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Ontario government to push through BSL bill

"A document purporting to be signed by a member of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario stating that a dog is a pit bull within the meaning of this Act is receivable in evidence in a prosecution for an offence under this Act at proof, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the dog is a pit bull…" – Clause 19 (1), Bill HB132

IT WAS with a sad inevitability that campaigners against breed specific legislation in Canada and around the world learned that the Liberal Government of Ontario have decided to enact the breed specific law put forward by Attorney General and Liberal Party rising star Michael Bryant.

As reported previously, the Government held four one-day Select Committee hearings in Toronto at which experts and interested parties gave evidence regarding BSL. Despite all but three speakers showing clear evidence that breed bans had not worked and had not improved public safety form attacks by dangerous dogs elsewhere in the world, the five Liberal MPs on the Select Committee voted in favour of Bryant’s Bill, the now infamous Bill HB132.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General appeared before news cameras to say that the hearings had provided him with a ringing, resounding endorsement of his breed specific Bill. In a display of arrogance far more breathtaking than that which many politicians could hope to get away with, Bryant made his announcement on the final day of the hearings, whilst evidence was still being heard. This simply underlined what campaigners had feared all along – the hearings were simply a front, a diversionary tactic – when in fact the Attorney General had made his mind up all along.

The Select Committee hearing the evidence had comprised five Liberal MPs, headed by lawyer David Zimmer, who employed his best counsellor status to proceedings, asking experts questions relating to BSL and then cutting them short when they answered, to tailor their response accordingly. The three others MPPs on the panel were 2 Progressive Conservatives Joe Tascona and Norm Miller, and one National democrat, Peter Kormos, all of whom propose amendments to Bill HB132 to remove the BSL element.

The Liberals voted all of the PC and NDP amendments down. These included:
* All proposals re striking breed specific legislation, including all purebred American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American Pit Bull Terriers, registered with Canadian Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, United Kennel Club, and American Dog Breeders Association.
The Breed specific clauses remain.

* All proposals re mandatory spaying and neutering, education in dog training, dog bite prevention strategy, establishing a dog bite registry.

Tascona, Miller and Kormos all made very forceful arguments for these amendments.
The Liberal amendments, all of which were voted in, are:

1. changing the words "a member of a class of dogs" to "a dog" that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially…

Legally, this sets a lower standard (or test) for what constitutes a "pit bull." There was considerable argument from Tascona & Kormos about this.

2.Adding, for the determination of a "pit bull," the following clause:
In determining whether a dog is a pit bull within the meaning of this Act, a court may have regard to the breed Standards established for Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, or American Pit Bull Terriers by the Canadian Kennel Club, the United Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club, or the American Dog Breeders’ Association.

This means that the Government are using purebred definitions to define the so-called "pit bull." Tascona questioned as to why the "pit bull terrier" in the definition of pit bull type dogs was not included in this determination, concluding that it was because there was, in essence, no way to define a "pit bull terrier."

Both Tascona & Kormos objected to the word "may", as "may" is subjective, open to interpretation, and provides no authority for decisions. The big contradiction here was in defining a "pit bull" by purebred standards, and then being unable to define one of the breeds named as a "pit bull type" – a "pit bull terrier".

3. There was lengthy legal discussion around the next Liberal amendment, which was to do with naming "Proceedings – Part IX of the Provincial Offences Act" in Bill 132. It has to do with enforceability, and who will enforce the "offences" and who will determine the "penalties."

4. The Liberals approved an amendment re "standard of proof" as follows:
Findings of fact in a proceeding under this section shall be made on the balance of probabilities.
Here we had more legal arguments as to the confusion in the Bill re standards of proof – i.e. "balance of probabilities" being the test in civil litigation, and "beyond reasonable doubt" the test for criminal offences. "Balance of probabilities" is a less onerous standard than "beyond reasonable doubt".

5. "Onus of proof"

The Liberals added:

If it is alleged in any proceeding under this section that a dog is a pit bull, the onus of proving that the dog is not a pit bull lies on the owner of the dog.

Kormos referred to this as "sucking and blowing." Tascona emphasized how this could become the legal game of "call your own expert".

6. The next liberal amendment was reinserting a section of the Bill they had inadvertently left out, termed "slovenly" by Kormos. It is the section entitled "Precautions of Dog Owners," stating that a dog owner has to exercise reasonable precautions to prevent bites, attacks, menaces, etc.

