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Bryant outflanking dogged foes

It must have seemed like a slam-dunk last October when Michael Bryant announced, with enough dramatic flair to get him at the top of newscasts, that pit bulls would be banned in Ontario. A few weeks earlier, a man had been mauled by two of the dogs, which he was walking for a friend. The police had to shoot the dogs to rescue the man, who was sent to hospital with serious injuries.

The Attorney-General got more than 6,000 e-mail messages after he mused publicly about banning pit bulls, most of the notes apparently in favour of his bold action. He even had Conservative Leader John Tory supporting a ban in the context of a move against all dangerous dogs.

Since he introduced his legislation in October, however, Mr. Bryant has been dogged by opponents who believe his ban is based on shoddy science and targets dogs instead of irresponsible owners. The legislative committee studying the bill has been thronged with people opposed to Bill 132, and a group of breeders is even threatening a constitutional challenge if pit bulls are outlawed.

But the Attorney-General is in the clear on his proposed ban for two simple reasons. First, some of his opponents are completely unhinged. What else can you think of the breeder who talked about "canine genocide" or the veterinarian who compared the ban to Hitler's "final solution?"

Second, Mr. Bryant has outflanked the opposition Progressive Conservatives on the issue. It was extraordinary yesterday to watch as Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino and the Police Association of Ontario endorsed the bill while the Tories railed against it. It's one more sign that the Liberals have appropriated the law-and-order issue.

It's not as if there aren't some legitimate questions about the bill. For example, it seeks to eradicate pit bulls but they aren't really a breed. To deal with this, the bill uses the example of a Winnipeg law to lump together a number of different types of terriers and then covers itself by including a dog whose physical characteristics are "substantially similar" to the stipulated breeds. It comes across as a little vague for something that is supposed to be the law of the land. I'm sure that some people might conclude that Mr. Bryant and I are "substantially similar" in appearance but I would certainly fight any law that lumped me in with him.

The Attorney-General doesn't see this as a shortcoming, however. "Breeds can be defined and similar breeds can be distinguished," he said yesterday. "Our kennel clubs do it all the time; our judges and prosecutors will be able to do it." He's probably right about this. Most of us know which dogs deserve a wide berth and which look like they'd invite a pat from a toddler. Defining "pit bull" might make for a few court fights but the hope is that a ban on breeding will make the issue academic in 15 years or so -- the time it will take for pit bulls currently alive to get to doggy heaven.

Other concerns should similarly melt away. Critics say Bill 132 does little to deal with other breeds -- rottweilers or German shepherds, for example -- that attack. But they also raise the spectre that Mr. Bryant plans to follow the Italian example, which bans 93 different breeds. Do they want other breeds banned or not?

In any event, the legislation does provide for tougher penalties and new search-and-seizure powers for police against all dangerous dogs. It also singles out pit bulls in the text of the bill, rather than by an accompanying regulation, which means that any expansion of the ban to other breeds would have to be passed by the legislature rather than by a simple ministerial order.

Chief Fantino demolished critics of the ban in his appearance before the committee. He told about how an increasing number of his officers are dealing with vicious dogs even on routine calls. "I believe it's clear that pit bulls pose a very serious, very real and legitimate threat to the safety of the public and our police officers," he said. Other breeds might present a future problem but you've got to deal with what you know right now, he argued.

It's the sort of populist punch that former premier Mike Harris knew instinctively how to throw. His Tory heirs have neglected the skill but Mr. Bryant looks like he's picked it up.

mcampbell@globeandmail.ca

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