Residents, carriage operators accuse police of not acting on protesters out of fear of Charter battle
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series focusing on the carriage protests in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Next week’s story focuses on Niagara Regional Police and their response to residents who don’t think they’re enforcing the laws.
Niagara-on-the-Lake carriage operator Sean Sentineal has been pleading for three years with police to lay charges in connection with protests by animal rights activists.
But he never expected when the crackdown came that the first criminal charges would be laid against a customer of his family’s horse-and-carriage business.
However, on July 29, police charged Mark Giordani after a confrontation with a protester.
Police said Giordani was riding the carriage with his pregnant wife and young daughter when a protester, identified as Jason King, started to follow and “express his concerns” to the family about using the service.
Giordani is accused of breaking King’s sign and taking his cellphone. He did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The carriage protesters have often been accused of following customers to loudly express their views.
The protesters believe all domestic animals should be extinct, that all animals are “non-human persons” and that the horse-and-carriage service is a form of slavery. They would also like all humans to be vegan.
Sentineal has been consistent in his claims that carriage protesters are harassing his family, their staff and customers, and says to date police have ignored multiple reported crime allegations and blown off concerns from himself and even parents of carriage drivers.
“There’s been countless things that we’ve called about where it seems clear to us and to our lawyer that it’s breaking the law, but there’s always a reason why (police) can’t do anything,” Sentineal said in an interview.
He said he’s presented video evidence to officers and been given different reasons why they can’t pursue a crime.
“(They say) the footage isn’t clear enough or, you know, there’s always a little excuse,” Sentineal said.
“They seem to just not want to pursue charges against the protesters. I believe it’s because as soon as they did, the protesters would scream Charter of Rights, and they don’t want to get into a Charter of Rights issue. So I think the protesters definitely get away with a lot more than any regular citizen would simply because they hide behind the Charter rights.”
He recalls one incident where there was “indisputable proof” of a protester texting-and-driving, which he caught clearly on video, yet when he reported it, police told him he was reporting the crime for the “wrong reason.”
Sentineal also caught the interaction with the officer on video.
In the video, taken July 17, 2019, Sentineal can be heard speaking to the officer, who belittles his concern and makes it seem like he’s the one causing trouble for reporting a crime.
“You’re doing this for another purpose is what I’m saying,” the officer tells him.
Sentineal then tells the officer he thinks it’s a “public safety issue.”
“I’m already worried that they’re following our carriages,” Sentineal says. “I guess you just don’t want to deal with it.”
“No, no, no,” the officer says, raising his voice.
“It has nothing to do with that. It’s using the police for the wrong purpose. That’s what I’m saying. Don’t put words in my mouth,” the officer fires back.
He can be heard warning Sentineal not to “use the police service for the wrong intentions.”
“And that’s what you’re doing right now,” the officer says. “And that’s when I get upset.”
Sentineal said before the interaction, he knew the officer wasn’t going to help.
“As soon as he pulled over and had his door open, I walked up, I could see his eyes roll. Right off the bat it wasn’t a good experience dealing with him.”
Sentineal maintains that if protesters — who have on more than one occasion trailed the carriages in their vehicles — were texting and driving, that it’s a safety concern for the horses and staff, and questions why police wouldn’t do anything about it, regardless of assumptions about why it was being reported.
“My number one concern is the safety of our horses and our people. And I’m just still astonished — I’ve never heard of anyone getting out of a texting-and-driving charge, and the officer just did not want to pursue it at all.”
In an interview on July 29, Niagara Regional Police Insp. James McCaffery said the incident should not have happened as it did and that police are supposed to take all accusations of criminal behaviour seriously, regardless of a person’s motive.
He added that despite the recorded conversation, the officer did follow up with the incident.
“What he may or may not have said, we still followed up on it anyways to make sure it was resolved properly,” McCaffery said.
Sentineal recalls several other instances of police not taking action, including one time a carriage driver was yelling for help, only to be shrugged off by an officer.
“There was an incident where they were following our carriages and our driver went up and drove beside a police car and was yelling for help saying, ‘I’m being harassed. I don’t feel safe. Can you please help?’ and the officer said ‘Call 911’ — while they’re sitting there in the cop car.”
He said he has a video of that incident, too, though the audio is fuzzy.
“It’s hard because you can’t quite pick up what they say. The person who’s recording was on the ground and he’s in his car.”
Another incident, he said, involved the mother of a 16-year-old who was harassed.
“Recently, Liz Beatty — she’s the mother of the 16-year-old girl who was harassed by Jason King — she’s actively trying to get something done about it. And one of the things she told us the police said was, ‘Ugh, that’d be too much paperwork.’ “
Police have said they’re going to start laying charges for crimes committed on both sides, according to an announcement from the town’s interim CAO, Sheldon Randall, during a meeting of council in July.
But Sentineal has his doubts police will lay any charges against the protesters.
“I hope that they will. Based off our experiences, I think they won’t,” Sentineal said.
The incident of police charging Giordani has angered many Niagara-on-the-Lake residents, who were vigorously criticizing police on social media.
“The police do nothing when the protesters harass innocent families,” said former town councillor Paolo Miele.
“I’m so angry and disappointed! ‘To serve and protect’ a guy from out of town who videos and harasses children and animals? This is not okay,” wrote NOTL mother Megan Vanderlee.
“Did I read this correctly? The person arrested was not the protester but the person being harassed by the protester? How is this good news? Why is this creep…..I mean…..protester…..still able to run free, harass people & ultimately play a huge role in assisting with the destruction of the already fragile socioeconomic status in NOTL?” wrote Susan Stuart.
The charges sparked such outrage that major Niagara developer Rainer Hummel has offered to help pay Giordani’s legal fees.
“I sent a message out to Mark asking him to get in touch with me. I’m going to arrange for him to have a top-notch criminal lawyer. I don’t mind covering the bill, but it is better if the town people do a GoFundMe so that everybody has some skin in the game. However, if that doesn’t happen, I don’t mind helping him out. He was defending his family! That’s an honourable thing,” Hummel said in response to questions from The Lake Report.
Hummel has been vocal about going above the Niagara Regional Police to have the protesters charged.
McCaffery said he doesn’t think laying charges is going to solve the issue.
That isn’t a good enough answer for Sentineal, who is concerned about the safety and well-being of his staff members and his horses.