Michael Schmidt

That sheep-napping case involving Canadian farmers Michael Schmidt and Montana Jones is turning into a major criminal and political drama. 

If you’ll remember, this case stems from a 2010 dispute between the Canadian government and farm owner Montana Jones over whether her rare Shropshire sheep should be slaughtered because they were supposedly exposed to the serious disease, scrapie. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, insisted the sheep needed to be slaughtered to determine for certain whether they harbored scrapie. Jones insisted there was no evidence they did, and sought to negotiate a compromise whereby her farm would be quarantined for up to five years to be certain. 

The CFIA refused to bend. When its agents arrived in 2012, the sheep had disappeared, with only a note left behind that the sheep had been placed in “protective custody” by something called the “Farmers Peace Corps.”

Schmidt has said he, Jones, and two others “have been charged with conspiracy for attempting to save a rare heritage sheep.” Actually, there were four charges—two of conspiracy and two related to violating CFIA orders. 

How do I know the government plans to turn this into a major case? All the signs are there as an official “preliminary inquiry” launched this week. According to reports on the case in the Bovine and elsewhere, here are the signs:

* The courts have set aside 15 days—a huge amount of time by court standards anywhere—for the current preliminary inquiry, where the government is presenting its evidence, to convince a judge that a trial is warranted. 

* The prosecution may call Karen Selick of the Canadian Constitutional Foundation and one of the defense lawyers, as a witness. There is no obvious reason the prosecution needs to do that….except to weaken the defense, since she wouldn’t be able to participate as a defense lawyer (or even attend the proceedings prior to her testimony, as all witnesses are excluded from hearing testimony before they testify). This would represent the second effort to sabotage the defense; the government argued (unsuccessfully) last summer that another lawyer, Shawn Buckley, should be removed from the case. Harassing the defense team this way is not only disgusting behavior by the government, but it’s also a telling indication that the state is seriously worried about its case.

* The prosecution has already made a plea deal with one of the defendants. In exchange for probation, the defendant, Suzanne Atkinson, will no doubt be called to testify against the other defendants.  

This case is clearly about control. The CFIA is determined to teach its long-time nemesis, Michael Schmidt, a lesson about who is in charge of Canada’s farm and food system. To do that, it will no doubt trot out endless “experts” to testify the CFIA was only trying to “protect” the public by being unbending in its determination to destroy Montana Jones’ farming operation. 

The judge will almost certainly go along with the CFIA and order a trial, because that is what judges do—they won’t take the risk that the public health people are right in the fear mongering that will undoubtedly form the basis of the government’s argument.

That will set the stage for a show trial of Schmidt and Jones, designed to hoist the two up as irresponsible farmers prepared to sacrifice Canadian agriculture and the health of Canadian citizens on behalf of some warped idea of freedom and rights. 

A jury will make the final determination. In the climate of fear mongering that will be created, it will be a tough task for ordinary citizens to resist the government’s effort to create panic.