7.The final point is so breathtaking in its audacity that even hardened political heavyweights like Tascona and Kormos were taken aback that the Liberals had even considered such a clause. This relates to ‘official’ identification of a ‘pit bull’:

Clause 19. (1) of the Bill reads: "A document purporting to be signed by a member of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario stating that a dog is a pit bull within the meaning of this Act is receivable in evidence in a prosecution for an offence under this Act at proof, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the dog is a pit bull for the purposes of this Act, without proof of the signature and without proof that the signatory is a member of the College."

Leading anti-BSL campaigner Jean-Anne Moors of the Dog Legislation Council of Canada commented: "Well, this means I could ‘purport’ to be a vet, sign a document saying a fluffypoopoo is a pit bull within the meaning of this act, and they would not have to verify my signature and prove that I am indeed a member of the College.

"Tascona & Kormos argued ferociously against this clause, but the Liberals still pushed it through. The bill is actually worse now than it was, in terms of definitions and legal clarity."

Fellow campaigner Diane Singer added: "Translation - Anyone can purport to be a veterinarian, sign a document saying a teacup poodle is a pit bull within the meaning of this legislation, and they would not have to verify the signature and prove that the signatory is indeed a member of the College of Veterinarians.

"The Ontario Liberals are legislatively condoning fraud and forgery, and the use of a fraudulent document against a citizen? This rapidly approaches insanity."

Bryant’s Bill found little favour amongst the media, after the Select Committee hearings had been reported. Even the traditionally pro-Liberal Toronto Star came out against BSL. Reporter Thomas Walkom wrote:

"The Ontario government's proposed pit bull ban is bad law.

"Founded on fear, it defies all logic except the most crassly political. It exploits the grief of those who have suffered dog attacks. Yet, it offers no realistic solution to the problem.

"When Attorney-General Michael Bryant proposed a pit bull ban last fall, he said he would look at all the evidence before acting. He promised to move carefully. He did neither.

"The bill he has cobbled together is deeply flawed and quite possibly unconstitutional. It literally bans any dog that even resembles a pit bull. An animal control officer who seizes an animal under the act won't have to prove it is in the banned category; the owner will have to prove it is not.
"In effect, as Kitchener veterinarian Gary Goerée explained to a legislative committee recently, it is a ban on all short-haired dogs with big heads."

Walkom continues to relate Goerée’s evidence to the Select Committee based on his own experience in the city of Kitchener. In 1997, Kitchener became the first municipality in the province to ban pit bulls. That year, Goerée was appointed to the city's pit bull appeal committee, a body charged with deciding, in his words, whether animals would live or die.

Walkom said that the Committee decided this definition on the basis of snapshots taken by animal control officers. The committee would not consider the dog's behaviour. Members would not ask if it had menaced or bitten anyone.

Their only role was to determine whether it sufficiently resembled the banned breed. Was its head too wide? The hair on its coat too short? How did the tail look?

Walkom continued: "Kitchener is an important touchstone because Bryant argues that this city's experience proves breed bans can work.

"In fact, it is not clear that Kitchener's experience proves anything. There are fewer pit bull bites now that that the breed is banned. But there were never many to start with.

"As Goerée testified, pit bulls ranked number eight among dog biters before the ban took place — right after poodles.

"Legislative committee hearings usually feature duelling experts. What was remarkable about the four days set aside for consideration of this bill was the unanimity among experts. All who testified opposed it.

"Veterinarians, trainers, breeders and animal behaviour specialists all said essentially the same thing: Stiffer laws to deal with dangerous dogs are a good idea; laws aimed at specific breeds are counterproductive.

"From Britain, Michael Flowers, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals, told the committee, via conference call, that a 14-year breed ban in his country has been a flop. Litigation is rampant and dog bites are up.

"Understandably, many victims of pit bull attacks support Bryant's bill. The committee heard from a few of these. Some tales were frightening,

"But does victim anger alone produce good legislation? The family of someone killed by an immigrant might want all immigration banned. But most governments, while respectful of the family's grief, would probably want to look at the issue lucidly before acting.

"This is the part that Bryant does not get. He seems to think the fleeting popularity attached to his proposed ban is enough to make it good law. He is wrong."

But sadly, when it comes to Breed Specific Legislation, as the past 14 years have shown, commonsense, careful consideration of the evidence that BSL does not work seldom, if ever convinces politicians that BSL is a bad idea. Ontario now looks set to follow suit with countless American cities, counties, States and countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Spain, Norway, Gibraltar and Israel.