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Alberta beefing up penalties for those who trespass on farmers’ property

WATCH ABOVE: The Alberta government is taking steps to protect farmers and their animals after dozens of animal rights activists staged an illegal protest at a southern Alberta farm last month. Emily Olsen reports.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says legislation is coming this fall to crack down on protesters who trespass on farms and agricultural land.

Kenney says free speech must be protected, but not when protesters trespass, create mischief and pose potential biohazards.

“When you harass people who are simply going about their jobs legally, none of that constitutes a legal and legitimate protest,” Kenney said Thursday.

“All of that constitutes trespass and harassment.”

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Kenney was speaking at the Jumbo Valley farm near Fort Macleod, where dozens of people protesting the treatment of turkeys occupied a barn on the property a month ago.

The farm operator said animal welfare standards and rules were being followed.

The protesters left without being arrested.

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READ MORE: Dozens occupy turkey barn in southern Alberta to protest animal living conditions

The RCMP said Thursday that the protest remains under investigation and no charges have been laid.

“There was no reason for this farm to be targeted, but that’s not really the point,” said Kenney.

“There’s no reason for any farm to face harassment, intimidation, (and) trespass.”

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Animal Justice, a national advocacy group for animal welfare, denounced Kenney’s plan. It said the move seeks to intimidate people who want to call attention to animal abuse and fails to take action to stop cruelty to animals.

“Governments have failed to police animal welfare conditions in the farm industry,” Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, said in a statement.

“There are no welfare standards, no public inspections, and no meaningful oversight for the tens of millions of animals confined behind closed doors on farms.”

Animal activists occupy Hutterite turkey farm near Fort MacLeod
Animal activists occupy Hutterite turkey farm near Fort MacLeod

Criminal charges are outside Alberta’s control, but Kenney said the province will amend existing administrative and regulatory legislation to crack down on protesters who go onto private agricultural land without permission.

The government is looking at setting trespassing fines up to $10,000 for a first-time offence and up to $25,000 for subsequent offences, with a possible six months in jail.

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Fines for organizations would be up to $200,000.

There could also be changes to health and safety rules so that farmers could recover costs if protests put the health of animals or humans at risk. Protesters who created such health risks could be fined between $15,000 and $30,000 and face up to a year in jail.

Alberta will also dedicate a Crown prosecutor to handle agricultural cases.

READ MORE: Global News Investigates: Almost half of Edmonton criminal cases ultimately withdrawn

In response to a Sept. 30 Global News investigation about the number of criminal cases in Edmonton being withdrawn, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer reiterated a UCP campaign promise to spent $10 million to hire 50 new prosecutors and support staff.

When sharing the story on social media, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said the reason almost half of Edmonton criminal cases are withdrawn is “because the NDP starved our province of needed prosecutors.”

NDP justice critic and former justice minister Kathleen Ganley fired back, suggesting his party voted against hiring additional prosecutors when the NDP was in government.

READ MORE: Alberta to hire 35 Crown prosecutors, 30 support staff to deal with court backlog

The fall sitting of the Alberta legislature is to begin Tuesday.

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Last month in Ontario, a spokesman for the agriculture minister said the province had not ruled out similar legislation, but planned to first discuss it further with agriculture stakeholders.

Ontario mink farmers have been the target of animal rights activists, who have released hundreds of the animals from barns.

— With files from Global News