Farmers hoping to share their work on social media have to make a decision: are they willing to take the risk that, by posting a photo of their barn or their animals, a furious animal-rights activist might track them down?
“It’s a growing problem,” says Andrew Campbell a dairy and grain farmer outside of London, Ont. “We started getting into people threatening to come to the farm.” Indeed, the flood of online criticism and outright cyberbullying directed towards farmers is taking a toll on their mental health.
Campbell was among the farmers whose testimony before a parliamentary committee informed a recent report that made suggestions to improve mental health among farmers in Canada. While the report addresses several issues, such as the distance many farmers have to travel to access treatment, historical stressors such as inclement weather and the burden of paperwork, it also finds that zealous activists are contributing to the health problems facing the country’s farmers. Among the solutions the committee has proposed: for the government to “consider including any form of intimidation or cyberbullying targeted at any group of Canadians based on their occupation or place of residence” as an offence under the Criminal Code.
Liz White, the head of the Animal Alliance of Canada, said while she would “totally oppose” online bullying, making this a criminal offence seems like a “significant overreaction.”
I’ve been told online that I’m a murderer. My wife has been asked why she would ever be with someone who rapes animals
“People just seem to think that they can say whatever they feel on social media, that there are no barriers. I think we all need to treat each other with respect,” she said.
But, while she said she “understand(s) that farmers have a lot to deal with,” animal rights and the treatment of farm animals is a subject of increasing discussion and farmers need to accept that they’re going to have to engage with it.
Campbell is among the farmers who’ve begun dialling back their online presence to avoid the barrage of criticism over their work that sometimes veers into more threatening territory.
“I’ve been told online that I’m a murderer. My wife has been asked why she would ever be with someone who rapes animals,” Campbell told the committee last year.
Stewart Skinner, a pig farmer for Imani Farms in Ontario, also spoke about the difficulty of facing harassment from activists. “Our ancestors only had to worry about weather and prices. Today, we farmers have the added worry of being a target of an extreme activist, something that takes a serious toll on me mentally,” Skinner told MPs.
Pierrette Desrosiers, an occupational psychologist, argued in front of the committee in October 2018 that animal rights activists are a “growing threat.”
“Producers, artificial inseminators, those who ship animals, veterinarians too, packing plant staff, butchers, everyone in the agri-food business, that is, are affected by the animal rights people,” Desrosiers said. “The consequence is that our producers are increasingly subject to psychological violence, harassment and online bullying.”
Pat Finnigan, a Liberal member of Parliament from New Brunswick and chair of the standing committee on agriculture and agri-food, told the National Post the change to the Criminal Code is at this point just an idea, and would obviously need to be balanced against any charter implications. The reality, he said, is there are groups posting photos of maltreated animals and they sometimes tar an entire industry with their campaigns — and that affects farmers.
“It is a form of bullying and, you know, putting the whole sector down,” Finnigan said. “We don’t tolerate bullying in school, we don’t tolerate it in society anymore.”
Earl Dreeshen, an Alberta Conservative MP, agreed, saying agriculture is an industry that faces heavy outside criticism, similar to the campaigns against the seal hunt. “There are consequences to that type of thing,” Dreeshen said. “Canadian farmers and ranchers have the highest standards in the world … (it) should be something the government should be championing.”
Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, found the Criminal Code recommendation strange given the mostly anecdotal nature of the evidence. As well, she said, it is a broad proposal that could pose particular problems as it might apply to professions — policing, say, or politics — wherein criticism comes with the public’s need to hold authorities to account.
“It’s a strange approach and we think that it’s quite proper that the criminal code doesn’t deal with cyberbullying,” Zwibel said. “That line of, when is it bullying and when is it just criticism with a public interest purpose, is not easy to draw.”
Campbell said criticism is one thing, but “threatening territory” is different, and that it could, in theory, apply to those such as police or energy workers whose industries come under heavy criticism. “My belief is that maybe that line to be found a little bit further from straight death threat into territory where you’re still giving very direct threats that are obviously having an impact on (their) well-being.”