Canada’s ‘puppy-mill’ province pledges to clean up its act, just in time for International Animal Rights Day

Quebec has lagged behind most other Canadian provinces in regard to their animal rights laws for decades, but last Friday they become one of the most progressive of their peers, passing Bill 54 which recognises pets as sentient beings.

There’s a lot to celebrate this annual International Animal Rights Day. Years after trendsetters like Germany and The Netherlands legally declared domesticated animals as sentient beings—complete with the same basic biological needs as us humans like food, water and shelter— in January French lawmakers made similar adjustments to their civil code. And in June New Zealand went one big step further, extending these rights to all animals in the country, be them human bound or not.

But other countries are still dragging their heels when it comes to establishing animals’ legal rights, and while this may come as a surprise, Canada is a major offender. Though there have been some minor amendments to the country’s animal rights’ laws in 2008—mostly penalty increases—there hasn’t been a major overhaul since they were written in 1892.

Right now Canadian criminal code makes it tricky to persecute animal abusers, still stipulating animals as their owner’s property and requiring proof of intent to prosecute cases of neglect or abuse.

‘Provinces have had to make up for the shortcomings of national laws,’ says Alanna Devine, an animal rights’ lawyer with the Montreal SPCA. ‘Here in Quebec, we’ve remained so far behind the other provinces—we know we’ve got a lot of work to do even after Bill 54.’

According a 2013 assessment by the non-profit Animal Legal Defence Fund, Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba were ranked top-tier in regards to their animal protection laws, while Quebec and Nunavut came in dead last.

But Devine says in the past few years Quebec has been working to change their animal laws to reflect modern-day views and shake off their murky reputation.

Sometimes cited as the North American ‘puppy mill’ capital, the Canadian SPCA estimates there are around 1,500 to 1,800 operational puppy farms in Quebec, mostly in remote locations close to the American border, annually producing some 400,000 animals. Even with enhanced 2012 fines and laws addressing the issue, which has reportedly cut down at least on the sheer scale of these operations, just last year 200 plus dogs were rescued from a Quebec farm.

‘Shutting down large breeding facilities is difficult as the law doesn’t stipulate how many animals one may own, but there’s room in the current provincial laws to dictate this,’ says Devine. ‘There’s 47 existing Articles concerning how caged animals may be kept, and with the additions from Bill 54 concerning psychological welfare, there should be enough legally to began to rid ourselves of these places and our reputation.’

Bill 54 could jumpstart the road to change in the province, but Devine says the law’s still not perfect. The biggest concern is that Bill 54 doesn’t extend to protect captively held wildlife and exotics. ‘Animals in zoos, the reptiles, birds, and small mammals that line Quebec’s pet stores…they get nothing under this new Bill,’ she says.

And the law is still pretty shaky when it comes to protecting livestock and farm animals. Most provincial laws have exceptions for care and treatment of these animals, which means conduct must fall within generally accepted practice—terms the industries sets—so there’s room for discrepancy.

It’s also important to note that just as with French and many other similarly written laws worldwide, Bill 54’s adjustment to Quebec’s civil code declaring our domestic friend’s as sentient beings is in essence, a symbolic act. In the end national laws still view owned animals as property.

But Bill 54 is a big step for the province, and regional precedent states their reform efforts could work fast. Ontario was ranked near the bottom of the Animal Defence Fund’s first list back in 2008, but ranked near the top in the 2013 assessment.

‘People do care about animals, that’s a fact becoming more apparent as time moves on,’ says Devine. ‘Now our laws are finally catching up to public opinion.’