. "I know there are a number of Liberal MPs who are uneasy about this particular bill."
Still, many support it. Since 1999, C-246 has been through seven iterations and made it to the Senate once. As Erskine-Smith points out, this is not a new piece of legislation. He says the last thing he wanted to do was pick a fight with anglers and hunters (his in-laws are farmers) and is open to amending the bill. He wants to make sure, perhaps impossibly, that all concerned parties are appeased.
"If we kill this bill before we can fix some of the language that people are uncomfortable with, we're not going to stop these practices that should be stopped," he told VICE. "I very much want to address the concerns of the animal use community, but I also want to make sure—and I think this is my worry here—that if people have concerns about unintended consequences, let's not lose sight of what we're after here. We want to stop cruel practices related to animals."
Since the announcement in February, C-246 has become the topic of a heated discussion, with Sopuck and Erskine-Smith representing opposing ends of the issue. Next month, both sides will have an overdue opportunity to openly debate the merits and hazards of the Modernizing Animal Protection Act. Whether the bill sinks or continues to swim will be determined May 9, when Erskine-Smith is scheduled to present the second reading of C-246.
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