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A new beginning for animal welfare?

Canadian lawmakers are finally moving again on protecting their rights.

Testing cosmetics on animals

The latest evidence comes in the recent passing of two pieces of federal legislation that will ban cosmetic testing on animals and phase out their use in chemical toxicity testing.

Bill S-5, which overhauled The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, became law on June 13, 2023, setting out a roadmap to phase out toxicity testing on animals by 2035, promised by the Liberals in the last federal election.

A week later, on June 22, 2023, Bill C-47, The Budget Implementation Act, passed, bringing into law a ban on cosmetic animal testing and trade, a practice federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos calls "cruel and unnecessary." The legislation prohibits selling cosmetics that rely on new animal testing data to establish the product's safety and false or misleading labeling around testing, including imported products. 

"We are in the midst of a monumental shift," says Camille Labchuk, an animal rights lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, Canada's only national animal law advocacy organization. 

"People have been loud and clear that we're well past the time when lawmakers can just simply ignore animals and pretend it's not their responsibility," she says. "People expect our governments to regulate these industries and to ban some of the worst practices. They're very passionate about making sure that our laws match societal values — and politicians are responding."

Change has been a long time coming. While the 1960s and 1970s saw legislation adopted to protect animals or at least regulate their use, the 1980s and 1990s brought a complete drought. Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, says it took about 20 years of lobbying to start modernizing the Criminal Code's animal cruelty provisions — a process that's still incomplete. While it was "painful" trying to improve animal welfare in the 2000s, things started to change in 2014 when the Harper Conservatives passed legislation to better protect police, service and military animals. That shift continued with the election of the Liberals in 2015. 

A round of animal welfare legislation passed in June of 2019, including Bill S-203, a private member's bill which banned whale and dolphin captivity in Canada and Bill C-84, which broadened the definition of bestiality to include any contact for a sexual purpose between a person and an animal after the Supreme Court narrowly defined it three years earlier. The same month, The Fisheries Act overhaul banned the import and export of shark fins.

During the 2021 federal election, all major parties included animal planks in their platforms for the first time in Canadian history. Upon forming government, the Liberals incorporated them into ministerial mandate letters.

"This is something new in Canadian politics," Labchuk says. "A decade ago, we could not expect this level of engagement and action. Now it's become the new norm."

Cartwright says a critical moment of change came when the Liberal caucus in the Senate became independent, which saw an influx of Indigenous senators. She says they have brought a vital animal welfare perspective through Indigenous ways of knowing and a One Health approach, which recognizes the interconnectedness of the health of humans, animals and our shared environment.

"That's really allowed many politicians to shift their perspective and speak about this in a different way," she says. "We're becoming more cognizant of the sentience of animals and our relationship to them, and realizing there is another way to be in a relationship with the animals we live with, the animals we use and the animals that are wild around us. That is making a big difference legislatively." 

While S-203 faced a long, tough swim through Parliament and arguments that captivity wasn't an animal welfare issue, but rather one that would harm businesses like Marineland, there was no such discourse around toxicity testing on animals. 

One of the most cruel and painful practices, it involves testing chemicals on animals for days, months or years — without pain relief — to gauge their reaction and how it disrupts normal bodily functions to evaluate whether they're toxic to humans or the environment. This happens through force-feeding, inhalation, skin absorption, burn testing and dripping substances into their eyes. Animals are often exposed to chemicals at far greater levels than any human would be and essentially tortured to death in the process. 

"The suffering is immense and in front of you," says Cartwright. "When an animal's skin is being burned off its back, you can't argue whether or not that's an animal welfare issue."

According to the Canadian Council on Animal Care, half of the more than 150,000 animals used for regulatory testing in Canada in 2021 experienced anywhere from "moderate to severe distress" to "severe pain near, at or beyond the pain tolerance threshold." 

Many of these tests were developed decades ago and represent outdated science that provides incomplete or inconclusive data at best. For that reason, Kaitlyn Mitchell, an animal rights lawyer with Animal Justice, says the legislation is also a huge win for science.

"We know that many non-animal testing methods are actually more effective, they're more cost-effective, and they're actually timely and better predictors of human health outcomes."

The CEPA amendments now require the federal government to support and start using cruelty-free alternatives to toxicity testing on animals and empower the government to regulate how non-animal testing should be done. They also mandate the Ministers of Environment and Health to publish a plan to promote animal-free toxicity testing methods within the next two years. And they'll need to report annually on progress made under that plan.

As for the cosmetic testing ban, it's the culmination of a decade of effort by animal advocates, working alongside industry, the government, and the public to find workable legislation to give Canada a "cruelty-free makeover."

"It sets a really good example for other industries around working together to do things like this properly, and get it right," says Michael Barnard, deputy director of Humane Society International/Canada. 

He credits the cosmetics industry, which helped drive the innovations to make a ban happen. While many cosmetic companies have already moved away from animal testing, the new regulations bring transparency to the industry so Canadians can be assured it's not happening once and for all.

Canada now becomes the 44th country to ban cosmetic animal testing. By banning toxicity testing, we're also catching up with the United States and the European Union, which had already updated their laws to reduce and replace the practice.

Even so, though animals are finally on the political agenda, Canada still has some of the worst animal protection laws in the world, including around the transportation of animals in the agriculture sector.

Whether it's banning the live export of horses to Asia for slaughter, putting reforms in place for wildlife in captivity, or introducing strict prohibitions on the trade and import of elephant ivory and rhino horns, Cartwright says Canada needs a harmonized animal welfare act. It should draw inspiration from what jurisdictions like the UK have enacted, with a minister responsible for animal welfare and a dedicated ministry – not one focused on promoting industry, as is the case with Agriculture Canada. 

"It is really hard to affect change when we have to go all over the government and try to find little pieces of where animals are sitting (in portfolios). It's unnecessary. We need that harmonized centralized focus for animal welfare," she says.

For now, she's says she encouraged by the fact Canadian courts are starting to recognize that animals are sentient beings, including the Alberta Court of Appeal in R. v. Chen, and is savouring the progress that's come in recent weeks. 

"It really is a watershed moment where we are finally seeing the shift."