It’s been a stressful few years for the Sentineal family and their business, but Laura Sentineal says they are remaining positive, going out with their head down and focussing on doing their job.
The ramped-up protest against the horse and carriage business, carried out Sunday, took over Simcoe Park and Queen Street for the afternoon, with supporters also taking to the streets.
Laura and Fred Sentineal, who operate Sentineal Carriages, were on-hand for the protest, with a plan to try to keep the demonstration peaceful, safe and respectful, she says.
Their T-shirts also helped to spread their message that the protesters are not the only ones with charter rights.
Their horses were kept at home, in the pasture, where they would be safe.
The safety of her family and the horses, whom the Sentineals consider part of the family, came under attack when Laura received a phone call last Wednesday from someone who wouldn’t identify themselves but wanted to warn her about an online threat to burn down the Sentineal barn.
There was no indication the threat is associated in any manner with At War For Animals Niagara (AWFAN).
Sentineal says she doesn’t get involved in social media discussions, trying to stay out of the conflicts, but when she took some time to assimilate the anonymous threat, she decided she needed to post it on social media. Making it public, she thought, might also provide a level of safety.
She and the horse-and-carriage supporters have been critical of the Niagara Regional Police, and their lack of action against protesters, but when she called the police about the threat, she was contacted by a detective, “and we had a really good conversation. They are taking it very seriously and they are helping us. They’ve really stepped up for us. It’s been wonderful, and very much appreciated.”
As stressful as the aggressive protests have become, her concern, Sentineal says, is on a broader scale. She knows the protests are hurting downtown businesses, and creating a reputation that the town is a place to avoid. “We’re feeling sick about what is happening to our whole town. It’s not about us anymore. People are so fed up. People are afraid to go downtown. It’s crazy,” she says.
The horse-and-carriage protesters, representing AWFAN, have been taking over the main intersection in town for three years now, with no end in sight. They are fighting what they call speciesism, or objectifying animals, by humans who use the animals for their own purposes, including pulling carriages. They don’t agree with the property status of animals owned by humans, for any reason. Their goal is to put an end to the use of horse-drawn carriages.
With discussions about the protests moving behind closed doors during council meetings, it’s difficult to know what councillors are thinking, although many have spoken out in support of the horse-drawn carriages, and have expressed their concern over what they see as increasingly aggressive tactics of the protesters.
Sentineal says her lawyer has told her a municipal bylaw could be implemented to create a buffer around the area where drivers wait on King Street with the horses and carriages for pick-ups and drop-offs, and that the protesters could be assigned a location a distance away from the busy intersection. “It’s defendable, and justifiable,” she says. “There is lots (the Town) can do.”
In July, Lord Mayor Betty Disero made a motion to look at creating a buffer, and some other measures to keep the protests peaceful, but there has been no public discussion since. They are looking into that buffer, and what else can be done by the municipality, Disero said Monday, admitting she and other councillors are also frustrated they can’t do more.
During recent years of debate about taking some control of the protests, town representatives have said their hands are tied, with the right to peacefully protest enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
While the protesters aren’t the only ones whose rights are protected, says Sentineal, she is guessing the Town doesn’t want to get embroiled in a court case involving charter rights.
“Our lawyer explains it this way: every time a law is passed, or if someone is detained or arrested, our freedom is limited, for the greater good.”
Whether it’s speeding when driving, or wearing a mask during COVID, she says, laws are passed that curtail freedom, but in the case of protesters, the Town and Niagara Regional Police seem to be avoiding a court battle that would challenge those rights.
Responding to criticism from the local carriage supporters and asking for protocols from both sides, the NRP released a statement in July saying their job was to keep the peace, and maintain neutrality.
“There have been many reports, police calls for service, meetings, along with investigations resulting in cautions, and also officer discretion for both sides. We have reviewed the applicable case laws as they apply to peaceful assembly, and sought legal counsel from the office of the local Crown Attorney,” said Insp. James McCaffery of the NRP, who has taken the lead on liaising with the Town, the horse-and-carriage owners, protesters, and the group he calls counter-protesters, although they object to that term, believing their role is one of support for the local horse-and-carriage business.
The Locals for Carriages group, Sentineal says, has been helpful in many ways. They’ve done some fundraising to help with legal costs, they’ve raised awareness of the issues, and they’ve helped educate people.
“They’re not a protest group. They are supporters, and that comes in many forms.”
It has included offers from members to sleep in the Sentineal barn, or be there during the day, to help protect the horses and her family.
“There has been so much unsolicited support, offers to help in any way. That is the heart of what the group is really about,” she says.
When the protests began, “we felt so alone, and very vulnerable, besieged by these people.” Their supporters “have made us feel like we’re not alone.”
Members of the Locals for Carriages group have worked hard to convince the Sentineals their business is appreciated by the community, they’ve recognized publicly that the horses are loved and well-cared for, and they continue to help in any way they can, she says. “That’s what this group has been all about.”
Sentineal says she feels for the councillors who are trying to do what is best for the town.
“It’s a brutal job, but I really really think for the sake of the town, something has to be done. You see the investment, you see the hard work of the people who have made this town what it is,” she says. “I get that the Town and the residents don’t want to go down a long road of legal costs.”
But while the reputation of the town has for years been “beyond reproach, it’s suffering now, and if something doesn’t change, it will affect the brand people have worked so hard to create,” she says.