A parliamentary bill named after Jane Goodall is just the tip of the iceberg; activists have a lot of changes they’d like to see come to Canada, from an end to chickens in cages to a new home for Kiska, the orca at Marineland.

Jane Goodall requires no introduction. And you need not be a heart-on-your-sleeve animal-rights activist to feel tremendous respect for the pioneering animal-behaviour expert and conservationist who gave us a firsthand look into the world of chimpanzees more than 60 years ago.

But for those working in animal welfare, the hope is her name will soon be associated with a groundbreaking law furthering animal rights in Canada.

Senate Bill S-241, also known as the Jane Goodall Act, is intended to protect a host of wild animals from suffering in captivity. Its passing into law could also serve as a testament to the burgeoning animal-rights movement in this country.

The bill was one of many legal developments on the agenda at the annual Canadian Animal Law Conference, which saw more than 200 attendees converge upon the University of Toronto last weekend. “We thought it was important for the community to share its wisdom,” said lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of event co-sponsor Animal Justice.

While the U.S. has been running a similar conference for 30 years, animal protection wasn’t even on the radar for the average person in Canada 15 years ago, added Labchuk. But today there’s palpable momentum, with animal welfare a concern for many.

Some believe climate change and the pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle are encouraging greater compassion for animals. The surge in pet ownership may be a factor, too. Then there’s the growing call for transparency and ethical standards in the products we purchase, including the treatment of animals for consumption.

“Improving the rights and protection of animals is one of the new social justice challenges of our time,” Labchuk said. “We’re already seeing tremendous shifts in people’s attitudes, politicians taking issues more seriously, and people and consumers rising up, demanding better.”

Canada is starting to catch up, possibly even taking the lead in a couple of areas. The passing of Bill S-203 in 2019, for example, saw the end to the captivity of whales and dolphins (animals in concrete tanks don’t thrive as they do in the wild and live half as long, advocates say) and banning performances for entertainment.

In 2015, Ontario passed a law making it illegal to breed, purchase or sell orcas, a law that made it to the news again when Kiska — the last surviving orca at Ontario’s Marineland — was deemed to be suffering in isolation. The laws let Marineland keep the animals it already own, but many were calling for Kiska to be rehomed.

That’s where the proposed Whale Sanctuary Project in Nova Scotia may come in.

Expected to be the first permanent seaside sanctuary in the world for beluga whales and orcas, the sanctuary will offer a home to once-captive animals who are incapable of being released into the ocean for their own safety. With a space 300 times larger than the largest tank at SeaWorld, it will not only be “a place to live but a place to thrive,” according to Lori Marino, president of the project.

The hope is for the sanctuary to welcome its first residents in late 2023. As for who they expect to greet first, Marino is unequivocal. “We want Kiska there and we will fight hard to get her.”

Other legal developments in Canada include a bill to ban fur farming and the proposed Goodall Act mentioned above. If passed, it has the capacity to restrict the ownership of more than 800 species of wild animals in Canada who don’t do well in captivity, while effectively ending roadside zoos.

“It would go a long way to harmonizing national standards of animals in captivity,” said Labchuk.

The bill was first introduced in the Senate in 2020 by Murray Sinclair, formerly both a senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. He said he believed it would help rebalance the relationship with nature, integral to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. A more comprehensive iteration of the bill — with the same mandate — was put forward by Sen. Marty Klyne this March.

Canada’s zoo industry has come under intense scrutiny. Many argue that confining certain animals in cages is both physically and psychologically harmful. Brittany Semeniuk, a veterinary nurse who specializes in emergency and exotic animal medicine, questioned whether accredited zoos are doing enough to care for their animals. The moose, for instance, is not meant to live in captivity, said Semeniuk, who has seen many suffer out of their natural ecosystem.

And then there are issues with roadside zoos. In May 2019, following a criminal investigation, animal protection officers from the Montreal SPCA seized over 200 animals from the Saint-Édouard Zoo in Quebec (after a protracted legal battle and pandemic delays, the number rose to 300-plus due to multiple births). In what was a first in Canadian history, the zoo owner was arrested and charged with animal cruelty and neglect.

“The current system in Quebec is broken,” said SPCA director of animal advocacy and legal affairs Sophie Gaillard. “Despite documenting years of offences, the government had grounds to act and power to seize, but they didn’t.” Instead, the zoo was reissued its licence. “It fell to us to intervene under the Criminal Code.”

When it comes to companion animals (i.e. pets), progressive legal developments include Ontario’s Animal Welfare Services Act of 2019 and the 2015 Quebec ruling that changed the status of animals to sentient beings from their prior status of property (a viewpoint shared by the Alberta Court of Appeal in 2021). That ruling can have real impact, as sentient beings are embodied with rights and standing that a kitchen table does not.

While family pets have their share of legal challenges, farm animals held court at the conference. For one thing, companion animals have better protections overall. For another, farm animals represent the largest group of animals used in Canadian society, with 851 million killed in 2021 alone. Most significantly, farm animals suffer the worst abuses, making their welfare front and centre.

On this front, our country is lagging behind. Case in point: Canada has the longest transport time in the developed world that animals can be on a truck without food, water, or rest. And while 10 U.S. states have adopted confinement bans (banning animals in cages), Canada has no such law.

In fact, there’s not one single law that regulates animals on farms. “We let the farming industry set its own standards for animal welfare,” said Labchuk. “We don’t oversee companies in industries that use animals, so they are left to their own devices and without government oversight.”

“It’s really regressive and, quite frankly, a national embarrassment,” said Jodi Lazare, assistant professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University who teaches animal law, among other courses. The animal agriculture industry is a huge force in Canada, she added, and despite “horrendous” farm conditions, “the industry has managed to convince the government to subsidize it in significant ways and immunize it from public scrutiny.”

To be sure, there have been slow, incremental commitments on the part of industry to improve conditions. Phasing out gestational crates for sows is one. Also, 100 food companies in Canada have committed to phasing out cages for egg-laying hens (more than 2,300 companies have cage-free commitments across the world).

But Canada needs to do more, said PJ Nyman of Mercy for Animals, an international non-profit with a mission of ending industrial animal agriculture through sustainable food systems. In 2021, the organization launched the first Canadian report to rank food companies on their animal-welfare progress. It found that 83 per cent of laying hens in Canada were still in cages in 2021, compared to 35 per cent in the U.K. and 71 per cent in the U.S.

“I used to think that laws are just a reflection of attitudes and, as attitudes change, laws will catch up,” said Labchuk. She now sees a massive disparity between the two, with profit motive the underlying cause. There’s a lot of money to be made exploiting animals, after all.

Still, animal welfare seems to be winning the hearts and courts of public opinion, and advocates are lining up for their chance to make a difference. “The enrolment in my course this year is the highest it’s ever been,” said Lazare. “Canadians should cautiously celebrate the changes that have come but also acknowledge that there is a lot of work to do.”

Labchuk would agree. “Our challenge is to encourage more people to be active and make clear that it’s no longer acceptable for animals to have so few protections in 2022,” she said. “I feel very confident we’ll get there.”