2010 Karen Selick
An edited version of this article first appeared in the December 6, 2010 issue of the National Post.
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the Pig and Put Your Hands in the Air
The maxim “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” made sense back in the days when the only kind of acts that were illegal were genuine crimes that caused palpable harm to innocent victims: murder, rape, theft, etc.
But with the growth of the regulatory state, every individual is now subject to thousands of pages of densely written federal, provincial and municipal statutes and regulations. The law is also embodied in innumerable judicial decisions. And it’s all in continual flux: regulations are passed without parliamentary debate, and courts release new judgments daily.
There is probably not a single law professor, judge, or legislator in Canada who has even a passing familiarity with, let alone full comprehension of, all the laws we are required to obey. The average joe doesn’t stand a chance. We are all potential offenders every day, no matter how law-abiding we might wish to be.
Given this welter of law, how should those responsible for enforcing it conduct themselves? A legal battle unfolding in Ottawa provides a prime example of how not to do it.
Mark Tijssen is a major in the Canadian Forces. He grew up on a farm, attending livestock auctions and helping his father butcher animals for the family’s own table. He’s also a hunter who dresses his own game. And he has a University of Guelph degree in biomedical toxicology. In short, he can tell a healthy animal from a sick one. He’s concerned, like many Canadians, about the safety of commercially produced meats, especially since the Maple Leaf Foods episode of 2008 that left 21 dead and dozens of others seriously ill. He knows of the study showing that as much as 10% of the pork in Canadian supermarkets is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus germs.
Tijssen uses his farming and butchering skills to opt out of the commercial food supply. For years, he has inspected his own meat while still on the hoof, slaughtered it himself, and packaged it for later use. In November, 2009 he and a friend bought a pig, intending to share it.
But for unknown reasons, a neighbour reported to the Ontario government that Tijssen was running an unlicensed slaughterhouse on his property.
It’s perfectly legal to butcher your own pig and serve it to your immediate family in your own home. What’s not legal, as a result of new Food Safety and Quality Act regulations that quietly took effect in 2005, is letting someone else take home-butchered meat off the property.
It fell to conservation officer Graham Ridley of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to deal with Tijssen’s neighbour’s complaint.
Ridley could have phoned or visited Tijssen to make sure he knew about the 130-page regulation and warn him against violating it. A responsible person like a Canadian Forces major would surely have wanted to avoid getting into trouble with the law if he knew about it.
But instead, Ridley staked out Tijssen’s home for five full days in November 2009, watching from a tree-house on the neighbour’s property, waiting to see whether anyone would leave Tijssen’s property with meat. How gratifying it must have been when he finally saw the co-owner of the pig leaving with a box of pork. At last, a charge could be laid!
Ridley sprang into action, following the friend down the road and confiscating the pork.
Tijssen, on learning from his friend what had happened, telephoned Ridley the next day and acknowledged having butchered the pig. But faced with this golden opportunity of explaining the 2005 regulations to Tijssen, Ridley once again declined.
Instead, the following evening, after dark, Ridley raided Tijssen’s property accompanied by four police cars and two MNR trucks, lights flashing. Armed police officers searched the property painstakingly and carried off 14 articles of butchering equipment—evidence of Tijssen’s heinous offence—even though Tijssen had already acknowledged in the previous day’s phone call that he had killed the pig.
Tijssen now stands charged with four offences and theoretically faces penalties of up to $100,000. The MNR lawyers quickly offered him the chance to settle for a fine of only $8,000. They then reduced their demand to $2,000 and eventually to a paltry $1,000—not nearly enough to pay for officer Ridley’s five-day surveillance and the multi-officer raid, let alone their lawyers’ services.
But Tijssen refuses to plead guilty and will be tried in February.
Meanwhile, one can’t help wondering: does the MNR really want compliance with the law, or trophy convictions to terrorize other unwitting citizens?
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December 12, 2010