'Free Willy' bill to end whale captivity in Canada
OTTAWA — After a tortuous process that spanned more than three years, a bill to ban whale and dolphin captivity in Canada is set to become law.
Bill S-203, which will also outlaw captive breeding and the import or export of whales, their sperm or embryos, was passed in the House of Commons Monday morning.
“Today’s a really good day for animals in Canada,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told reporters at a press conference in Ottawa, saying she was “relieved, gratified and appreciative” the bill had passed.
Known as the “Free Willy” bill, S-203 was tabled by former senator Wilfred Moore in December 2015 and later sponsored by May in the House of Commons. It has the support of a number of animal rights groups, but faced heavy opposition from Conservative senators and barely made it through a House committee intact.
Moore, who was present at Monday’s press conference, said pressure from Canadians who submitted thousands of emails and petitions helped push the bill through Parliament. “It’s kind of a combination of relief and joy here,” he said. “Canada is better for this.” Moore said he had been inspired to table the bill after watching the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale.
The new legislation allows for fines of up to $200,000 for anyone found to be keeping cetaceans in captivity, with exemptions for injured animals in need of rehabilitation and for scientific research. The law does not apply to animals currently in captivity. Moore said he hopes those whales will eventually be retired to sea sanctuaries on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Only two facilities in Canada currently keep whales: the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland, a theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont. Last year, after Vancouver’s park board passed a bylaw amendment banning cetaceans in city parks, the aquarium announced it would end its whale program. It currently has just one cetacean left, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen that it hopes to move elsewhere for companionship.
The new legislation, therefore, will largely affect only Marineland, which breeds beluga whales and currently has more than 50 in captivity. The company fought against the new bill in the Senate, where owner John Holer testified in May 2017, before his death last year, that Marineland has boosted tourism at Niagara Falls and employs hundreds of people. A lawyer for the company argued before a parliamentary committee in March that the bill is unconstitutional because Marineland could be found in violation of the captive breeding ban when whales who are already pregnant give birth. Marineland did not respond to the National Post’s request for comment on Monday.
Moore said Bill S-203 faced intense opposition from Conservative senators and was repeatedly delayed by procedural tactics. “It was the ultimate abuse,” he said. The Senate fisheries committee held 17 meetings to study the bill and heard from more than 30 witnesses before the legislation finally cleared the Senate last fall. It then narrowly escaped a threat in a House of Commons committee this spring, when a Liberal MP decided at the last minute to withdraw planned amendments. Any change would have sent the bill back to the Senate for another vote, and with the clock running out on the spring sitting, it might not have seen the light of day again.
The government of Canada has passed a bill that would ban whales and dolphins from being kept in captivity. •