Timing is everything and in the case of the animal rights activist’s fatality in Burlington and subsequent death threats towards the driver, one piece of legislation might have protected everyone.
No more proof is needed for the necessity of Bill 156 to protect farmers, processors and livestock drivers from trespass, harassment and abuse than the incident which took place on June 19 in Burlington when a Brussels Transport truck struck and killed 65-year-old animal rights advocate Regan Russell. Russell was a member of the Toronto Pig Save group, which had been protesting in front of Sofina Foods in Burlington.
The accident happened a day after Bill 156 – Ontario’s Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act was given royal assent.
On July 20, Halton Regional Police charged the driver (whose name has not been released) with careless driving causing death. The charge could result in a fine of between $2,000 and $50,000 and up to two years in jail. However, in a press release, the Halton Regional Police service said “there were no grounds to indicate that this was an intentional act, or that a criminal offence has been committed.”
Since then, the incident has become an international event with dramatic twists and turns. A bounty letter looking for details of the driver was published in the Ontario Farmer, creating a massive upswing in support for the driver, who is facing a legal battle since being charged. A GoFund Me page to support the driver is growing steadily with the amount currently at $105,000 at the time this article was written in August.
The support has been financially and mentally supportive for the driver who, like all livestock drivers, routinely faces harassment and verbal abuse from animal rights activists who routinely call the drivers “murderers and killers”.
Reading the hate online via Facebook pages of Toronto Pig Save and New Wave Activism (two groups that protest at Sofina) is chilling. Comments include threats of burning Brussels Transport to the ground and vigilante justice while calling the driver vicious names. Another group, the Animal Liberation Front, focuses more on property destruction and animal liberation.
“It’s fair to say that many of these drivers experience a level of harassment that most of us would find unacceptable in a workplace. Their trucks are their workplace,” says Stacey Ash, Manager of Communications and Consumer Marketing for Ontario Pork, which represents the 1,200 pork farmers in the province who rely on livestock truckers to transport their animals. “What the drivers experience is not what anyone would consider normal and acceptable behaviour. It’s not just people shouting things at them. It’s doors being pulled open, objects thrown at their trucks and threats made to them and their families online.”
As the case moves forward, it could mean major changes for the livestock industry as businesses like Brussels Transport already have a difficult time finding good, licensed drivers.
“Good quality AZ and DZ drivers are in very high demand, not just for livestock but for any type of trucking,” explains Susan Fitzgerald, executive director of the Ontario Livestock Transporters’ Alliance, a group that she says represents 80 per cent of commercial hog transportation in the province. “Drivers have an option as to where they can work and it has been challenging to find drivers.”
Tyler Jutzi, co-owner and vice-president of Brussels Transport says he really thinks this could be a precedent-setting case when it comes to livestock transportation and animal rights protests. While Jutzi says protestors need to have the right to voice their opinions in a peaceful manner, livestock drivers who are lawfully doing their jobs need to be protected and allowed to do their work. If the charges stick and result in a hefty fine or jail time, it will be a major blow to the industry and could result in people steering clear of it for fear of what legal trouble they may endure as a result, Jutzi said.
“The whole industry should be taking this very seriously,” Jutzi said. “If the charges stick, how many drivers will just pick up and go drive something else?”
Everyone is watching the case unfold and those on both sides of the debate are dissatisfied with the charges that were laid against the livestock driver. Jutzi says the charges are unjustified as the driver was simply doing his job, deserving to do so without having his truck blocked and accosted by protestors.
“This charge is not acceptable to the driver, other drivers in the industry or the agricultural community as a whole,” Jutzi wrote on his GoFundMe page. “The driver was just doing his job to help feed people around the world, delivering pigs to slaughter. He shouldn’t be held responsible for activists unlawfully swarming his truck. Activists that don’t respect the blind spots of heavy equipment. Activists that verbally harass drivers in the workplace. Activists that give unknown liquids to the pigs. All of these activities are carried on while Halton Police watch and fail to act.”
