“I felt compelled to get into animal law. My advice to women is don’t accept being marginalized, you have every right to be there and your opinion and insight are valuable. Just go for it,” says CEO of her own law firm and Animal Justice lawyer, Camille Labchuk.
From her mother’s place in P.E.I on vacation, Camille Labchuk looks relaxed, yet professional in a comfortable rustic room in her hometown in the Maritimes. This setting is a nice vacation spot for the passionate, but humble, animal rights lawyers who is making big waves in Toronto.
Labchuk is currently the executive director of Animal Justice, a not-for-profit legislative fund dedicated to advocating for the humane treatment of animals. As a lawyer, Labchuk defends advocates and animals in the court of law, and contributes to campaigns that seek further protection for animals.
Animal Justice focuses heavily on putting pressure on the farming industry. Labchuk says there is strong public outrage when a dog or cat is abused, but when it comes to farm animals, law enforcement often fails to act.
“In June 2014, Chilliwack cattle sales in B.C., which is the largest dairy farm in the country, were investigated, and undercover footage came out from Mercy for Animals that showed workers kicking, punching, and beating cows with metal pipes,” said Labchuk.
“The BCSPCA recommended charges against the workers and the company — and that was over 18 months ago. Law enforcement still has not laid any charges and the crown has not done anything about the case yet. There is inertia on the part of law enforcement on the part of animals.”
Labchuk first became interested in animal rights when she was nine years old after witnessing the seal hunt on T.V. Her mother was a significant influence on her interest in environmentalism, and helped her pursue her goals in animal activism. “My mom was a single mother and an environmental activist. She single-handedly took on the pesticide industry in PEI. She was very active when I was growing up and I had a role model from a very young age that taught me a woman can do whatever she wants and can accomplish a lot.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Labchuk was uncertain what path to take, but decided to become involved with the Green Party in her home province, P.E.I.
“I got involved in the Green Party with Elizabeth May in 2004 because my mom was running in the election,” said Labchuk. “Elizabeth decided to run for leadership of the Green Party and I became the only staffer on her campaign. Luckily, she won and she asked me to join her in Ottawa.”
Labchuk moved to Ottawa and worked closely with May for two years before running for the Green Party herself in 2006. At this time, she used her vacations to volunteer for the Humane Society International. She helped to document and expose the cruelty of the seal hunt in remote areas of the Maritimes with Rebecca Aldworth, one of Canada’s first animal rights activists.
Elizabeth May was a strong female influence in the young activist’s life and taught her about how much power being a lawyer can have in politics. “I really saw how much her law degree helped her every single day, whether it was reading drafts or responding to issues of the day,” said Labchuk. “It was useful for her. I realized there were very few people doing animal law in Canada and maybe that could be me.”
Labchuk worked for the Humane Society International in a communications role for a year before starting law school at the University of Toronto in 2009, where she had the chance to meet Lesli Bisgould, one of Canada’s first animal rights lawyers. Bisgould was another mentor for Labchuk and inspired her to pursue her passion in animal law.
Labchuk was given her first articling opportunity while attending a Toronto Vegetarian food festival in 2011. James Silver, a criminal lawyer and vegan, was present for a presentation Labchuk made about animal rights advocacy. “I met them afterwards and James offered me a job to article for him the following year. Now my advice to younger lawyers is to never miss a vegetarian food festival. You never know what job you may get out of it.”
In 2014, Labchuk opened her own law firm to supplement her income while still volunteering with Animal Justice. Her firm’s focus is on animal rights law, but she does take on the occasional unrelated case.
Recently though, Labchuk has gotten on Animal Justice’s payroll and is playing a larger part in it’s operations. She says the not-for-profit is getting more resources and gaining notoriety every year. For Labchuk, it’s not the opening of her own firm that’s her biggest success — it’s her work with Animal Justice. “I’m excited about where Animal Justice is going in the future because at this point, I think the sky is the limit,” she said.
In Sept. 2015, Labchuk and other lawyers at Animal Justice went to the Supreme Court to intervene in a law about bestiality. “ It was a defence to water down the definition of bestiality to allow sexual acts that were non-penetrative in nature. We sought intervener’s status. The court did allow us to argue that case on behalf of animals. That was momentous and exciting.” In January 2015, Labchuk also got the charges dropped against six activists that were arrested for protesting outside of the St. Helen’s meat Packer’s in November 2014.
Currently, Labchuk is living in Cambridge while her spouse completes a journalism fellowship at Harvard University. She is taking supplemental American animal law classes and rubbing shoulders with big-name animal rights lawyers in the country. She looks forward to her return to Toronto to continue the good fight for animal rights.
“We are chipping away at this paradigm that allows us to exploit animals in such horrible ways,” said Labchuk. “More people then ever are aware, and these issues are mainstream now. I know someday, we are going to win.”