NIAGARA - The recent death of a Hamilton animal rights activist has added fuel to an already heated conflict between protesters and supporters of horse-drawn carriages in Niagara-on-the-Lake, to the concern of local police.
At War For Animals Niagara, who have been protesting the horse-drawn carriage tours regularly in town since 2017 say they were outraged after their counter-movement Locals for Carriages had shown up to an unrelated protest outside a Burlington slaughterhouse with signs suggesting the death of Regan Russell was a suicide.
Russell, 65, died at that location on June 19 after being run over by a truck carrying pigs during a protest against the meat plant.
The driver of the truck has been charged with careless driving under the Highway Traffic Act and the matter remains under investigation.
In a video posted to YouTube earlier this week, At War for Animals said that Locals For Carriages co-founder Jennifer Butski had disrespected the memory of Russell by holding a part of a sign saying 'Regan committed suicide' in front of her husband and children, as well as in online comments.
"People were upset about that. We talked to people in the other animal rights communities and found out how they felt about it. Everybody agreed that something needed to be done," said the group's co-founder Adam Stirr.
He said that hundreds of activists from different animal rights groups are expected to descend on the small Niagara town on August 23 for a protest which will be part memorial for the death of Russell, where her husband will be speaking.
It will also feature a string of several smaller 'protest actions' across town, Stirr said.
"What I can say is that it is going to be far more disruptive than anything we have done in the past," said Stirr.
"It is going to be peaceful, but there will probably be some civil disobedience."
Niagara Regional Police says the conflict between Locals For Carriages and At War For Animals has taken up a considerable amount of police resources over the years – and that they are growing tired of it.
In recent weeks, an altercation between a protester and a member of the public resulted in assault charges against a 37-year-old man whose family had been riding a carriage.
The camps often accuse each other of invading personal space or engaging in harassing conduct during the regular protests.
"We need all the parties to come together," constable Phil Gavin of NRPS told Thorold News.
"There are meetings and telephone calls about this, and we have been trying to get the parties to the table for three years, and will continue to do so."
Gavin said police are aware of the planned protest, and that they have observed the tone between the parties getting increasingly heated as the mediation between the groups have 'taken steps back.'
"Our belief as law enforcement is that the situation is escalating," said Gavin.
"Some people are coming very close to criminal acts in terms of their words, suggesting violence or vigilantism. It is happening on both sides. When we see that rhetoric getting louder, it is concerning to us."
When reached by Thorold News, Locals For Carriages Jennifer Jones-Butski confirmed that she had attended the Burlington protest and that she had held the sign suggesting Russell committing suicide, but that she did not in fact believe it to be true.
Butski said the death of Russell had been exploited by At War For Animals who she said had called her death 'a murder', and that the sign was intended to counter that statement.
"We said to them (At War for Animals, editors note.) that if they are going to call her death a murder, we are going to call it a suicide. We don't actually believe that it was a suicide, we believe it was an accident," said Butski.
"We are just showing them how stupid it is."
Asked if the group had taken into consideration what effects the speculation about the fatal incident could have on the family of the deceased, Butski said calling the death 'a murder' is equally in poor taste.
She said the joined the Burlington counter-protest in support of truck drivers and the farming community, that had bonded together against the regular protests outside the plant.
Butski says her group is not planning any counter-protest on August 23, but that she will be watching and documenting the rally as she has been doing since she took part in founding Locals For Carriages in 2018.
"We go down when the protesters are downtown, film, take photos and make sure they are not bugging the drivers too much," Butski said, herself a former employee of one of the two businesses offering rides in NOTL.
EDITORS NOTE: The article has been updated to reflect the correct charges against the driver in the Regan Russell-case.