Vivisection as Disability: University of Western Ontario v. University of Western Ontario Staff Association, 2008

There ARE positives that can come out of restlessness. Last night I could not sleep so I took to CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute, to do some research. I went over the areas I was most interested in following up on and then started some larger/broader searches to see the legal case history of some of the larger non profits active in Canada.

First I stumbled upon a 1981 attempt by Greenpeace to get an injunction against the Vancouver Aquarium in an attempt to stop the import of wild caught Orcas. I thought this find was pretty interesting – especially how 30+ years later the experiment of keeping Orcas in captivity in Canada is an entirely failed experiment. Dozens have been captive over that span – only one remains, Kiska at Marineland, Canada. The Judge in his ruling is sarcastic in the case law presented to him by Greenpeace – but history has shown their position was the correct one. Our legal system lacks foresight, this is just one example in a sea.

After this interesting find I searched for cases surrounding the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). That search brought up one case – unrelated to the organization – which had such interesting implications and which I had never heard of (University of Western Ontario v. University of Western Ontario Staff Association, 2008).

In 2008 an Arbitrator heard a labour relations case regarding vivisection at the University of Western in London, On. In that case, the Grievor (injured worker) claimed that the routine of vivisection and the subjection of other animals to physical pain had created such intense physical and psychological stress that he had to leave his work. The Grievor never had a moral or ethical objection to the work – he believed the work would advance human health – however, he could not help but be haunted be the experiences and traumas he witnessed and inflicted on other animals. The Grievor claimed that this stress created a disability – he was unable to do his job as a result.

In an interesting ruling the Arbitrator actually upheld this claim;

“Therefore, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the medical evidence supports and establishes the claim that he was physically and psychologically impaired to the point that he could not continue to perform his assigned duties.  While his personal beliefs may have subconsciously been a contributing factor in his condition, he was temporarily prevented from working by his resulting medical condition, not his personal beliefs.  Accordingly, it must be concluded that he was temporarily disabled by the manifestations of anxiety and stress which fit within the definition of “disability” under the Human Rights Code. I so declare.”

What does this mean for the vivisection industry and for the people who work within it? In a labour context, this means that those who work in this industry and are physically and psychologically traumatized by it have a legal precedent which can help their transition out. The education and technical skill developed for this industry sometimes forces people to stay in it even though they do so at a huge personal and psychological toll. As advocates educate and raise awareness that Canadians have an established right to access to alternatives to animal testing – it may also be worth noting this case as well.

Aside from that, the case gives an interesting insight into this industry. Both in how the Grievor reacted, but also in how they were counseled by their peers when they met unease.

“He says he began his work on this project with “great enthusiasm”. However, his testimony makes it clear that he was profoundly affected by this work.  He noticed that even though the rats had been anesthetized, they exhibited movements that suggested that they were experiencing what he described as “deep pain”.   Within a “week or so” after he started, he began to form an association in his mind with the rats and his young daughter who was developing her adult teeth at the time. He found himself associating his sleeping daughter with the rats under restraint during the experiments.  He admits that he cannot explain the basis for the association, and he described this as a “weakness” within himself.  He says this association became persistent and resulted in him becoming impatient and irritable at work and at home.  He also began to experience nausea and profuse sweating, again while he was doing his work and at home.  He also developed insomnia, finding himself plagued with the associated images of his daughter and the anesthetized rats.

These symptoms were frequent and intensified as the weeks passed.  He found it difficult to face going to work, but continued because he “needed the job”. He spoke to the supervising professor and revealed that he was having these difficulties.  The professor emphasized the importance of their research and suggested that the difficulties would diminish over time. 

However, by the end of the month, the Grievor felt that he could no longer continue to do this work.”

The vivisection industry presents a complex and complicated tactical situation for advocates. Workers are typically vilified as they are the ones who enact this violence upon animals. The demand for this violence though originates elsewhere – in a medical industrial complex that demands the sacrifice of animal bodies for corporate profit. Cases like this, as well as the compelling and important documentary – Maximum Tolerated Dose, present a side of vivisection not typically seen. Are we ensuring that workers – especially low level workers – are aware of their rights OR are we just relying solely on pressure to change this industry? Are we creating an atmosphere where those who want to transition out of this industry or blow the whistle on it are supported? This case was ruled on in 2008 – it’s 2013 now and to my knowledge this post is first time animal advocates have been made aware of it.

Aside from the specifics learned about this case, I’d suggest advocates of all stripes make regular use of CanLII. Most large corporations have had labour relations cases in their history – at the very least – and it’s a great way to access public record information about the industries and/or practices that we oppose. It is also good practice for when you have to look up relevant case law in your own legal cases! Ha!


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