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B.C.'s highest court dismisses hog farm protesters' appeal

Animal rights activists gather outside court before Amy Soranno's and Nick Schafer's sentencing. Animal rights activists gather outside court before Amy Soranno's and Nick Schafer's sentencing.
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B.C.'s highest court has dismissed an appeal from two activists convicted for their roles in a 2019 protest and occupation at an Abbotsford hog farm.

Amy Soranno and Nick Schafer were sentenced last October to 30 days prison and 12 months probation.

They were convicted in July 2022 of breaking-and-entering and mischief, charges that stemmed from a large protest at the Excelsior Hog Farm in April 2019.

The pair appealed their convictions on two grounds. First, they argued that the trial judge was wrong to rule that evidence about alleged mistreatment of pigs at the facility was irrelevant to the charges at hand. Second, they argued that the judge should have instructed the jury to ignore the opinion evidence of a veterinarian who testified during the trial.

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the B.C. Court of Appeal was unanimous in rejecting these arguments.

Writing for the panel, Justice Susan Griffin largely agreed with the lower court's reasoning, finding that the appellants had not established that allowing evidence of alleged animal cruelty would have provided them with a viable defence against the charges they faced.

The activists argued that because the charge of mischief involves obstructing, interrupting or interfering with the "lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property," they should have been allowed to attempt to show that the hog farm was engaged in unlawful activities.

"The appellants interpret the mischief offence in a manner that is not borne out by its plain language," Griffin's decision reads.

"I know of no principle of statutory interpretation that would allow us to read into (the law) the proposition that if the property that is the object of the mischief conduct has ever been used illegally, whether because of a minor violation of a regulation or something more serious, that would be a defence."

Rather, Griffin concluded, the question of "lawful use, enjoyment or operation" being interrupted is specific to the day in question.

"Here, the answer in the evidence was clear: they obstructed, interrupted and interfered with (farm co-owner) Calvin Binnendyk’s plans to do farm chores and breed animals in the barn," the decision reads.

"The submissions of the appellants at trial and on appeal have not explained how any evidence they intended to explore regarding mistreatment of farm animals would tend to increase the probability that the protesters could establish, either from the broader perspective, that all of the farm operations themselves were unlawful; or from the more focussed perspective, that the actual farm chores and breeding activities that were interrupted were unlawful."

On the question of the veterinarian's opinion evidence, Griffin found that the judge had erred by not instructing the jury to disregard it. However, the judge concluded this error was harmless.

"It was clear from the submissions of the parties, and the judge’s charge, that this opinion evidence was not relied upon to prove whether there had been interference with property as part of the charge of mischief, and the jury could not have been confused about this," the decision reads.

"Nor was Dr. Dykshorn’s evidence prejudicial to the accused. Dr. Dykshorn’s opinion was simply interesting background as to how biosecurity risks need to be managed at large farms." 

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