Premier Wynne, I know that you and your office are well versed in Bill 83 – the Public Participation Act – and I know that thousands have contacted you urging you to support and prioritize this legislation. I wanted to write this open letter to you to give you my personal story of why this legislation is currently needed and the consequences if it is not passed.
I grew up in rural Southern Ontario where the Grand River meets Lake Erie in Port Maitland, On. Growing up, my parents always encouraged my sister and I to rescue and rehab animals – turtles, cats, dogs, birds, rabbits – any animal that we found in distress or need. As a child I considered this to be “normal” and was surprised to find out that wasn’t something everyone did. As I got older I carried this with me. My sister went on to become a veterinary technician and I got involved in animal advocacy.
I was on this path when in 2007 a friend offered me back stage access at the captive animal facility Marineland Canada. His sibling had worked there as an animal trainer and we were led through the back stage areas and tanks to see where the animals lived when not performing. Although this was supposed to be a “fun” day I could tell that the staff were not exactly proud of the facility or of the kind of lives these animals lived outside of display. Not long after that visit I joined those in the local community who expressed concern about this park and the captive animals on site – first through the local advocacy group Niagara Action for Animals and then through a campaign I co founded in 2011 called Marineland Animal Defense. In 2011 I received my first cease and desist threat from Marineland – a copyright claim they never acted on – and in 2012 Marineland Canada filed a $1.5 Million damages suit against myself and Marineland Animal Defense.
Throughout those years of public advocacy this industry has been forced to change – in response to public outcry and demonstrations your own party called for the 2012-2013 OSPCA inspection of this park which lead to mandatory orders, as well as, $5 million/year increased funding for the OSPCA, a voluntary registry for captive animal facilities in the Province and triggered the development of industry guidelines.
This all has not gone without a response from Marineland though. In the last decade Marineland Canada has filed 7 separate Statement of Claims; three against advocates Niagara Action for Animals (2003-2005), Marineland Animal Defense (2012-) and Mike Garrett (2013), three against ex-employees Christine Santos (2012), Phil Demers (2013) and Jim Hammond (2013) and one against Toronto Star (2013) for running an investigative series on the park. Alongside this, the park has sent numerous Cease and Desist letters threatening suits – including against the Go Homeless Campaign, a campaign of 47 families who fought eviction from a trailer park bought up by Marineland Canada, as well as against the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the exact same organization tasked with inspecting the park.
Every single one of these suits and threats has been labelled a SLAPP – a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – a use of the legal system to “chill” public advocacy and silence the voices of those raising concern. As no anti-SLAPP legislation exists in Ontario – Marineland is free to continue to use the civil court system as a weapon by launching and engaging in costly civil litigation until they get the desired result and crush opposition. Without such legislation Judges have no basis to acknowledge the unequal resources or capacity of the parties involved, or to even acknowledge the distinct and important basis of public advocacy as separate from two commercial interests attack each other. How this process plays out is that the side with the most resources can continue to pile on threats – while the side with lesser resources has to continually sacrifice public advocacy on the terms of not “what is just?” but “what do we have the resources to defend against?” In a democracy, this seriously tips the balance in the favour of corporations and wealthy individuals. The end result of which is that public advocacy is stifled and needed public reforms do not happen and practices that are obscene to the public continue on.
This is a strategy that Marineland has employed across different representation, different advocacy groups and against opponents with different goals. They clearly realize the legislative void that exists and will continue to exploit it as a resource as long as they can. Similarly, as Bill 83 continues to sit on the back burner other corporations are watching and considering the strategy for themselves. The longer it takes to pass this legislation the more corporations will exploit this legislative void for their own ends and more damage will be done against the individuals currently involved in costly civil litigation. Every single day that this legislation sits is another day that Marineland Canada can pile on the legal threats – no matter how frivolous or obscene – and each day offers new opportunities to for them to try and raise costs and bankrupt any opposition.
The legislation itself was introduced in this Legislative Assembly by the Attorney General and has support across all parties. If it is prioritized it will pass with this Legislative Assembly. There is a broad coalition in the advocacy, academic, political and legal communities that this legislation is needed and that without it there is no current recourse to stop corporations and wealthy individuals from abusing the legal system in this fashion. Our campaign has joined together with over 120 other non profit and advocacy organizations across the Province and country to recognize the need for this legislation and call for it to pass. We need you to listen.
I’ve spent the last year of my life trying to balance public advocacy for the captive animals at Marineland with the aggressive civil litigation the park has brought against me. That advocacy has been part of a chorus that has helped bring changes to the practices of not just this park, but all captive animal facilities in the Province. I’ve learned a lot about the legal system in this country in the process and I think overall it will help my advocacy moving forward. However, there have been serious personal consequences as result and serious damage done to those who wish to speak up on this issue. We’ve had organizers step away from this campaign and issue not because they do not carry the passion with them anymore – but because they are scared of what this kind of civil litigation could do to their careers and families if they were to be targeted. The longer this goes on, the larger the effect that has and the greater the chance that suits like this multiply across different advocacy issues. It’s for that reason that I hope you will seriously prioritize and pass Bill 83 in the new year. Please, send a clear message to Ontarians that you acknowledge and respect the role of pubic advocacy in advancing our Province.