Lawyer turned filmmaker turns his lens on restrictive farm rules


Sarah Berger Richardson was 11 when her parents took her to see the movie Babe, about a charming piglet that deftly avoids becoming the main dish at Christmas dinner.

The story enthralled her and fostered a lifelong interest in animal welfare and farming. 

Two years ago, Berger Richardson was completing her thesis at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, delving into the patchwork of regulations governing Canada’s agriculture and food industries.

She dared not imagine that her 400-plus-page dissertation would one day be turned into a film, but she did hope that her research, based on multiple interviews with independent farmers who were struggling to get their goods to market, would somehow find a wider audience. 

“The normal process for an academic … is to convert some chapters into articles to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and read by many experts in the field, but not read widely,” said Berger Richardson, now an assistant professor with the faculty’s civil law section.

The Right to Farm is based on the research of Sarah Berger Richardson, assistant professor with the faculty’s civil law section. (Submitted by Étienne Trépanier)

Enter the faculty’s newly installed filmmaker in residence.

Étienne Trépanier spent many years as a litigator with the Department of Justice, but has since traded his briefcase for a digital camera and boom mic.

An avid documentary maker, Trépanier used to take breaks from his law career to travel and capture stories from around the world. His new position, which is partly funded by the Department of Justice, combines both his passions.

Trépanier’s work translates complex legal issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of Canadians into terms they can understand. His films are then streamed on the faculty’s audiovisual platform, called Jurivision.

“People are living the consequences of these laws,” he said. “We start with good research, but then find tools and approaches [that get to] the heart of the issue to be able to have a simple and clear message.”

Trépanier shoots a scene with organic chicken farmer Dominque la Montagne. (Submitted by Étienne Trépanier)

Trépanier and Berger Richardson have now teamed up to produce a documentary based on her research paper, called The Right to Farm. 

The Right to Farm explores how some food safety regulations may create barriers for small-scale organic farmers who want to sell their produce at farmers’ markets or from their own property — rules that “were unnecessarily restricting their ability to make a living,” Berger Richardson said.

Working with a filmmaker who also happens to be a legal expert made the process much easier than it otherwise might have been, she said.

Berger Richardson said their goal is to break down barriers between academia and the general public, and they’re hoping it will inspire other universities to create similar programs.

“I think we’re we’re really leaving the era of academic information being kind of locked behind paywalls,” she said. “I think we also have an obligation to share that information with the taxpayers, with the citizens who are helping to fund that research.” 

WATCH | Filmmaker in residence hopes to show legal issues in a new light:

University of Ottawa filmmaker in residence hopes to show legal issues in a new light

Étienne Trépanier, the first filmmaker in residence at the University of Ottawa faculty of law, says his goal is to distill academic research into compelling documentaries and introduce the issues to a wider audience. 1:00

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