Canada: Halal slaughter in Quebec complicated by animal rights bill

The slaughter of cows, pigs and sheep could all be affected by the bill. (Thinkstock)The slaughter of cows, pigs and sheep could all be affected by the bill. (Thinkstock)
By Bex vanKoot, Yahoo News

Farmers and animal rights activists don’t often agree, but Bill 54, ‘An Act to improve the legal situation of animals in Quebec,’ might be changing that. The proposed legislation is now one step closer to becoming the province’s first successful attempt at legislating animal rights.

Since puppy mills and the mistreatment of pets are one of the main concerns of the new law, activists have speculated that it will do little to change the treatment of animals raised for food. The bill, however, is spearheaded by Quebec agricultural minister Pierre Paradis, who according to the CBC said he expected to hear from groups concerned with kosher and halal slaughtering techniques. He believed at the time that kosher ritual practices would not break the new law, but that some halal slaughters would. “Slow death is not acceptable under the new legislation,” the minister said. “That will have an impact on those who don’t find the equilibrium between religious beliefs and respect for animals.”

Currently the proposed Bill 54 states that, “When an animal is to be slaughtered or euthanized, its owner or custodian or the person who is to perform the act must ensure that the circumstances and the method used are not cruel and cause the animal a minimum of pain and anxiety. The method used must result in rapid loss of sensibility, followed by a quick death. The method must ensure that the animal does not regain sensibility before its death.”

Slaughter process varies by animal

In the conventional slaughter of animals like cows and sheep, they are brought into a slaughterhouse, hit with a stunning bolt, then hung on a conveyor line to be transported to the killing room. After being hit with a bolt, most animals only have a few minutes to live if they don’t die immediately, which is where problems arise in ritual processing. According to both halal and kosher slaughter practices, meat animals can’t already be dead when they are bled and prepared to be eaten.

Chicken processing has been surprisingly easy to adapt to halal, Omar Subedar, official spokesperson of the Halal Monitoring Authority (HMA), told Yahoo Canada. The standard industrial method for stunning poultry involves using an electrified bath to shock the bird as it hangs from a conveyor belt on the way to be cut. All it took, according to Subedar, was some precision testing to find the right level of electricity, just enough to render a bird unconscious without killing it. They have even found the process to be equally efficient to industrial operations, despite the fact that halal abattoirs must kill birds one at a time, reciting a prayer with each cut. Large standard operations instead use mechanical rotating blades which can process hundreds of birds per minute.

It hasn’t been so simple to innovate ritual slaughter for livestock like cattle, sheep and goats, though. Smaller animals aren’t stunned at all, but for larger animals, the HMA is working on ways to adapt. “When the animal comes into the restraining box,” Subedar explains, “we don’t allow that it be shot in the head with a captive bolt pistol. What will happen instead is that its head is going to be raised by a device[…] and the slaughterman is going to do the cut. They are going to cut the trachea, the esophagus and the jugular vein, in the midsection. Once the incision is made, then you do have some abattoirs that will apply the captive bolt pistol to ensure that while the bleeding is going on, the animals aren’t kicking and all frustrated.” While this post-stunning method isn’t yet common, it seems like a simple solution to any concerns lawmakers may have about halal.

After describing the intricacies of ritual versus conventional slaughter, Subedar admits that he had not been made aware of the bill and its implications, and he was confused about the minister’s statements to the press. “There really is next to no difference between kosher slaughter and halal slaughter[…] I strongly feel that trying to pinpoint halal is, in my personal opinion, based on nothing but bigotry.” Subedar was eager to sit down with the minister and voice his concerns. “The first question I will ask the minister is has he even seen a halal operation? Judging from his comments, I feel he hasn’t.”

Paradis didn’t respond to Yahoo Canada requests for an interview, but it doesn’t appear that any Muslim food experts or halal certifying boards were consulted in the bill’s public hearings. The only religious organization mentioned in the report from the Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries, Energy and Natural Resources is Centre consultatif des relations juives et israéliennes (the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs), one of the groups who made submissions to the committee but were not heard.

Bill still under review, but applauded by activists

The bill is currently in the Committee Stage, the first point at which it can be amended. During this time, the bill is studied by a committee who begin to examine each clause of the bill, taking into consideration the testimony heard. Georges Dupras of Animal Alliance Canada’s Quebec chapter is hopeful for the outcome. “As far as the Animal Alliance of Canada is concerned, we support the bill,” he says. “We believe it enhances the protection of all animals.” Even though it isn’t perfect, Dupras says, it’s better than no law at all. “In Quebec we have really nothing to protect animals, so it is a step forward, and we applaud them for making this step.”

Dupras says he doesn’t think the bill is likely to change the state of agriculture. “It’s subject to interpretation,” he says, “particularly when we’re talking about enforcement.” Still, he believes in the possibility of a radically different future for Canada and the world. Meat, he says, is part of the problems we are facing, from economic collapses to climate change, but most importantly, hunger. “We have 725 million people on this planet who are going to bed hungry. We have over 21 thousand, 21,176 people who die every day from starvation. Despite this, between one-third to one-half of all food the world produces never gets to the starving. More protein actually goes into feeding farm animals than humans. Between 30 to 50 per cent, or 1.2 to 2 billion tons, never reaches the consumer.”

So what is the solution? Dupras offers up an example Catholic Canadians may relate to, and proposes it as a solution for other religious groups.

“As far as religious slaughter is concerned, we believe that the practices can be replaced by other forms of rituals without compromising the faith[…] Look at the Catholic church,” he says. “When the priest is celebrating holy communion, he takes of the body of Christ. He’s actually eating a host, which is a wafer. When he drinks the blood of Christ, he’s actually drinking wine. We don’t have to use animals … They’re not resorting to the actual slaughter or ingestion of blood or flesh, so it can be done with other faiths as well.”

Dupras says he doesn’t feel asking religious groups to reconsider their practices represents bigotry or hate. “We’re living in Canada, and times have changed,” he says. “Ritual killing is not part of our way. In this country, from east to west, we’re still looking for our own identity, an identity of compassion, of justice … And I think we can do that, I think we can make these changes. It’s not going to be an easy thing to do, because I know that these rituals are deeply rooted, but it’s something that we can do, and I think that certainly if the Catholic church can do it, we can do it as well.

“What is going to make this world change,” Dupras speculates, “is small groups making change in small areas, testing to see what works and what does not work. That’s what’s going to make things change[…] It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”

Subedar is just as interested in progress and change. “People are trying to set the tone that Muslims are barbaric and whatnot,” Subedar said of the rhetoric during the election, “and this just feeds into that whole narrative.” He says he wants to change that, and believes the key is community involvement – not just within the Muslim community, but the diverse Canadian community.

“We have an open door policy so that anyone can come and check it out. We will admit we are not perfect, we may have a few flaws here and there, but by working together as a community we get better.” It’s just as simple as that, Subedar says. If you have concerns about halal rituals, talk to your local abattoirs or get in touch with the HMA. He says their doors are open to all Canadians. “Come and see, and judge for yourself.”