By Connor Lynch
OTTAWA — The University of Ottawa has added a course on animal rights to its civil law faculty, a move that some animal activists have hailed as a sign of changing public perspective on animal rights.
But the move does not affect Ontario as the new course has a very specific focus on Quebec civil law, which was inherited from France and is a holdover from Confederation.
Quebec recently added a special designation for animals as “sentient beings,” meaning they are capable of thinking and feeling, but animals still fall under property in Quebec’s civil code. The new law also contains exceptions for agricultural use so long as that use doesn’t violate other laws and is “consistent with generally recognized rules.”
The rest of the country, including Ontario, operates under the common law system, in which the element of public perception can play a significant role. Common law operates heavily on precedent, judicial interpretation, and a generally accepted understanding of what laws mean. “That’s the idea of common law, that it’s commonly understood and accepted.” Especially when it comes to farm animals, the law draws on common industry practices and views animals as property, said University of Ottawa law professor Daphne Gilbert.
“As people have a different understanding of what is owed to animals in terms of treatment, judges can certainly take that into account if someone has crossed the line.”
But Gilbert said that the main driver of change in the treatment of animals has been economic, rather than legal. “People wanted a less cruel way to get food on the table. If what people want is cruelty-free meat, then they (farmers) have to figure out a way to do it.
“We don’t have laws forcing farmers to change right now.”
The University of Ottawa course, Animals and the Law, has been taught in its faculty of common law since 2012. And even then, when the course was introduced by Gilbert, it was new to the school but not a new idea. “Almost every law school has one. There’s hundreds in the U.S.,” she said. “ It’s becoming a very big field of study.”