BY Ora Bar & Shanellie Desparois
“At first I kept it to myself, until I learned more. Joining the fight was the only next logical step,” says Max Baillargeon.
Two and a half years after eliminating animal products from his life, Baillargeon joined an activism group because he wanted to meet other people eager to create change.
“These animals can’t take it to the streets to express their suffering. They have a voice, but we don’t listen to their screams,” he says. “So it is our duty to speak out for them.”
Baillargeon is one of many in Montreal who take part in events advocating for animal rights.
Erik Chevrier, activism expert, researcher and Ph.D. candidate in Food Studies at Concordia University, says that different activism tactics face different obstacles.
“A struggle that usually occurs, like in the case of vegan activism, is that the people hate the messenger because they don’t like the way the message makes them feel,” Chevrier says. “The focus on the messenger can harm the effectiveness of a cause.”
He explains that activism approaches that have shock value or appeal to emotions can strongly impact people, but there is no single correct approach.
“The best way to maximize the success of a social movement is to use a variety of activism methods,” says Chevrier. “It gives a better chance to the cause to reach more people and have a bigger impact.”
Baillargeon explains that the vegan community combines a variety of protesting approaches. “The goal is to plant a seed that could lead to the connection between a person’s morals and their actions,” he says. “I have found that being unapologetic in my activism works best.”
In November 2020, he started a TikTok account to create activism content for a younger audience. “I wanted to benefit from the broader reach that online platforms can offer activists,” says Baillargeon.
“Many Tiktok users were reaching out to ask for tips on changing their lifestyle habits,” he says. “I was live-streaming daily for hours, answering questions or debating with farmers.”
Spending 15 to 25 hours weekly on it, he reached over 700,000 followers and millions of views per video.
His most viewed video had more than 24 million views. It showed activists blocking animal transportation trucks as they arrived at a slaughterhouse.
“We quickly collect images to showcase to the public and give the animals some water and comfort,” says Baillargeon about the vigils. “Coming from inside, we sometimes hear the screams of the animals that arrived earlier.”
Even though he avoided posting graphic footage like animals visibly suffering or being killed, Baillargeon’s Tiktok posts were reported numerous times.
“Apparently, I violated too many community guidelines,” he says.
His account was cancelled in July 2021, around eight months after its launch.
“These are things no one wants to see, but that everyone supports,” says Baillargeon. “If people are never exposed to the reality of their victims, there will never be change.”
While attempting to rebuild his Tiktok account, he continues volunteering for the international animal rights organization Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV), which he joined in 2019. He explains that it was his first experience outreaching.
“Some don’t open up to this topic. But with time, it becomes natural to have these hard conversations,” says Baillargeon. “I have had many great discussions with people in the street.”
Co-founded in 2017 by Natalie Bartosek, the Montreal AV chapter holds weekly pop-up installations called the Cube of Truth. During the event, members of the group hold a screen that depicts graphic scenes from Dominion, a documentary on the standard and local practices in animal exploitation industries.
“How can we make informed decisions in society if we don’t have the information? It is an injustice in itself,” Bartosek says.
Passersby are invited to stop by to watch and discuss with a volunteer.
Chevrier explains that protests like the Cube of Truth have shock value. He says that these approaches can be effective, but need to be carefully managed to impact people in the desired way.
Bartosek has been an activist for over six years and is one of AV’s organizers. She says that people need to see the reality even if they don’t necessarily want to. “Most people think these videos of animals being abused or neglected are the exceptions or just happen elsewhere, but they don’t have any idea of what’s happening in their own backyards.”
In the early hours of Dec. 7, 2019, Bartosek and eleven other activists entered a pig farm on the south shore of Montreal to expose the conditions of the pigs. After gathering footage of the farm’s animals, they waited to be discovered by the farmers and to be arrested by the police.
“We were hoping to create an opportunity where the media would be allowed to enter the facilities to see the horrific conditions of the pigs with their own eyes and share it,” says Bartosek. “But the media, unfortunately, was not allowed in.”
Police did not allow the media into the farm.
Bartosek and the others ended up facing criminal charges of breaking and entering, mischief and obstruction of justice.
“Some of the members of the group felt nervous, but I wasn’t worried,” she says. “To help the animals, we need media coverage and a trial gets that.”
Alain Roy, professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Montreal, helped the activists build their seven-person defence team after their arrest. All the lawyers worked pro bono.
He explains that animal farming self-regulates and is among the least transparent industries.
“It is in the industry’s best interest that whistleblowers are kept away from their facilities,” says Roy. “I’m sorry, but farmers don’t produce picnic tables.”
In 2015, the Animal Welfare and Safety Act was passed in Quebec, recognizing that animals are sentient beings. Previously, Roy says, “They had just as many rights as a dishwasher or sofa.”
The province’s law states that humans have an individual and collective responsibility to ensure animal welfare and safety.
“To do that, we need to see, but we can’t see because the doors of factory farms are closed and there are no windows to look through,” says Roy. “All these rights are stripped from farm animals.”
“Successful and renowned activists throughout time often faced arrests and charges for the sake of their movement’s cause,” says Roy. “Laws aren’t inherently moral and sometimes it is important to act. This is why this group of activists went into the St-Hyacinthe pig farm.”
A few days after they visited the farm, so did inspectors from Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ). They issued a report highlighting multiple problems, including dozens of pigs packed in improperly tight spaces covered in excrement.
“They stand, sleep and eat bathing in inches of this dark, liquid filth, without space to move,” Bartosek attests. “There was a dead piglet who was decomposing on the floor, next to his confined mother and his brothers and sisters.”
Following the release of images of the farm and the publishing of the MAPAQ’s inspection report, investors pulled their funds from the operation and retailers refused to continue buying their pigs.
During the trial, it was announced that the farm had closed down.
“I feel at peace with what I did and with the consequences that might come up for me, because I know that it is important and part of something bigger,” says Bartosek with a smile.
Shortly after the event, animal agriculture industry representatives urged the Quebec government to follow the lead of Ontario, and implement new “Ag-Gag” trespassing and whistleblowing legislations to shelter farms from protests.
“These laws try to scare activists away so as not to have their businesses disturbed,” says Roy. “But we need activists for the proper evolution of society.”
However, the new urge to restrict activists can be a good sign. Chevrier explains that this reaction can shine a light on the fight.
“In some way, their actions were ultimately efficient,” he says.
Baillargeon does not plan to stop his activism if Ag-Gag laws are introduced in Quebec. “I will probably try to not cross the legality line, but the wellbeing of the victims of the animal exploitation industry is more important than abiding by unjust laws,” he says.
“If we don’t continue fighting, there will be no change.”