Thomas Walkom

Opinion: Signs are not hopeful on animal testing

A bill that would ban the manufacture and sale of cosmetic products that rely on animal testing has finally cleared the Senate.

It took three years for Bill S-214 to win the approval of the Upper Chamber. It still must be voted on by the Commons before it can become law.

And Commons approval is far from guaranteed.

For those interested in improving the welfare of non-human animals, the saga of Bill S-214 is both encouraging and depressing.

It is encouraging because at least something happened. In the past, the Senate has been a graveyard for animal welfare bills – most famously in the early 2000s when senators derailed an attempt by the then Liberal government to beef up anti-cruelty laws.

It is depressing because getting this very moderate bill through just the Senate required so much effort.

Animal testing is both cruel and unnecessary. The tests themselves can be unspeakable. One involves dripping the chemical being tested into a rabbit’s eye until the cornea corrodes. Another involves force-feeding animals with the ingredient under scrutiny until 50 per cent of them die.

To administer such tests just to market a new brand of eye shadow or deodorant is patently immoral – particularly since test methods exist that don’t require live animals.

Some methods, for instance, use human skin grown in laboratories. Others use computer models.

New Brunswick Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen made all of these points when she introduced her Bill S-214.

Stewart Olsen is no raving radical. She’s a Conservative who at one point in her career was press secretary to Stephen Harper. She is also an incrementalist. Her bill, and a predecessor that died on the order paper in 2015, reflect that.

First, Bill S-214 applies only to cosmetics. There are other household products developed with the use of animal testing, including pharmaceuticals. S-214 is silent on these.

Second, the bill is hardly path-breaking. The European Union has banned animal testing for cosmetics since 2013. Many of the world’s big cosmetic firms have already given up on animal testing.

By one estimate, 99 per cent of new cosmetics sold in Canada are free of animal testing.

Third, her bill would allow the government to grant exemptions from the ban if no other means of testing existed. So there’s an escape clause.

Fourth, the ban would be phased in over four years.

As Stewart Olsen told the Senate, her bill is “an incremental step toward improving the state of animal welfare.” In fact, it is so incremental that Sen. Lillian Eva Dyck, a Liberal, asked during Senate debate whether it is worth pursuing.

Animal welfare organizations think it is. Toronto-based Animal Alliance, as well as the Humane Society International, agitated hard for S-214. Humane Canada, a federation of provincial humane societies, welcomed the bill’s passage through the Senate last week.

What will Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government do now that S-214 has been passed on to the Commons for consideration? If history is any indication, the signs are not hopeful.

In 2016, the Trudeau government sandbagged proposed amendments to the animal-cruelty laws, even though they were presented by a Liberal backbencher.

As justification, the government said it wanted to wait to reform animal-cruelty legislation until it was able to undertake a complete rethinking of the Criminal Code.

At Senate committee hearings on S-214, Cosmetics Alliance Canada, the lobbying arm of the industry, made a similar observation. It noted that Health Canada is undertaking a comprehensive reform of so-called self-care regulations and that it might make sense for any change in animal-testing laws to be considered in that context.

Translation: the cosmetics industry isn’t necessarily opposed to a ban on animal testing but thinks that maybe legislators should wait.

For a government that seems reluctant to do anything on the animal welfare front, this will be welcome advice.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.

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