BURLINGTON, Ont. – The entrance to Fearmans Pork clearly defined the divide between livestock haulers and animal rights activists on Thursday.
On one side were the truckers, with signs advising people to “Stay away from trucks” and “Put safety first.” On the other were signs proclaiming “Go vegan for Regan,” and “This is about the animals, not truckers”.
But it’s about truckers, too.
The plant gates have long been a magnet for protesters who participate in a tactic known as “bearing witness”. Trucks are blocked. Trailers are surrounded. Water is offered to the pigs inside as cameras record conditions. After a few minutes, everyone steps back and the wheels roll.
But the process turned deadly June 19, when activist Regan Russell was struck and killed, leading to charges for a 28-year-old truck driver from North Perth, Ont.
Such protests have continued at least twice a week since then, but for the second time in a month they have also been met by a rally organized by truckers calling on Halton Regional Police to enforce Bill 156: Ontario’s Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act.
Once in force, the legislation will prohibit stopping or interfering with motor vehicles transporting farm animals, or interacting with the farm animals without explicit prior consent. There are also several trespassing-related measures that focus on farms and processing facilities themselves.
In a twist of fate, Russell died the same day the act was given royal assent.
The protesters are harassing drivers and farmers alike, said truck driver and farmer TJ Medway, who organized Thursday’s rally for truckers and described its three goals: “To make sure that Bill 156 is enforced, to make sure that it is signed sooner than what they are saying, and to make sure the workplace harassment stops and that Halton Regional Police actually do something in regards to this matter.”
He hauls fuel these days, but remembers what it was like to be in the cab as it was surrounded during similar events.
“This has been going on for eight, nine years now, and it should never have gone on for this long to begin with,” said Tyler Jutzi, vice-president and part owner of Brussels Transport, one of the largest livestock haulers in the region. “It’s nice to finally see that our side’s being shared. The agricultural community is behind us and the truckers.
“Every driver that drives through here today finally sees some support on their side.”
This day, the drivers were met with cheers, and returned the favor with waves and blasts of the horn. Even a passing minivan carried a sign reading “Roll on 18-wheeler”.
Activists are not respecting vehicle blind spots, Jutzi said. “When you’re turned crooked in there, you can’t see down the passenger side at all and they don’t respect that. Some times you’ll be pulled in, turned cockeyed, and they’ll be on your driver’s side so you can’t see any of them.”
“I’m all for protesting, but I don’t believe that people should be on the road,” said truck driver Kristy Perrin, who grew up on a pig farm. “When those hogs come in, they’re calm and they’re relaxed. But all [the animal rights activists] are doing is making them upset. And the longer they’re out on the road, the longer it takes for them to get into the barns where there’s water and misters.”
Sabrina Desgagne, founder of Burlington’s New Wave Activism group that organizes the protests, argues that Bill 156 shows that government officials and lobbyists want to hide the truth, and are specifically targeting the events.
“This is a peaceful protest. Breaking and entering is always illegal, so there are already laws in place to protect private property and possessions,” she said.
Moments later, police on the scene reminded her of laws that are in place, approaching her with a summons.
“I saw you jump out and step in front,” the officer said.
“Did I use the crosswalk or was I in front of it?” Desgagne responded. “Did you even see? Because I have proof.”
There is no shortage of footage captured at the event, despite signs on the gates that ban cameras and cell phones. Those on each side of the issue recorded moments using everything from cell phones to body cameras, capturing the content that is shared with supporters through social media. Each group refers to hashtags and online reports that help to reinforce their positions.
“We’ve never been aggressive. We’ve always done our two minutes and had respect for the drivers. We come with nothing but peace signs and waves and we say thank you every time,” Desgagne said.
The focus on peace, love and understanding isn’t exactly universal. One protester, clearly unhappy that I was in a documentary film crew’s shot, asked me to step away from a truck. After identifying myself as being with Today’s Trucking magazine and responding that I was also there to cover the event, he began to shout out, “He’s a trucker! He’s a trucker!” Then he proceeded to block the camera while forming his fingers as a peace sign.
Jutzi says he’s been called worse.
Desgagne counters with a list of insults that drivers have thrown her way. But she insists that she doesn’t hold any animosity toward the truck drivers who do the work.
“I have a lot of respect for truckers as a profession. I don’t really distinguish between a pig trucker versus a non-pig trucker. They all deserve the same safety on the job, but of course it takes an extra level of discipline you can say to have to use an electric prod to hit the animals so that they get unloaded and loaded. But that’s just a part of their job that they are forced to do and, you know what I mean, they probably don’t want to be doing that.”
Jeff Miller, a Brussells Transport driver, has been hauling livestock for about three decades, and believes the protests have intensified in recent years.
“I know this sounds dramatic, but more of a militant fashion,” he said. “The harassment has definitely increased. The intimidation tactics that they use definitely increase … We’re all entitled to a safe, harassment-free workplace.”
While Bill 156 could help to solve the issue, the results will depend on enforcement, he said, referring to the safety on public highways.
“You’re sitting there for your five minutes, getting yelled at, called a murder. I’ve been compared to Hitler,” Jutzi said.
“You feel pretty isolated in that truck.”
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