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More Charges Dropped Just Days Before Trial Against Activists Who Exposed Animal Cruelty at Excelsior Hog Farm

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ABBOTSFORD, BC – Several criminal charges were dropped by the Crown yesterday against three animal rights activists just days before their four-week trial is set to begin on Monday, June 27. Amy Soranno, Roy Sasano, and Nick Schafer are accused of exposing animal cruelty at Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, BC in 2019, and still face a combined total of 14 indictable charges of Break and enter and Criminal Mischief. A press conference will be held in front of the BC Supreme Court in Abbotsford on the first day of trial.The Crown gave no explanation when it dropped some of the remaining charges yesterday against the three activists. The Crown similarly dropped all charges last month, without explanation, against a fourth activist, Geoff Regier, after his lawyers argued in a pretrial hearing that police and the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA) had engaged in misconduct.Soranno, Sasano, and Schafer, who together with Regier are calling themselves the Excelsior 4. The three activists could each be sentenced to years in prison if convicted.

What: Press conference & start of four-week trial for the Excelsior 4When: Monday, June 27, press conference at 9am, trial at 10amWhere: BC Supreme Court, 32375 Veterans Way, Abbotsford, BC

“The Excelsior 4 case started three years ago with a total of 21 charges hanging over us,” said Amy Soranno, one of the Excelsior 4 defendants going to trial on Monday. “But before the jury has even been selected, the Crown has dropped all charges against one of us and reduced the number of charges against the rest of us.”Until last month, Regier had faced similar charges for his role in blowing the whistle on Excelsior. In July 2019, Regier made contact with the BCSPCA—the only animal abuse enforcement agency in BC—and provided the private charity with video evidence of criminal animal cruelty at the hog farm. However, instead of recommending charges against Excelsior, the BCSPCA violated its own confidentiality policy in order to turn Regier over to police. The trial comes more than three years after the exposure of animal cruelty at Excelsior, yet the hog farm has never had to answer for the video footage clearly depicting animal abuse. A short video was recently published about the Excelsior 4 case, with an incisive look at how industry has avoided accountability, how the police mishandled evidence, and how the Crown is criminalizing activists. View the 7-minute video here: https://youtu.be/FJGAI02SWzw. “The fact that we still face prison time while Excelsior Hog Farm is free to continue its abusive practices is a mockery of justice,” said Soranno. “This case further illustrates the clear bias against animals and activists by the animal agriculture industry, BCSPCA, and police. Our trial will shine a light on the criminal animal abuse taking place at Excelsior, and the failure to hold them and other animal farms accountable.” The trial also comes more than a year after a Freedom of Information disclosure revealed that the BCSPCA has no capacity to enforce anti-cruelty laws at animal farms in BC. Activists point to the abuse carried out at Excelsior as just one example of the BCSPCA’s failure to take enforcement action despite ample evidence of criminal animal cruelty. “BC needs an enforcement agency that is accountable to the public, not a private charity that is unfit for the role and only answerable to its board of directors,” said Soranno. In addition to demanding that the hog farm be held accountable, the Excelsior 4 and animal rights activists across the province are calling on BC Agriculture Minster Lana Popham to replace the private charity BCSPCA with a more accountable government agency to enforce against animal cruelty in BC. In the interest of transparency and accountability, activists are also demanding the installation of Closed-Circuit TV cameras at all animal agriculture facilities in BC. “With no national regulations governing animal welfare on farms and virtually no government oversight on farms, one of the only ways abuse and mistreatment of farmed animals comes to light is through whistleblower and hidden camera exposés,” said Animal Justice in a recent statement. “Preventing journalists and animal advocates from exposing animal abuse restricts freedom of expression, one of the most important human rights in Canada.” For more information about the Excelsior 4, the story behind their charges, and how to take action against animal cruelty: www.excelsior4.org/.

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Little change to Vancouver downtown street encampment as residents wonder where to go

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VANCOUVER — It was difficult to see any difference had been made to the tent encampment in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside on Wednesday, a day after city staff began what’s expected to be a weeks-long process to remove the structures.

That’s for good reason, said a resident who goes by the name Edith Elizabeth — the people who live in the tents have nowhere else to go.

She said previously, residents would relocate their structures nearby so city staff could clean the street.

“It’s just like, ‘Okay, cool, take down our structures and move down the block so they can wash it,’ and that’s it,” said Elizabeth. “But here, now, it’s just like we have to disappear or something.”

Vancouver fire Chief Karen Fry ordered tents along the stretch of Hastings Street dismantled last month, saying there was an extreme fire and safety risk.

The city has said staff would concentrate their efforts on the “highest risk” areas, but several structures in those areas remained in place on Wednesday.

The neighbourhood struggles with many complex challenges including drug use, crime, homelessness, housing issues, and unemployment.

