Blackout. sheep trial, CFIA
The bizarre case of a flock of rare sheep — purportedly stolen from an Ontario farm by agricultural activists to thwart a federal kill order during a disease scare — was adjourned after government documents suggested the infected sheep that sparked the high-profile standoff could have actually been an animal from the United States.
Internal documents from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) also suggest workers may have tried to cover up any potential mistake or withheld information from its own reports, defence lawyers complain.
However, until more of the government’s records on the controversial case are released, it is difficult to know precisely what has gone on since 2010, when a sheep tested positive for scrapie, a degenerative disease in sheep similar to the “mad cow disease” that affects cattle.
Whether the diseased sheep came from the Ontario ewe, as the CFIA publicly says, or an American ram, as documents in court suggest it was once thought, is important not only for the criminal case but also for cross-border agricultural trade.
On Monday, a 22-page letter from Shawn Buckley, a B.C. lawyer defending sheep owner Montana Jones against criminal charges, was submitted in court asking for an adjournment until the government can provide fuller documentation.
An internal CFIA email is quoted in Mr. Buckley’s letter saying: “The tattoo on the animal indicates it was imported from the USA — may be interesting … since this [is] a male and imported the focus goes to its herd of origin and therefore doesn’t require much on this farm in Canada.”
The sheep on Ms. Jones’ farm was a female and had never been to the U.S., Ms. Jones said.
I can’t comment on it. I’d love to comment on it. I’d love to correct all the errors in that letter
Other documents raise a concern that the sheep’s tissue sample appeared to have been sent for testing wrapped in a bag but arrived in a hard box, suggesting undocumented repackaging.
“I am now faced with what appears to be a deliberate effort by these CFIA employees to gather very relevant evidence and deliberately hide it,” Mr. Buckley’s letter to the court says.
The CFIA did not respond to a request for comment.
Damien Frost, a lawyer acting on the federal government’s behalf in the prosecution of the case, said he could not comment on the specifics of the letter, saying he was going to apply Monday morning to have a publication ban placed on the proceedings.
“I can’t comment on it. I’d love to comment on it. I’d love to correct all the errors in that letter,” he said. He added that once all of the information is known, the picture will be clearer.
Ms. Jones and a co-accused — unpasteurized milk crusader and agricultural activist Michael Schmidt — are charged with conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, obstructing a peace officer, obstructing justice and obstructing the Health of Animals Act after Ms. Jones’ flock was secretly moved to thwart a government-ordered slaughter.
“We’ve got major concerns about disclosure in this case,” Mr. Buckley said in an interview. “A key factor is going to be them being able to try to prove that a sheep from Montana’s farm came down with scrapie in Alberta. And with the disclosure I have to date there are holes — there are huge holes.”
Judge Lorne Chester ordered the adjournment until April 27 to allow time for the government to provide more of its internal documents.
The sheep case was strange from the start.
In 2010, a sheep in Alberta tested positive for scrapie and the CFIA started an investigation. The CFIA then declared the sheep came from Ms. Jones’ farm in Hastings, 170 kilometres east of Toronto, where she bred Shropshire Sheep, a rare breed that traces its lineage back to the first sheep imported to Canada from England.
The CFIA moved to slaughter her flock. She fought to save them, often through emotional standoffs.
Before CFIA officers and police arrived at her farm in 2012 with an order to destroy 31 sheep, including 20 pregnant ewes, the flock went missing during the night.
Ms. Jones told the National Post at the time that she opened her barn door and found a note but no sheep. The handwritten letter, left on a nail hammered into a post near the barn’s door, said the flock had been taken into “protective custody” by the “Farmers Peace Corp.”
It sparked a police lambhunt.
“I hope they’re safe,” she said at the time. “I have no idea where they are.”
Neither did the Ontario Provincial Police until the sheep were found months later at a farm about a five-hour drive from her farm. The flock was slaughtered.
One of those charged alongside Ms. Jones and Mr. Schmidt, Suzanne Atkinson, a farmer and a freelance reporter with an agricultural newspaper, pleaded guilty in December to unlawful transport of quarantined animals without a licence.
Karen Selick, litigation director with the Canadian Constitution Foundation, is assisting Ms. Jones with the case.
“The case really boils down to some major constitutional issues,” Ms. Selick said in an interview.
“[Ms. Jones] has had her livelihood ruined over a suspicion — a mere suspicion by a bureaucrat who doesn’t give a damn. It makes someone from CFIA judge, jury and executioner with no higher authority,” she said.
The foundation plans to oppose the government’s request for a publication ban on Monday.