Canada Bans Keeping Whales, Dolphins In Captivity

The “Free Willy” bill will become law by the end of June.
Tourists line up at a viewing area to see a small pod of beluga whales at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont. on July 18, 2001.
Tourists line up at a viewing area to see a small pod of beluga whales at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont. on July 18, 2001.
Scott Dunlop/CP

OTTAWA — A federal bill banning the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity jumped its last parliamentary hoop, and will become Canadian law by the end of June.

Bill S-203, the so-called “Free Willy” bill, was passed by the House of Commons at third reading Monday. “Today is a really good day for animals in Canada,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said.

The bill, which originated in the Senate, amends the Criminal Code to make it illegal to keep a cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity, and to breed them in captivity. The bill also bans the import and export of marine mammals, as well as their embryos and sperm.

Watch: Orca pod surfaces from right underneath tourist boat

Retired senator Wilfred Moore first introduced the bill in December 2015. He told reporters he was feeling a mix of “relief and joy” shortly after the bill’s passage.

“Canada is better for this,” he said.

Moore left the Senate in 2017. He blamed Conservative senators for using procedural tactics to keep his bill languishing in the red chamber. May joked that Marineland, an Ontario theme park that currently has belugas in captivity, “managed to hold Conservative senators in captivity for a remarkably long time.”

Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium are the only two places in the country that currently keep cetaceans in captivity.

The former senator said that despite the Senate’s inertia, public support behind the bill grew. “Thousands and thousands” of emails were sent to senators, causing its server to shut down twice.

Moore suggested his faith got a boost after seeing Liberal, NDP, and Conservative MPs back May, the sponsor of the bill in the House, during a press conference last year. “I thought boy oh boy we really do have an all-party support here,” he said.

After Moore left the Senate, Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair stepped in to shepherd the bill.

Scientific and ‘best interest’ exemptions

The new legislation comes with a handful of loopholes. While it will prevent new cetaceans from being held in captivity, it won’t release the whales and dolphins currently held in Ontario or British Columbia.

There are also two exceptions for capturing cetaceans: for licensed scientific research (rescues and rehabilitation), or if it’s deemed to be in the creature’s “best interests.” It will be up to the minister of fisheries and oceans to make those determinations.

Marineland had tried to amend the bill earlier this year, suggesting that its current wording will force the Niagara Falls amusement park to terminate late stage pregnancies of beluga whales.

The claim was debunked by Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, who said the wording of the bill grandfathers cetaceans already in captivity.

On Monday, the animal rights lawyer was elated about the bill soon becoming law. “Not since our animal cruelty laws were first enacted in the 1800s has Parliament passed any significant serious animal protection legislation,” Labchuk said.

“This is only the beginning of a new era for animal protection in Canada.”

With a file from the Canadian Press

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