It began at 8 am on an overcast Thursday morning outside St. Helen’s Meat Packers, a slaughterhouse in the west end of Toronto.

In a non-violent act of civil disobedience, 6 activists sat on the pavement to prevent trucks from delivering cows to the facility. Sixty five to seventy other activists turned up to provide support.

Photo courtesy of professional documentary photographer Jo-Anne McArthur

Across the street is a similar operation, Ryding Regency Meat Packers. 

Together with St. Helen’s, these two facilities kill roughly 4,000 animals per week and are the last two in an increasingly residential area known as the Junction Stockyards, now the site of a shopping mall and condominiums under construction, said the group in their release.

“Blocking trucks is a last resort measure, after two years of vigils and attempts at negotiation with the owner to transform the facility failed,” said the group. “Nonviolent non-cooperation is a tactic used famously by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, after other methods have been tried. 

“When activists are willing to use their own bodies to defend the innocent, it is meant as a highly symbolic gesture of solidarity with the most oppressed beings on the planet. It is a way to say that we will try to defend them as they go to their deaths, and that we object to this needless and cruel system of violence that is in place to rob them of their lives and their freedom. 

“Blocking the path that will result in their deaths is an expression of love for them, and a cry for justice, to say stop murdering the innocent. We seek an end to this cruel system.

“There is no humane way to enslave and kill a sentient being. They suffer in factory farms and during live transport, and because of the fast-paced production line. They feel fear, terror, and pain, just as we would were we in their place. There can be no valid moral justification for the continued subjugation and murder of innocent beings.”

The entire group met outside St. Helen’s immediately prior to the action.

“Going over the rules,” said Lorena Elke, media spokesperson, in a telephone interview on Friday afternoon. “It was like a checklist. Following the non-violent approach. We were very specific with our group about how this was going to be run.”

Elke said that between 8:30 am and 8:45 am, one of the transport trucks pulled up outside the entrance.

The six blockaders sat on the pavement, side by side (arms unlinked) and cross-legged.

“They were calm,” said Elke. “They were quiet. Very focused on what their role was. To disrupt the violence of slaughterhouses. To highlight the oppression that animals experience daily. At this slaughterhouse, it’s up to 600 cows per day.”

Numerous marshals ensured the safety of blockaders and supporters by keeping them as far away from the truck as possible and signalling to the driver that there were blockaders behind him that he may not be able to see.

“(The truck was) about four to six feet away from the first protester,” said Elke. 

As time went by, slaughterhouse workers slowly trickled out of the building. Then the owners arrived. But Elke said things remained calm and peaceful with slaughterhouse employees and police merely observing from a safe distance.

“About 9:30 am a slaughterhouse worker brought out a hose and started to wash down the driveway” she said. “We knew that the intention was to get the blockers wet and they did. They didn’t spray them directly but they came within a foot of them with water.

“Things felt like they were escalating but we always thought the police would do as they said and appreciate that this was a non-violent demonstration.”

Elke said that one member of the group had spoken with police liaisons a week prior to the action. Another member had met with police a few days before the blockade.

“They were very appreciative of our transparency and of informing them of the event,” said Elke.  “And they understood that it was a non-violent direct action and what that meant. That’s why we were very surprised at what ended up happening.”

On Thursday morning shortly after she arrived, the group’s police liaison walked over to the squad cars and introduced herself.

“But around 10 am, the slaughterhouse workers came behind the blockers and started to physically attempt to remove them,” said Elke.

“At that point the truck was starting to move backwards again. Supporters screamed for the driver to stop. Another truck came from the other side and started revving his engine and honking his horn non-stop. Everything became chaotic.”

But the blockers didn’t budge, in spite of being assaulted, said Elke. Several huddled together and lowered their heads, but they were not fighting back.

Finally, the police stepped in.

“Instead of pulling the slaughterhouse workers off the blockers, they arrested the protesters,” said Elke.

“Two were dragged away. That’s normal. Three got up and walked away. One protester wasn’t arrested. One was diagnosed later in hospital with a concussion.

“While that was happening, two support people, who were trying to stop the truck from running over the blockers, were arrested and charged with assault against police. The five blockaders face mischief related charges.”

Elke alleged the protesters were victims of “undue violence” because all were demonstrating peacefully.

The arrestees were taken to the police station where the five blockaders were charged and released. The other two arrestees were held overnight, appeared in court on Friday and later released. 

“We’re concerned about how the system broke down when we were following a particular tradition of non-violence,” said Elke.

For two years, an animal rights activist group known as Toronto Cow Save has been “bearing witness” (holding silent nonviolent vigils) weekly outside the slaughterhouses, to protest the live transport and killing of these beings. 

Toronto Cow Save held a vigil on Thursday outside St. Helen’s in support of those blocking the trucks. But the direct action wasn’t a Toronto Cow Save activity. Thursday’s blockade, performed by a group of individuals with community support, was dubbed Meet Me At the Stockyards

“We consider ourselves part of the whole blockadia movement which Naomi Klein is talking about in her new book This Changes Everything although she doesn’t mention specifically animal rights groups” said Elke.

“But that is what we feel. A kindredship with all of the movements. The people who are justice seeking. Putting our bodies on the line to serve justice in a peaceful non-violent way.”

The tactic of blocking livestock trucks has been tried in other parts of the world (e.g. Britain, U.S., Israel), but as far as Elke knows, this may be the first time it happened in Canada. 

“We feel it’s necessary based on moral laws which require us to combat violence where we see it ,” she said. “And slaughterhouses are violent territories not only for non-human animals but for the workers.”

Animal rights activists see no difference between human slavery and animal slavery. That human liberation and animal liberation are part of the same struggle.

Following their release, the activists were more concerned for each other, the animals and the amount and quality of the media coverage than they were for themselves, said Elke.

“Many are bruised today,” said Elke. 

“Many have headaches and are tired and sore. But we can get up and walk away. The animals never can. And so all of those beautiful animals that we were able to commune with yesterday were dead by the time we were at the police station.”

Elke said the reaction from the animal rights community around the world has been “phenomenal”, with many tweeting messages of solidarity after seeing the videos and photos taken by supporters at Thursday’s action.

“But the amount of media that we got was dismal” she said. 

“We had sent out over 350 press releases to various mainstream media. Followed up with many of them. The only journalist who was on site the entire time was a Toronto Sun photographer. We talked throughout the morning and he accurately represented what this action was about. The only one that gave us fair and accurate coverage.”

UPDATE: November 14

Click here to contribute to the legal defence fund for the 7 arrestees.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.