It was tense on Tuesday, Elizabeth said, with a heavy police presence on the street.

The Vancouver Police Department released a statement Tuesday saying multiple people were arrested after officers were assaulted during a “melee.”

It said staff at a community centre had called police to report a man throwing computers and behaving erratically. The man resisted arrest, police said, as “a large crowd gathered, and became hostile and combative with the officers.”

Elizabeth said police used pepper spray and the incident left people feeling scared.

An update from the city on Wednesday said a big contingent of police at the Main and Hastings intersection in the afternoon “was not as a result of the City’s effort to remove structures”, and instead stemmed from the incident outside the community centre.

The city said staff aimed to approach encampment residents “with respect and sensitivity, encouraging and supporting voluntary removal of tents and belongings through conversation.”

“We recognize that some people believe the city should not do this work, but there are significant safety risks for everyone in the neighbourhood that the city cannot ignore,” it said.

Elizabeth stood near her belongings on the sidewalk where she said she’s been staying for about three weeks after moving from another spot nearby.

“It’s not like this is a forever, permanent place,” she said, although she’s not sure where she might go next.

“As far as options down here, generally there’s been Crab Park, which is like tent city,” she said, referring to tents set up around the park near Vancouver’s waterfront.

Elizabeth said she, like many others living in tents along the street, doesn’t feel comfortable or safe in single-room occupancy buildings with “awful” conditions.

The city said staff have been meeting each week with a community-based working group since May, and more frequently with members of the Overdose Prevention Society and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users over the past two weeks.

Staff spent Wednesday telling residents about storage options for their belongings, the city said.

These included up to two 360-litre storage totes, which staff would seal with tamper-proof labels before placing them in short-term storage. The city said the totes are on wheels, so owners can take them away if they did not want them stored.

A long-term storage container is also being provided nearby, the city said.

Community advocacy groups, including the drug-user network and Pivot Legal Society, have said clearing the encampment violates a memorandum of understanding between the city, the B.C. government and Vancouver’s park board, because people are being told to move without being offered suitable housing.

The stated aim of the agreement struck last March is to connect unsheltered people to housing and preserve their dignity when dismantling encampments.

The City of Vancouver may enforce bylaws that prohibit structures on sidewalks “when suitable spaces are available for people to move indoors,” it reads.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Draft speech on residential schools edited out blaming Ottawa for abuse: documents

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Ottawa was careful to avoid admitting abuses Indigenous children suffered at residential schools happened “at the hands of the federal government” in remarks prepared for a Liberal cabinet minister after the discovery of unmarked graves last year, documents show.

The Canadian Press obtained documents through the Access to Information Act that show a draft version of a speech written for Carolyn Bennett, who was then minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, originally contained those words before they were edited out.

“It gets to me that they’re still in a place of defending themselves,” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

In May 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had found what are believed to be the unmarked graves of about 200 children on the site of a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C.

The revelation spurred a reckoning across the country about the legacy of residential schools, which were government-funded, church-operated institutions that about 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend in Canada over more than a century. Thousands of children experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, or even died.

The discovery also prompted questions about what Ottawa was going to do about it.

Days later, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations was drafting a speech for Bennett in anticipation of a possible emergency debate on the matter in the House of Commons.

That never happened. Another form of debate was held and it appears the draft speech, as written in the documents, was not the one that Bennett ended up delivering.

One section of the draft remarks addresses the suffering children endured in residential schools, originally saying “they experienced unthinkable trauma, including physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of the federal government by simply attending school.”

Speech writing can be a lengthy process. Text is often drafted by the department and then sent to staff in the minister’s office and to the minister, and then sometimes back and forth again.

Edits contained in the 17 pages of drafts show the words “at the hands of the federal government” were struck out. The reason for the revision was redacted before the documents were released to The Canadian Press.

“The government, they talk a great deal about reconciliation,” said Eleanore Sunchild, a Saskatchewan lawyer and advocate from Thunderchild First Nation, who has represented many residential school survivors in physical and sexual abuse cases.

“That, however, doesn’t speak of reconciliation at all, taking out those words.”

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand said he found it “disturbing … that Canada keeps trying to minimize its role in residential schools.”

The Crown-Indigenous Relations Department has not yet responded to a request to explain the change. But the office of the current minister, Marc Miller, said in a written statement that the federal government “takes full responsibility” for its role in the residential school system, “including the abuse that Indigenous children suffered at these institutions.”

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s role in residential schools in 2008 as part of the historic Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

In his speech, Harper apologized for the government “failing to protect” children at the institutions, which he said “far too often … gave rise to abuse or neglect.”

He also apologized for the separation of children from families and acknowledged it carried consequences for future generations.

In the speech that Bennett ultimately gave on unmarked graves on June 1, 2021, she said she wanted to give her “profound apologies to the families and survivors,” but she did not mention abuse or assign blame.

