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Oct. 15, 2021 | Friday
Local News
Protesters persist, residents resist
Residents come together over support for NOTL’s horse-drawn carriages and local businesses in the wake of animal rights activists. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

The ongoing conflict between animal rights activists and horse-drawn carriage supporters in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s heritage district stirred up more controversy during the weekend, with a no-show by the protesters during one of their planned demonstrations, and another ill-received display at the clock tower cenotaph.

On Sunday, just a week after animal rights group At War For Animals Niagara projected “anti-speciesism” images on the cenotaph, members placed a wreath bearing the group’s acronym AWFAN at the foot of the war memorial. Members recorded the wreath laying and posted it on the group’s YouTube channel.

Carriage supporters said placing the wreath on the cenotaph without a ceremony or permission from the Royal Canadian Legion was just another affront to common decency on the heels of the first cenotaph debacle.

Adam Stirr, spokesperson for the protesters, conceded that the clock tower was a poor choice for the group’s previous demonstration. The wreath was laid to pay respect to the fallen soldiers and offer reconciliation, he said.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it an apology. It was admitting that the site may have been selected in bad taste and there was no disrespect intended.”

The wreath was promptly removed by town staff, and the protesters’ gesture was ridiculed as disingenous sham by many of an estimated 250 horse carriage supporters who showed up Sunday to counterprotest.

Longtime NOTL resident and carriage supporter Blair Cowan said he doubts Stirr’s sincerity.

“I believe it (the disrespect) was intentional. I think it’s like trying to get forgiveness after the fact,” Cowan said.

Niagara Falls resident Tyler Vachon said he is a longtime supporter of the Sentineals, and said he found the cenotaph debacle to be “extremely disrespectful.”

“They decided to attempt to fix the problem by making it worse, and displaying a wreath without speaking to the legion first. They defiled the memorial again by trying to fix the problem,” Vachon said.

Rhys Beak, from the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124, said the organization was unaware of the wreath and its removal, but he thanked the municipality for taking it off the cenotaph.

Beak said ceremonies at the cenotaph need to be prearranged with the legion, which the protesters failed to do. Anyone wishing to pay tribute to Canada’s fallen soldiers should contact the Legion beforehand.

Some residents who showed up Sunday said they think the cenotaph conflict is part of the reason the animal rights group didn’t follow through with its planned demonstration, dubbed “Occupy NOTL.”

Instead, Locals for Carriages, a group of residents who support the town’s horse-drawn carriage company, Sentineal Carriages, arrived at King and Queen streets early Sunday morning to claim the four corners and curb the protesters’ anticipated plan to take over the heritage district.

About 250 people came out to support the horse carriages over the course of the afternoon, said Jennifer Jones-Butski, one of the founders of the support group. About 50 of those people were wearing “Locals for Carriages” shirts to support the cause, she added.

Stirr claims his group never actually planned to protest on Sunday – just that the downtown area was to be “occupied,” though not necessarily by his group.

He also claimed the group often receives encouragement from residents who feel horse-drawn carriages should be banned in NOTL, though they haven’t given their support publicly.

“We still have a very strong, albeit silent, group of supporters in town. We always have people giving us positive words when we’re down there,” Stirr said.

Some residents had a distinctly different take on the weekend’s events.

Vachon said if anything, the weekend demonstrated a sign of solidarity for the carriages.

“The protesters had the audacity to say that the Locals for Carriages group helped them by creating chaos and crowding the city, when in reality it helped prove that the protesters have made no progress whatsoever and that they aren’t welcome,” Vachon said.

First-time protester and longtime NOTL resident Dana Weiglandt said she is fed up with the protests and the constant bombardment of signs and protesters on the street.

She said in the protesters’ absence people were out taking pictures with the horses in front of the Prince of Wales like they have for years.

Speculation that the protesters were asked by the police not to hold their Sunday protest couldn’t be confirmed or denied, said Const. Phil Gavin, a media relations officer for the Niagara Regional Police.

“I can’t speak to the specifics of any conversation we’ve had, but I can tell you that we are working with both sides, at times providing them counsel and at times providing them advice, but ultimately decisions for their actions rest upon them,” Gavin said.

He said police are in constant contact with both groups and that both sides have been asked to come back to the table to discuss revising protocols that were put in place a year ago. The protocols are essentially a good faith agreement between both parties, he said. A written agreement was signed by a spokesperson from each side outlining terms to be followed for all future interactions.

In the signed agreement, each group agreed to allow for the free and safe flow of traffic of vehicles and pedestrians near the protest points and to maintain peace and order in their groups.

It was also agreed that members of both groups would remain six feet from each other, and the protesters would remain 10 feet from the horses. No verbal communication would occure between each side and any concerns would be reported to the protest liason officer.

Stirr said he wants Sentineal Carriages to change its business model. 

“The end goal that we have been pushing has remained consistent the whole time. It is for (Sentineal Carriages) to transition into an electric carriage business,” Stirr said, adding that if the operators do so, he believes they would save money and in turn be able to afford to convert the stables into a sanctuary for horses.

Stirr said he remains hopeful the company will change. “I know there’s some animosity, but I certainly don’t hold any ill-will toward the parties involved.”

Laura Sentineal, co-owner of Sentineal Carriages, said the company has no plans to switch to electric carriages.

“The magic of it all is the horse,” she said. ““The carriage is just the means to an end I suppose. Without a horse, it’s just a car.”

She said no horse is forced to work if they show signs against it.

“Horses are excellent communicators, if they don’t want to be a carriage horse they let us know pretty early in the process.”

According to some residents like Cowan, Sunday was a victory for the carriage supporters and members of the NOTL community.

“It’s kind of hard to occupy when we live here. We’re home,” Cowan said.

He thinks the week-long protests brought the town closer together, if anything.

“This town is pretty community-minded to begin with. Because it’s so small, we do get behind each other when asked.”