The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s decision to close off a section of King Street and grant a group of protesters free parking along Simcoe Park on Saturday had some counter-protesters questioning how fairly the situation was handled.
The protesters, mostly members and supporters of local activist group At War for Animals Niagara, were allowed to use several parking spots on King Street beside Simcoe Park after organizing a protest against Sentineal Carriages, a local business that operates a horse and carriage service in town.
The group believes animals should not be bred or used for work or human gain in any way.
News of the protest — which organizer Adam Stirr had said could draw as many as 200 people — also garnered significant media attention locally and sparked a response from supporters of Sentineal Carriages, who arranged a counter-rally.
Free carriage rides had also been planned for that day by Fred and Laura Sentineal, owners of the carriage business, though after a number of meetings between members of AWFAN, Sentineal Carriages and local law enforcement, it was recommended by police that Sentineals not operate the carriage business during the protest due to safety concerns.
Police also recommended the Town close off separate sections of the road for both protesters and counter-protesters, to keep both parties distanced.
A section of King Street was closed off during the protest for AWFAN supporters and a left turning lane on Queen Street was closed off for Sentineal supporters.
A group of around 35 carriage supporters stayed steady throughout the protest, including the Sentineals, despite the family heeding police advice and canceling the carriage rides, as well as recommending that supporters stay home through social media, email and phone calls. Around 100 supporters stopped by throughout the day.
Some of the counter-protesters who did attend expressed they felt the location given to AWFAN supporters was better, and that it was unfair to be placed in a turning lane in “active traffic.”
Local carriage supporter Eric VanNoort said although they were given a dedicated spot on the road too, they felt safer on the curb and instead stood where the carriages normally operate.
Lord Mayor Pat Darte, who attended the rally, said everything done — including offering parking spaces and selecting spots to section off — was based on recommendations by Niagara Regional Police.
He supported their recommendations, he said, with the welfare of both parties in mind.
“I have to be objective. My job is to listen to both sides and act accordingly,” he said.
“(It was) all suggested by the NRP … they said the best way is to give everybody their own little space and go from there.”
Stirr said AWFAN, police and the Town came to terms for parking because protesters had expressed concerns their cars may be targeted by Sentineal supporters, and to not obstruct business at the Prince of Wales.
The counter-protesters, Darte said, didn’t ask for parking space, although he pointed down the road to Municipal Park, noting he believed most of the counter-protesters, mainly locals, had planned to park there.
He also noted the Town’s lost parking revenue would be insignificant as it was only a four-hour protest. He estimated it may have cost the Town a couple-hundred dollars.
When asked what his response was to counter-protesters who weren’t happy they didn’t get free parking, he said the Town wasn’t aware of what the counter-protesters had planned until a few days prior to the event.
“If we had known who was in charge and all that, then we could have planned something different.”
During meetings with counter-protesters parking “never came up,” he said.
Darte, who wouldn’t comment on his personal views regarding the protest or its message — though he has family members that own horses — said it “comes down to everybody’s fundamental rights as a Canadian.”
“It doesn’t matter if you live here, or P.E.I. or anywhere else, you’ve got the same rights.”
During the event, local police kept a tight watch on the situation and recommended group members not have contact with each other.
Some carriage supporters expressed they’d been made to feel by police that they weren’t allowed to speak to the protesters, though police officers on scene said it was a recommendation and that nobody would be arrested if they did have a conversation.
In the afternoon two supporters of the carriage company rode their horses towards the protest and were stopped by a police officer and made to turn around.
Although it is legal to ride a horse on a public road, the police officer who stopped them said he believed the horses being there would have been a safety concern and based on discretion did not allow the horses to get close.
Fred and Laura Sentineal agreed bringing horses in at the time wasn’t a good idea, though they said they appreciated the sentiment and support from the riders.
Darte also agreed the horses wouldn’t have been safe there given how busy the street corner was with both the protest and jazz festival happening simultaneously. He also noted one of the horses didn’t seem to be under control, having almost walking into a car on the street after being confronted by a police officer waving his arms.
While the protest remained non-violent, and Stirr made efforts to ensure AWFAN supporters stayed under control, one carriage supporter reported messages being sent to them during the protest by AWFAN supporters to police. The messages, she said, were provoking, telling the carriage supporters they “looked sad” and asking if they wanted a hug.
Stirr said by a head count there were around 75 AWFAN supporters at the rally.
Overall the afternoon went smoothly, police officers on scene said.
People passing by showed had mixed reactions, showing support for both sides.
Some bystanders noted what they referred to a “hypocrisy” from the protesters, such as one of them having their pet dog with them. Others pointed out some were wearing what appeared to be leather, and some had tattoos — which can contain animal byproducts such as bone char and gelatin from hoofs.
Stirr said the dog, a small greyhound, was a rescue, and clarified AWFAN does not think rescuing an animal is wrong. The group, he said, is against the specific breeding of animals and making any animal “work for human gain,” including service animals.
Henry Swierenga, a member service representative with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, who attended the protest in support of Sentineal Carriages, said the protest is a concern for the OFA.
“Any time there is outside organizations or agencies that want to impact normal farm practice, then that becomes a concern for us. And this certainly is a concern for us,” he said.
“What the Sentineal family is doing is normal farm practice as far as we’re concerned. The animal welfare is not an issue, the horses are well cared-for. We’re dealing with a philosophical difference of opinion here. (AWFAN) has a goal to shut down animal agriculture in this province, and this is one method they think they can use to gain attention and bank-roll their efforts.”
A supporter of Sentineal Carriages who wished not to be named said the relationship between man and these types of work horses can be looked at as almost symbiotic, pointing out there are many species in this world that rely on one another. Like those relationships, the Sentineal horses — some of them rescued from slaughter auctions — are fed and housed by the Sentineals and in turn, they provide the Sentineals with the ability to feed and house themselves.
Stirr said AWFAN supports symbiotic relations in nature, but that he doesn’t believe horses and humans qualify, noting humans have selectively bred horses for specific uses.
He said animal rights groups in 13 other cities around the world held events in solidarity with AWFAN members that day and sent photos of anti-carriage events in Italy, The United States and Canada.
Laura Sentineal said at the end of the day she had to credit Stirr for keeping things contained, and that for her, she had a good time seeing friends and supporters that came out.
She said in the long run, the protesters are good for business.
This story has been edited. Originally the story said 35 people were there in support of Sentineal Carriages. That number reflects the average crowd size during the day. Around 100 people had come by during the day at various points to show support.