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Calgary’s Henaissance: The Evolution of Urban Livestock in Canada

By Kris Phillips

As the world eagerly anticipates the release of Chicken Run 2, we reflect on the hen’s hallowed place in our culture. Whether cinematically celebrated or Kentucky fried, the humble hen is woven into the fabric of our social reality. Alas, while welcomed on our screens and dinner tables, the presence of live chickens in Canadian cities is a legal lightning rod that has pitted prudent lawmakers against advocates for sustainability.

The hen question was pondered by Calgary City Council [“the City”] in 2021, when it voted to end a 16-year ban on urban hens with an amendment to the Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw [“RPOB”]. The amendment empowered the City Manager to issue Urban Livestock Permits, which allowed Calgarians to keep 2-4 hens on their residential property.

The City’s decision echoed those made by the city councils of Victoria, Vancouver, and Halifax since 2009. This relatively recent shift in municipal disposition toward urban hens has been celebrated by activists and chicken-enthusiasts alike. Advocates argue that urban hens offer a safe, healthy, and affordable food source for Calgarians. They further contend that hens have been unlawfully banished from cities based on prejudiced attitudes that classify any “farm animal” as inherently unclean, disease-ridden, and unfit for an urban setting.

Brief History of Urban Livestock in Canada

The roots of Canadian bylaws on urban livestock trace back to Montreal’s Rules and Regulations for the Police of the City, 1810. These early regulations dealt primarily with the very real nuisance posed by large livestock kept within city boundaries. Indeed, Canadian history through the 19th century is rife with accounts of cows, pigs, and horses wandering through major city streets. Once expired, the corpses of these same animals became another smelly problem. There was no doubt that the scale of nuisance and health risks presented by large farm animals in an urban environment would necessitate their regulation and eventual prohibition. As such, large farm animals were effectively eliminated in major Canadian cities, like Montreal, by the early 20th century.

Taken in the context of the era, the purpose of anti-livestock action by early Canadian municipalities was sound, even necessary. But questions persist over whether such prohibitions should extend to every animal deemed livestock, even when they don’t carry a high risk for nuisance or public health hazard.

Chicken on Trial

The City of Calgary took a hardline stance on the categorization question in 2006 with the passage of the RPOB. Section 2 of the bylaw placed chickens firmly within the realm of livestock, while section 27 stated that “no person shall keep livestock in any area of the city.”

The decision was hotly contested by sustainability activists who advocated for the incorporation of urban livestock into a city model for sustainable food systems. After a failed attempt at an amendment to the bylaw in 2009, Calgarian Paul Hughes opted to bring the matter before a higher power. On June 30, 2010, Hughes reported himself to local authorities, confessed to the possession of six chickens on his property and used the resultant citation as a one-way ticket to a constitutional challenge.

In R v Hughes, 2012, ABPC 250, the self-represented Hughes asserted that RPOB section 27 unlawfully restricted his food choices in violation of sections 2, 7, and 15 of the Charter. Hughes also claimed that the bylaw contradicted both the City of Calgary’s stated goals of sustainable food systems and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25(1) (at para 8), which entitles all people to a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [their] family, including food” (at para 87).

In his judicial decision, the Honourable Judge C.M. Skene found Hughes’ arguments insufficient to establish a constitutional breach. He cited the Alberta Municipal Government Act, section 7, which delegates municipal jurisdiction to matters related to “nuisances; and animals and activities in relation to them” (at para 91).

Although RPOB section 27 was held to be constitutional, the legislative history presented at trial called the evidentiary basis of the urban hen prohibition into question.

The trial elucidated problematic factors in the City’s rationale behind RPOB section 27. Chief Bylaw Officer Bill Bruce (“Bruce”) testified that the central purpose of the RPOB was the regulation of cats (at paras 23-24), an issue that had gone unaddressed in the Community Standards Bylaw, 2003. Based on Bruce’s testimony, it appeared that urban hens went unmentioned in the two years of public consultation that informed the RPOB. He testified that “the few concerns regarding livestock [during public consultation] dealt with large animals” (at para 29).

Based on this testimony, it appears that the incompatibility of chickens with urban life was held to be self-evident by the city when RPOB was passed.

Vindication of the Hen

On June 1, 2021, nearly 10 years after R. v. Hughes, Calgary City Council voted to amend the RPOB by a narrow margin of 8-6. In March 2022, 100 Urban Livestock Licenses were issued under the Calgary Urban Hen Pilot Program. In March, 2023, the cap on permits was lifted and the embattled hen was officially welcomed back within Calgary city limits.

The Urban Hen Program has been rolled out with the potential for nuisance in mind. Roosters (chickens’ louder halves) remain prohibited within city limits. An Urban Livestock permit will only be issued to residents who can demonstrate a suitable, well-maintained enclosure for the hens. Furthermore, a permit requires owners to undergo training that includes biosecurity measures to contain waste and guard against outbreaks of disease. Hen owners are also subject to regulations that restrict the slaughter of hens within city limits and strict specifications for the safe disposal of carcasses.

Calgary’s Urban Hen Program indicates a fresh, evidence-based approach to the urban livestock debate. Since 2006, the role of the city has shifted from adversarial to collaborative. In cases such as these, evidence-based regulation must supplant blanket prohibition to help guide the evolution of our social practices. This approach will be increasingly necessary as Canadian society strives for outside-the-box alternatives toward a more sustainable reality.

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