It took almost three years, 17 hearings, 40 witnesses (including six experts from the Whale Sanctuary Project), and countless attempts by a handful of Conservative senators to block passage, but finally the Canadian Senate has passed Bill S-203: the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act.
The bill now goes to the House of Commons, where, if it is approved, it will bring an end to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity except for rescue and retirement sanctuaries like those being planned by the Whale Sanctuary Project.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Wilfred Moore in December 2015, and was opposed, blocked and obstructed by Conservative Senator and party whip Donald Plett before finally being passed on Tuesday. (Right up to the end, Sen. Plett and a few colleagues were attempting to hold off the vote by introducing amendments, the last of which was defeated 49-29.)
Honourable Moore was not present for the vote since he reached the mandatory retirement age last year. Sponsorship of the bill was taken over by Sen. Murray Sinclair, who is renowned for his work as Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reported on the abusive treatment and cultural suppression of indigenous people over decades and centuries.
When word reached Honourable Moore that the bill had finally passed, he emailed his successor saying “Honourable Murray, THANK YOU! I just spoke with your office. Your steadfast support + patience was remarkable. Our mammal friends will be forever grateful.”
To which Sen. Sinclair responded: “It took some staring down but your Bill ending captivity of cetaceans and dolphins passed tonight. Congratulations my friend.”
Earlier this year, at the third reading of the bill, Sen. Sinclair spoke of the Whale Sanctuary Project’s plans to create a seaside sanctuary:
“The intention of this sanctuary is to provide a place where rescued whales and dolphins can be rehabilitated for release while living in an environment that maximizes their well-being and autonomy in a setting as close as possible to their natural habitat, or where they might remain permanently if unreleasable.
“… Let’s not forget the creatures living in the concrete tanks. And let’s not forget the wild cetaceans who may yet face violent capture from their family groups for the purpose of display for human entertainment. That’s what this bill is about and why it matters so much.”
In the House of Commons, the bill will be sponsored by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who, earlier this year, was joined at a press conference by members of parliament from all parties to call on obstructionist senators to stop playing games with this bill and others that would protect nonhuman animals.
She also called on Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer to tell his senators to stop blocking the bill. Their behavior, she wrote, “disappoints the tens of thousands of Canadians who wish to see a vote on this bill and reflects poorly on the national Conservative caucus.”
So, What Happens Next?
Procedure in the House of Commons is similar to that of the Senate, although passage of S-203 is expected to be faster and smoother than it was in the upper house.
The first reading of the bill could take place before the end of this week. There would then be two separate hours of debate, likely scheduled for some time in December or early January. The bill could then be sent to a committee for hearings, but most likely not nearly as many hearings as there were in the Senate (and quite possibly none at all). And there could be a final vote before the end of April.
And while nothing is a foregone conclusion, supporters of the bill are cautiously optimistic that it will pass. That’s because the Liberals hold a substantial majority, and most of them, along with the New Democratic Party and the Green Party, are expected to vote in favor.
Whatever the outcome, the effect of the bill on the two facilities that currently hold whales and dolphins will not be immediate since existing animals at display facilities will be grandfathered in.
Of the two display facilities in Canada, the Vancouver Aquarium only holds a lone cetacean, Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin.
Marineland holds the single orca Kiska along with around four dozen beluga whales. However, any further breeding will be prohibited, and this could pose a problem for Marineland since the belugas are crammed together in small tanks and seem to be breeding indiscriminately. The penalty for breeding would be a fine of up to $200,000.
Overall, the bill sends a clear message from the people of Canada – a message that is already reaching far and wide – that whales and dolphins do not exist for our entertainment. As Sen. Sinclair put it at the third reading of the bill in the Senate:
“Given the scientific knowledge presented by experts about the biological characteristics and needs of cetaceans during the study of this bill, it is evident that it is cruel to keep cetaceans in captivity.
“We, I believe, do not want to be cruel. We should not allow others to be, either.”