Tensions between local carriage supporters and animal rights activists reached their highest level in the three-year conflict this Sunday afternoon on Queen Street.
About 80 carriage business supporters gathered in front of Parliament Oak School on King Street just after noon to prepare for the walk to the corner of King and Queen Streets. Signs and T-shirts were distributed by one of the organizers of the counter-protest, Jennifer Jones-Butski of the group Locals for Carriages.
The group had come together in response to the promise that At War for Animals Niagara (AWFAN) was planning a rally in memory of Regan Russell, a 65-year-old animal rights activist, who was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in June while protesting the treatment of pigs at a Burlington slaughterhouse.
“It is and it isn’t (a counter-protest), said Jones-Butski. “A lot of people have always wanted to counter-protest them but we decided instead to protest the Town and the Niagara Regional Police. We want them to make what’s happening stop.”
“We’re okay if the protesters come down here and stand peacefully and protest,” she continued. “That’s their right. But it is not their right to harass, to intimidate or to bully.”
Jones-Butski was adamant that Sunday’s group was organized by the community itself in support of Sentineal Carriages, and was not officially a Locals for Carriages event.
Referring to Bill 156, passed in June by the Ontario government entrenching the rights of animal owners, Laura Sentineal expressed her ongoing frustration with the conflict.
“Our charter and our rights are all about striking a balance,” lamented Sentineal. “This is a very unbalanced situation and we need to restore balance. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to their opinions or expressing their opinions. But it can’t continue in the same vein.
“This is about silently speaking for our town,” she continued. “We all live here, we want to enjoy our town, and not feel afraid to come downtown, and not to be intimidated.”
The ongoing battle has been taking a toll on Sentineal and her family. This past Wednesday she claims they received an anonymous phone call threatening to burn her barn down. “For the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking of these people not so much as activists, but terrorists,” she said. “This just brought it to that level.”
The carriage supporters peacefully marched down King Street and took up positions on the sidewalk on all four corners in front of the Prince of Wales Hotel. The area of the street usually occupied by the horses and carriages was instead populated by police cruisers, there to ensure the situation would stay under control. The Sentineals decided to keep the horses and carriages at home to ensure they remained out of harm’s way.
In the meantime, a similar number of supporters of AWFAN and Pig Save Toronto, an organization to which Russell belonged, had been gathering at the Simcoe Park bandshell.
Co-organizer Jason King took to the stage there to lead the group in song and to encourage protesters to keep their cool if confronted by the carriage supporters. His encouragement was needed when local Peter Flynn made his way down the hill, shouting at the gathering throng to “go home.” Flynn and others continued to shout at the stage from the hill near the playground for about 20 minutes.
King made reference to a previous rally where Jones-Butski was seen holding a sign that suggested that Regan Russell’s death was actually a suicide. Much of this group’s focus seemed to be on retaliating against that claim.
“We found that very offensive,” said King. “And leading up to that display, Jennifer Jones-Butski had made several social media posts suggesting that Regan Russell was responsible for her own death, and therefore it’s a suicide. So we decided to bring people here today to restore justice to Regan Russell’s name.”
“We obviously have publicly apologized,” Jones-Butski told The Local. “We didn’t intend to cause any upset to the family. The signs were kind of a means of showing them what they do. We told them if they were going to call it a murder, we were going to call it suicide. We don’t think it was a suicide, we think it was a tragic accident. But we were trying to show them how equally stupid it looks.”
Russell’s widowed husband Mark Powell, and her stepson Joshua were among the speakers on stage. Though their presence in NOTL was prompted by the clash over the sign, and Powell has publicly denounced the statement of the Locals for Carriages about his wife’s death, on Sunday, he focused mostly on the horses.
“Just because you’ve done something one way for a hundred years, that doesn’t make it the right way,” Powell said. “How it affects the commerce of Niagara-on-the-Lake is not our concern. It affects the horses. Since they can’t speak for themselves, we will, and we will be loud.”
Following a series of songs, poems and practice chants, the opposing group wound its way up the pathway from the bandshell to the corner, where they were immediately met by the carriage supporters. Forced to funnel off to the side, the group wound its way to the intersection, stopping traffic in all directions, then taking stationary posts on all four crosswalks.
Niagara Regional Police (NRP) mobilized cruisers that had been stationed into position one block up in each direction to reroute automobile traffic, while six other officers remained on site to maintain order.
NRP Insp. Jim McCaffery says the officers were there to keep the peace and ensure public safety. The officers were approached by many carriage supporters who expressed their frustration with the disruption to the town at the hands of the animal activists.
Shannon Wiebe, owner of Queen Street business Wow Me Gadgets, was one of the people who approached the police.
“I was asking him how we can get this away from here so that I can get customers into my store,” she told The Local. “You’ve got a group of people who aren’t from this community, protesting something in our community, who are not taxpayers in our community, hurting businesses. While I support the carriages, what they are doing is harming our local residents and businesses.”
Ginny Lovelace, a local resident who works in animal activism, was seen confronting animal rights activists in the intersection. She says she understands the need for organizations like AWFAN, but that the Sentineals’ animals do not need them.
“These animals are cared for,” said Lovelace. “They’re protected, and if they stop working, they’ll be put down. These horses are working animals. I don’t think these people understand that this is a breed and this is their job. I think their hearts are in the right place but I think they are ill-informed.”
At one point, the animal rights activists marched from the corner down to the end of the Queen Street business district and back to the intersection, where they sat on the road to chant their slogans, before getting up and dispersing back to Simcoe Park, about 4 p.m.
McCaffery confirmed Monday that there had been one report of a possible assault taking place involving a carriage supporter who was in a wheelchair. The complaint is being investigated. Other than the disruption to traffic and businesses, and the noise level, overall it was a peaceful protest, he said.
“The way I look at it, there were no arrests, nobody was injured and there were no damages,” McCaffery said. “To me, that’s successfully keeping the peace.”
Three years in and it seems the conflict between the two groups is not soon going to dissipate. “This was the largest (protest) and by far the most acrimonious,” added McCaffery. “This problem is not going to be solved by the Niagara Regional Police. That’s not our goal.”