It’s been a long time coming, but before the end of June the Canadian Senate will likely vote on a bill to outlaw whale and dolphin captivity.
The bill known as S-203 – the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act – was first introduced three years ago by Senator Wilfred Moore. The legislation includes exceptions for rescues and open water retirement sanctuaries, provided breeding does not occur. And while most observers consider S-203 to be non-partisan, Conservative senators have relentlessly stalled the bill’s progress at every stage of the proceedings.
All in all, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans held 17 hearings and heard from more than 40 witnesses, including six members of the Whale Sanctuary Project team. (By comparison, a controversial terrorism bill had just two committee hearings and five pre-study hearings.)
When he introduced the bill, Senator Moore argued that keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is unjustifiably cruel. After winning a critical first vote, Moore reached the mandatory age of retirement, and his place has been taken by the renowned Senator Murray Sinclair.
Sinclair chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which reported on the abusive treatment and cultural suppression of Indigenous people over decades and centuries, behavior that was condoned, indeed promoted, by the federal government. Philosophically, some see certain parallels with the bill he now sponsors that would end the captivity of whales and dolphins.
Among its provisions, the bill prohibits the export or import of whales and dolphins except if licensed for the best interest of the cetaceans (e.g. transport to a sanctuary and for the rescue of animals in distress) or for legitimate scientific research.
Whales and dolphins already in captivity (as in marine entertainment parks) would be allowed to remain in their owners’ facilities. This would include the 51 belugas, several bottlenose dolphins and one lone orca currently alive at Marineland of Canada.
The committee voted in favor of the bill last October, and its report was finally adopted by the full Senate on April 26th, 2018, thus opening the way for Senator Sinclair to move third reading debate of the bill, followed by a vote if senators can overcome any additional Conservative obstruction.
Retired Senator Moore has said there’s no reason to wait beyond the end of May for a vote. “The whole delay thing has not helped the image of the Senate,” he told reporters. “We’re supposed to be a chamber of debate, not delay … There’s a lot of very solid public and Parliamentary support for this bill on both sides of the aisle. We have the best marine scientists from across the globe supporting the bill either in person, written brief, or by videoconference. Clearly the Canadian public is with us. There’s no doubt about that, so we’re not going anywhere. We’re in this. We believe in what we’re doing.”
If the bill is passed, it will then then go to the House of Commons for what is generally expected to be final passage.
Filming the debate
Meanwhile, a film crew working on a documentary for CBC’s TV series The Nature of Things has applied for permission to film the proceedings when the bill has its third reading.
In a letter to the Speaker of the Senate, producer and director Nathalie Bibeau has asked to be able to include speeches from Sen. Sinclair and from the bill’s chief opponent, Conservative senator Don Plett.
“My objective is to present all perspectives of the debate on an issue that the public has made clear is important to them,” she writes in her letter. “I hope we can preserve S-203 proceedings for the historical record and allow the footage to be used by Canada’s public broadcaster to communicate the Senate’s work to Canadians.”
Bibeau notes that the bill has generated floods of calls and emails to senators’ offices. She recently told iPolitics: “It’s a bill that’s been in the Senate for almost three years. It has become a matter of great public interest and I think it could be a historic bill if it passes through to the House … It’s an important [issue] to feature in-depth.”