OTTAWA - Parliamentarians won few kudos from animal lovers Wednesday after approving the first significant changes to Canada's animal cruelty laws in more than a century.
A private member's bill, introduced by Liberal Senator John Bryden, was approved by the House of Commons by a vote of 189-71, with the support of most Conservative, Bloc Quebecois and many Liberal MPs.
The bill, which stiffens penalties for animal abuse, has already been approved by the Senate and, thus, needs only royal assent to become law.
Major animal welfare groups, including the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, oppose the bill, which they argue is simply a weak update of a bad law. They contend it's pointless to stiffen fines and jail terms without simultaneously closing loopholes that allow most animal abusers to escape conviction.
They support a competing private member's bill, introduced by Liberal MP Mark Holland. It is virtually identical to Bill C-50, legislation which was twice passed by the Commons but blocked by the Liberal-dominated Senate.
Holland's bill would move animal cruelty provisions out of the property crimes section of the Criminal Code and extend protection to strays and wildlife, not just domestic animals. It would increase penalties generally and include additional penalties for wounding or killing police dogs and horses.
Holland called Bryden's bill "a placebo" and said its passage is "a blow, it is a setback."
Under Bryden's bill, the maximum penalty for animal cruelty will increase to five years imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine. The current maximum is six months imprisonment and/or a $2,000 fine.
Bryden readily acknowledges his bill is not as ambitious as Holland's. But, given that seven attempts to modernize animal cruelty laws have failed in the past 10 years, he argues that it's better to proceed with the one thing everyone can agree with - stiffer penalties - than continue to do nothing.
Past attempts at more drastic reform have failed after farmers, aboriginals, hunters, anglers and researchers objected that all sorts of traditional practices could be rendered illegal, from branding and castrating livestock to boiling lobster for dinner.
Bryden argues there's no reason why Parliament can't also eventually pass Holland's bill, debate on which is not expected to start until the fall. In the meantime, he says he hopes the stiffer penalties in his bill will act as a deterrent.
But Holland and animal rights advocates fear senators, who've shown little inclination in the past to crack down on animal cruelty, will use passage of Bryden's bill as an excuse to do nothing more.
"My real fear with this bill is that it's going to be used as a weapon for senators to throw up their hands and say 'Oh, we already dealt with this,' so that they could continue to vote down legislation that came from the House," he said.
"We can't let them get away with that."
MPs pass animal bill
Parliamentarians won few kudos from animal lovers Wednesday after approving the first significant changes to Canada's animal cruelty laws in more than a century.