Last month, Pope Francis came to Canada to apologize for residential schools on behalf of the Catholic Church, which operated more than 60 per cent of the institutions.

The pontiff asked forgiveness for the “evils” committed by “many Christians” against Indigenous children in residential schools. Many Indigenous leaders said they had hoped for an apology that specifically spoke about the role of the Catholic Church.

Bill Percy, a Winnipeg-based lawyer who has represented survivors seeking compensation for sexual and physical abuse, said it’s possible government took issue with the words “at the hands of” in the draft.

“That implies that they were the physical abusers,” he said.

“Most of the direct abusers would be church-related employees, not federal government employees.”

Regardless, he said Canada has paid out most of the billions of dollars distributed to abuse complainants under the settlement.

“When push comes to shove, in the court cases, the federal government always has taken responsibility.”

Blackstock said she sees where Ottawa has “wiggle room,” given that the federal government did not directly perpetuate abuse.

“What the federal government did is knowingly leave children in situations where this was happening, and were choosing not to intervene to save them from the deaths and save them from the abuse,” she said.

She said whether it’s the Vatican or Canada, institutions have demonstrated a reluctance to take full accountability for residential schools.

“What I’ve been concerned about writ large is the portrayal by the federal government as this is a ‘dark chapter in history,’ and not really owning the fact that they knew what they were doing was wrong. They knew it was leading to children’s deaths.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

— with files from Jim Bronskill

 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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Quebec religious minorities feel less safe, hopeful due to secularism law: survey

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MONTREAL — Religious minorities in Quebec are feeling less safe, less accepted and less hopeful since the province passed its secularism law three years ago, a new survey suggests.

The results published Wednesday by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies reveal that Quebecers who identify as Jewish, Muslim or Sikh report “broad-ranging, disruptive and profound negative impacts” stemming from the 2019 law, which bans public sector workers deemed to be in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.

“Muslim, Jewish and Sikh respondents describe being exposed, in their daily lives, to attitudes and behaviours that directly impact their sense of acceptance and safety, civic engagement and sense of fulfilment, well-being and hope,” the study authors write.

“The waning of hope for the next generation is especially striking in all three communities.”

Miriam Taylor, the director of the study, said it was women who were most likely to report feeling less safe than they did three years ago.

“For women there was also a feeling that their ability to speak freely in public had worsened in all three communities,” said Taylor, who is the Association for Canadian Studies’ director of publications and partnerships.

Muslim women reported some of the greatest impacts, with over 70 per cent of respondents saying they felt less safe and over 80 per cent saying they felt less hopeful for the next generation than when the law known as Bill 21 was adopted.

Sikhs, while they represented a much smaller pool of respondents, also reported a “significant” deterioration in indicators that measure fulfilment, well-being and hope, “with in almost all cases, more than 75 per cent reporting a worsening of their situations,” the study found.

While the decline in indicators of engagement was less marked among Jewish respondents, over half said the feeling of being accepted as a full-fledged member of Quebec society had worsened over the last three years, and nearly 40 per cent of female Jewish respondents said they felt less inclined to participate in social and political life.

Members of all three religious communities reported exposure to hateful incidents at levels far above those experienced by the general population, and some provided examples that ranged from insults to someone trying to run them over with a truck.

“People were spat at and had their hijabs ripped off and their turbans threatened,” said Taylor, who added that even religious minorities who did not wear religious symbols had felt their sense of safety and engagement decline.

The study found that overall support for the law among the general public has remained steady since its inception, with about two-thirds of respondents in favour. But here, too, Taylor said the responses show “nuance.”

A majority of respondents — 64.5 per cent — felt is was important for the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether the law is discriminatory, and fewer than half of those surveyed said they could continue to support it if the court were to decide it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And despite overall high support for the law, only 39.2 per cent of respondents agreed that a public servant who disobeys it should lose their job, Taylor pointed out. Teachers, police officers, judges and prison guards are among those prohibited from wearing religious symbols under the law.

Support for the law is also lower among women — 59 per cent compared to 68 per cent among men — and is especially low among those who are younger.

Taylor said the survey showed that those who support the law most strongly are also the least likely to report interactions with non-Christian religions, which shows that their negative opinions “are not rooted in real experience.”

She said it’s impossible to measure exactly how much of what religious minority members are experiencing is tied directly to the law.

“Social climate is a very complicated thing to measure, but some of this is due to Law 21,” she said. “It can’t be an accident that you have these consistent numbers across the board.”

The study results were created by combining a Léger web survey of the general population with the Association for Canadian Studies’ polling of religious minorities, and weighing the results to better represent the general population.

In total, 1,828 Quebecers — including 632 Muslims, 165 Jews and 56 Sikhs — were questioned for the study, which does not have an official margin of error because it was conducted by web panel.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

 

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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