There Was a Killing: Vegan Activist's Death Subject of New Documentary

There Was a Killing: Vegan Activist’s Death Subject of New Documentary

‘Earthlings’ director Shaun Monson tackles the brutal killing of Regan Russell.

Regan Russell’s life was not lived in vain. The Canadian animal rights activist was struck and killed by a pig transport truck driver on June 19th, while protesting outside of Fearman’s Pork Inc. slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ontario. Her death is now the subject of a new short documentary, “There Was a Killing,” by award-winning filmmaker Shaun Monson.

Six other activists were outside Fearman’s the day Russell was killed. They all appear in Monson’s film, detailing the moments up to and surrounding her death. 

The driver made a right turn from a left-hand lane, and with Russell clearly in view, according to eyewitnesses, hit the 65-year-old activist and dragged her body the length of his 50-foot truck.

Witnesses describe the killing in gruesome detail in the film. Russell was pronounced dead on the scene.

Monson pieced the film together from archival footage and interviews with witnesses and experts after the event, a practice he says is a bit like having “several jigsaw puzzles thrown into a room and scattered around the floor.”

There Was a Killing: Vegan Activist's Death Subject of New Documentary
image courtesy of Shaun Monson

Who Was Regan Russell?

“Regan had a presence about her, an aura for a lack of a better word,” her stepson Josh recalls. “All the grace of a runway and fashion model, with an intellect that took people off guard.”

According to her stepson, while she was an avid activist, she didn’t impose herself or her beliefs on others and used her privilege in the world to make it a better place. “She had high expectations of humanity and that ultimately led her to vegetarianism and eventually veganism, and while she would never impose her beliefs on others she lived a life defined by and dedicated to her personal philosophy,” he says.

“To her,” Josh says, “animal welfare was a logical conclusion drawn from all social betterment movements — Peter Singer’s simple way of defining it was true and dear to her heart,” he says. “She was truly concerned that now the battle for animal rights was a battle for the rights of her fellow humans to express themselves. In a way, it reinforces Singer’s hypothesis that human welfare and animal welfare are inherently related.”

Image via Kenneth Schipper Vera | Unsplash

Toronto Animal Save

Russell was part of the Toronto Animal Save Movement. Activists gather at slaughterhouses timed to the arrival of transport trucks carrying pigs. These activists bring the animals water and offer a few minutes of compassion before the trucks enter the slaughterhouse.

Monson isn’t a stranger to the events or movement; he’s a longtime vegan activist and best known for the seminal 2005 film “Earthlings,” narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix. The film was the first of its kind to document the insufferable conditions animals raised for food, clothing, entertainment, research, and captivity endure.

Monson says he experienced aggressive transport drivers in his own attendance at vigils. He highlights heated exchanges between truck drivers and activists in “There Was a Killing.” But despite his personal experience, he says, he still wanted to know how this death could happen. “There was something in the footage, a clue, that really bothered me, and that was Regan’s sprayer,” he said. Sprayers are used to deliver cool water on the animals while in the hot trucks. “It’s one of the first things I noticed,” Monson recalls. “Where the sprayer was, and where her body was, which was more than the length of the truck.”

Before the driver struck Russell, he sat parked in the traffic lane for several minutes as activists gathered around the vehicle. This type of activism landed Anita Krajnc, co-founder of the Toronto-led Animal Save Movement, a criminal mischief charge in 2015. She was found not guilty in 2017. But had she been convicted, the charges could have landed her up to ten years in prison. The truck driver, whose name hasn’t been released publicly, was only charged with a careless driving traffic death violation. It is not typically punishable with jail time.

Activists comfort pigs en route to slaughter | Madrid Animal Save | Instagram

A Brutal Killing

Russell’s sprayer remained at the corner where she had been standing when the truck made the turn, while her body was pulled along the slaughterhouse driveway the full length of the truck before it came to a stop.

“And something about this struck me as being off, or suspicious, because I knew the truck had been waiting at the light,” Monson recalled. “So how could the driver not see her? Several light cycles had passed. He had to be in a low gear coming from a complete stop, and to then keep going through her, and to drag her, it all just seemed like something was very wrong here. And I began to wonder if the driver deliberately tried to hit her, or scare her, and it suddenly seemed like a mystery crying for justice.”

Monson says the circumstances make “There Was a Killing” feel a bit like “part one” of an unfinished documentary. “Because we never find out who the driver was, and a trial hasn’t started yet, and we still haven’t been able to subpoena the slaughterhouse for their security camera footage,” he says. 

Image Jo-Anne McArthur | Unsplash

Bill 156

What will a trial reveal?

Experts familiar with the case, some of whom appear in the film, say it’s unlikely the driver will face a severe punishment. That’s due in large part to Bill 156. The Bill, known as The Food Supply Protection Act, passed the day before Russell’s death. In essence, 156 limits the interactions the public can have with the food supply chain, specifically farm animals, truckers, farmers, and slaughterhouse workers. Violaters could face fines up to $15,000 CAD for first offenses and $20,000 thereafter.

“It would prevent anybody from interacting with pigs on a truck or from taking photos of them in their final moments, most likely. And it would also shut down undercover investigations into factory farms.” Animal Justice Executive Director Camille Labchuk told Global News earlier this year.

“I doubt the driver woke up that morning with the intent to murder an activist with his truck,” Monson says. “So it might be very difficult, in court, to prove intent. But, as we say in the film, which is where it derives its title, ‘there may have been no intent to kill, but there was a killing.’”

Russell’s stepson agrees. “I think the most appropriate assumption is that no one leaves the house in the morning expecting to kill someone,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are some glaring irregularities in the incident itself that only leave room for complete and utter negligence or malicious intent, and the online murmuring from the trucking community before and after the incident implies the latter.”

Josh says that given the driver’s professional license, he should be charged criminally “regardless of intent” as he has a responsibility to “operate his vehicle in a safe manner and should have been attentive enough to at least see Regan or issue a warning with his horn given the crowded situation.”

For the Russell family, her memory keeps them going. Josh says her philosophy was along the lines of human rights activist Gandhi’s urging: “be the change you want to see in the world,” and they know if she were in their shoes, she’d press on for justice.

For Monson there’s even more to consider: “Had Regan not been there as a protestor, but had some other bystander, or a kid on a bike, been crossing the same crosswalk at the same time, would the driver have struck them? And if so, would there be criminal charges? Because if the answer is yes, there would be charges for anyone other than Regan Russell, then it appears the driver is being shielded by [Bill 156] where,” Monson says, “it’s ‘open season’ on protestors.”

“There Was a Killing” is streaming now.

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