Fin in the News: Free Willy bill up against tide of Tory stalling tactics - again

Holly Lake, iPolitics, Oct. 3, 2018

 

Free Willy bill up against tide of Tory stalling tactics - again

by: Holly Lake

A new sitting may be underway in the Senate, but years-old stalling tactics to hold up a bill banning whale and dolphin captivity in Canada are in full swing.

Tabled in December 2015 by former Liberal Sen. Wilfred Moore, Bill S-203, Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, has been in the Red Chamber for nearly three years now. The Conservatives, led by Sen. Don Plett, the Tories' whip and caucus critic on the bill, have repeatedly used procedural obstruction to keep it from moving to a vote - a tactic that appears to have the support of the Conservative caucus.

Yesterday, it was Sen. David Tkachuk's turn. He put forward a sub-amendment on an amendment that was introduced on June 12 by fellow Tory Sen. Scott Tannas to exclude the Vancouver Aquarium from being covered by the bill. At that same June sitting, Plett also made a sub-amendment to exclude Marineland.

Those are the only two facilities that keep captive cetaceans in Canada.

"It's appalling," said Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice.

"Even though the Senate committee that studied this bill passed it a year ago this month, Plett has interfered with democracy by blocking it from even reaching a vote," Labchuk said.

At the same June sitting where the moves were made to exclude Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium, procedural motions from Conservative senators prevented a vote on the amendments, or the bill, which sent things late into the night - something Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the Independent Senators Group, said Canadians would have been appalled to watch, had it been televised.

A week later, it was Liberal senators who were fuming after a deal between Conservative and Independent members stalled a vote on a proposed ban on whale and dolphin captivity once again.

That deal did see a Conservative senator's bill banning cosmetic animal testing move on to the House of Commons, however.

Meanwhile, Labchuk said Canadians are crying out for the whale captivity bill to be passed. In June of 2017, supporters swamped the Senate email server when word emerged that the Tories were trying to quietly kill it.

"Despite the public support, Plett has been able to use procedural delays to keep this bill from being voted on," Labchuk said. "For some reason, he feels beholden to Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium."

In theory, these sorts of delays can carry on indefinitely.

"I think what this bill has shown is that the Senate needs to look at its rules so that democracy is not subverted by special interests," she continued.

In June, Labchuk joined the Humane Society International, along with MPs from all parties - Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, and NDP MP and Fisheries Critic Fin Donnelly - to call on senators to stop playing games with the bill. After so much time and study, this bill (along with other animal-protection bills) deserves to be voted on and moved forward to the House, they said.

Between February and October of 2017, Bill S-203 spent months before the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, which held more than 17 hearings and heard from more than 40 witnesses. By then, Moore had reached retirement age, so sponsorship was taken over by Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair.

This past March, May sent an open letter to Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, calling on him to wade in and tell his senators to stop blocking the bill. She said the stalling "disappoints the tens of thousands of Canadians who wish to see a vote on this bill, and reflects poorly on the national Conservative caucus."

The pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears down the hall, however.

Yesterday, Plett stood and spoke in favour of the new sub-amendment, painting the process once again as "a clear battle between activists and scientists."

"Colleagues, we are not an activist chamber."

He repeated his claim that it's "agenda-driven radical activists" pushing the bill forward. Yet at committee, in addition to researchers from the Vancouver Aquarium who spoke out against the bill, senators heard from a slew of scientists, including: Dr. Hal Whitehead, a renowned marine biologist from Dalhousie University; Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist; Dr. Ingrid Visser, a marine biologist in New Zealand who has studied orca for decades; and Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behaviour. Each spoke in support of the bill, citing the harm that whales and dolphins suffer in captivity.

As he has done before, Plett argued on Tuesday that the bill is unconstitutional, as it impedes on provincial jurisdiction.

"That's completely false," Labchuk said. "Sen. Plett and other pro-aquarium interests have been trying to make the case since Day 1 that the federal government shouldn't be regulating whales and dolphins.

"The feds have very broad authority, through the criminal law, power to protect animals from the type of horrific suffering, psychological and physical, that they endure in aquariums."

She noted that Canada already has criminal animal-cruelty laws (put in the Criminal Code by the federal government) - which are constitutional.

"The only thing this bill does is expand those protections to whales and dolphins," Labchuk said.

"But if that's the best argument they can muster against protecting whales and dolphins, it's laughable, and they truly are grasping at straws."