Animal rights activists, however, feel the charges are far too lenient and have since staged protests in numerous cities across the country urging the Halton Police to file criminal charges against the driver. On July 17, the Toronto Pig Save group held a “Justice for Regan” rally in Toronto, marching from Front Street to Queen’s Park.
Russell’s family has called for a provincial inquest into her death, saying not only would it provide the whole story of what happened to Russell that day, but it would also help keep activists safe at future protests.
From Jutzi’s perspective, this incident, which he says is very unfortunate, is the culmination of a tumultuous coexistence between the livestock transportation drivers and animal activists that has been alive and well at that Burlington location since he began working for his family’s company nearly 10 years ago.
There had always been animal rights protestors on the site, he said, but they had been confined to areas where they couldn’t interfere with the trucks on the road. However, in recent years, they’ve moved into a more visible area of the site and will rush out in front of a truck, holding it up for between two and five minutes, according to Jutzi. During that time, they will reach into the truck to pet the pigs, give them fluid from bottles, likely water, though he can’t confirm it, and berate the truck drivers.
Jutzi says he has personally been accosted by protestors at the site, being called a murderer and being compared to Adolf Hitler simply for transporting animals to a processing plant, which his family’s company has been doing lawfully for decades.
The pushback against the company, especially online, has been intense, Jutzi said, and it has taken its toll on the driver in question as well as other employees.
Animal rights activists have been discrediting the company online, he said, posting pictures of current employees and their families online where they are subject to threats. In addition, there have been some physical breaches of privacy. Jutzi says there have been videos posted online of people standing outside of the Brussels Transport site and some people have even made their way onto the private property to photograph the licence plates on personal vehicles of drivers.
It has been intimidating, Jutzi said, especially with his parents still living in a house on the business’s property. Activists, Jutzi said, have been actively working to uncover the identity of the driver and find out where he lives, which has taken a great toll on the driver and his family.
Jutzi says he has been overwhelmed by the support the driver and Brussels Transport have received online. While the money has been nice and will go a long way to mounting a suitable legal defence for the driver, for Jutzi it’s about the support from not just the local community, but from the livestock transportation community as a whole.
That community has been staging its own protest in terms of asking Halton Regional Police to keep protestors on the sidewalks for everyone’s safety.
“Individual truck drivers have no control over the actions of protestors,” explains Fitzgerald. “They will swarm the truck and trailer in groups from five to 50. It’s not safe for them. It’s not safe for the drivers. It’s not safe for the animals.” Especially in summer when it’s hot and humid. When protestors stop trucks from entering the processing plant, the pigs get hot and stressed. All the noise and action excites the pigs, which start moving around, which increases the heat in the truck. “It becomes an animal welfare concern as well,” adds Fitzgerald.
Food safety is also an issue. When Ernie Hardeman, the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs introduced the legislation last year, he said: “Interfering with the operations of farms, food processing businesses, and livestock transporters not only puts the health and safety of our agri-food workers and farm animals at risk, but also jeopardizes our food safety.”
The Ontario Livestock Transporter’s Alliance maintains that these protests create an unsafe situation. “We have been discussing this situation with Sofina, Ontario Pork and Halton Police for over four years,” says Fitzgerald.
The Alliance is now putting their hope in Bill 156 to discourage protestors and activate Halton Police to charge protestors who disrupt the trucks and harass the drivers.
“A lot of that act deals with trespass on farms and facilities but the important piece for livestock truckers is in Section 6,” says Fitzgerald. Section 6 prohibits persons from interfering with a motor vehicle that is transporting farm animals and from interfering or interacting with the farm animals in the motor vehicle without the prior consent of the driver of the motor vehicle. While the act has received royal assent, enabling regulations for the act still have to be written and it will be months before it comes into effect.
In the meantime, Ontario Pork, in support of its partners, has been asking for firsthand accounts from truck drivers to get an accurate representation out there. They will use their social media account to share their stories.
“Part of what we do is to make sure voices are heard and stories reach the public,” says Ash.
More of the Brussels Transport driver’s story can be found on the GoFundMe page online at https://ca.gofundme.com/f/help-the-brussels-transport-driver. ◊