( Remarks to a Apr.2/04 Land Rights Forum sponsored by a Halton Region farm organization)
Thank you for this opportunity to tell you something about the Ontario Property and Environmental Rights Alliance, usually known by its acronym O.P.E.R.A. And to review some of the issues that attract its attention on behalf of private landowners since the organization was launched in 1994.
OPERA is a loosely structured federation of trade associations and advocacy groups under a shared mandate “to protect, and entrench in law, the rights and responsibilities of landowners against arbitrary decisions and restrictions of government”. We’re proud to note that Rights balanced by Responsibility not only confirms our reason for existence but appears verbatim in our mission statement as well.
In identifying senior government policies that affect title, use and market value of private land, the coalition functions chiefly as a research facility, communication center and, where indicated, a voice of united protest. It operates without a Board of Directors, pays no salaries or expenses, doesn’t solicit or accept government funding and relies entirely on member donations to cover its substantial communication budget.
A volunteer Secretary reporting to regular member conferences at Peterborough manages its activities. When preparing OPERA written or oral submissions to government, professional assistance is occasionally solicited pro bono from among coalition members.
As a network agent OPERA heartily endorses formation of district landowner groups. However, its mandate & limited resources do not permit sustained involvement in regional issues that are better measured & addressed locally. Coaltion initiatives are subject to approval of its voting member organizations each of which provides a specified annual donation to cover operating and administrative expenses. Mail “packages” summarizing current research and related information are distributed quarterly to each member group and to several trade organizations interested in government decrees that affect land use and market value. These include Environment Probe, Ontario Cattlemen Association and Ontario Real Estate Association. In addition, we maintain routine contact with several landowner groups in Alberta, notably the Alberta Residents League, Land and Resources Partnership and the Western Stock Growers’ Association.
Our reference database includes contact information for prominent American landowner advocates such as Eco-Logic and the Competitive Enterprise Institute as well as various provincial and federal government agencies and some 200 rural municipal councils in Ontario.
We also publish and selectively distribute an OPERA “Up-Date” newsletter and our web page records about 1500 monthly “hits” from government agencies, environmentalists, universities, consultants, journalists and private landowners. So much for background.
The core ingredient of agriculture is, of course, arable land, preferably land with a minimum of statutory encumbrances on its use and title. It is those encumbrances and the complex processes from which they take form and substance that attract OPERA’s interest and concern. It should be noted that many unilateral government restrictions on rural land affect not only the farming community but also a good deal of residential country property as well. Intrusive regulations with draconian penalties that impact both farm and non-farm rural property alike is not hard to find in Ontario.
Local Official Plans and by-laws obediently tailored to arbitrary provincial and federal standards, public control of private woodlots, Conservation Authorities Act, Environmental Protection Act, Niagara Escarpment Planning Act, Nutrient Management Act, a blizzard of convoluted property restrictions from provincial Ministries of Environment and Natural Resources. Not to mention the federal Species at Risk Act, the Kyoto Protocol and the disastrous Firearms Registry.
Make no mistake, the intent of these and a host of other prohibitions is commendable and generally applauded by all Canadians. Including, it should be tirelessly emphasized, hard working farmers who, after all, are dedicated environmentalists not only by preference but by economic necessity. But are all landowners in the country aware, for example, that a “water course is any depression in the ground capable of holding water”. And that any watercourse can be defined by statute as “fish habitat” subject to regulatory interpretation by federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans armed enforcement officers under contract to some Conservation Authorities in Ontario.
Or that “any person who approaches a Loggerhead Shrike nest without a permit shall be subject to prosecution &, upon conviction, a fine not to exceed $50,000.00 and one year imprisonment”. Or that “strict liability” in the federal Species at Risk Act, the Environmental Protection Act and the Firearms Registry is applied under Canada-wide criminal law powers of the federal government &, in effect, means an alleged offender is guilty until proven innocent. Or that a freshly convicted landowner-criminal is at liberty to then, and only then, rely on “due diligence”, at his or her own monumental personal expense, to prove the offence was not intentional.
Apart from the power to sterilize vast tracts of private property as “endangered species habitat”, the Species at Risk Act provides a chilling list of landowner penalties in its enforcement section. These include fines up to $1 million, jail sentences up to 5 years & judges encouraged to assign additional punishments for convicted offenders such as requiring him or her to publish a confession of, & apology for, his or her “crime” in the public press.
This steepening slide to state control of private assets by regulation without just compensation cries out for united protest. To that end, a closer working relationship, including crossover memberships, between Ontario agricultural organizations and a provincial property rights advocate would surely benefit both participants.
OPERA records bulge with material that suggests a shadowy connection between powerful government bureaucrats, wealthy lobby groups & richly rewarded consultants. All these evidently pursue a common objective. Statutory manipulation & control of land none of them own or are prepared to buy at market prices.
Most of our audience today knows all about land use public hearings, conferences & seminars in which so-called “ stakeholders” are invariably a loud & articulate presence. How many of these people actually hold title or risk any direct financial investment in the properties they so desperately want the government to control? Don’t even ask.
Meanwhile, legitimate owners of coveted land - the folks who live & work, pay taxes & make mortgage payments there – are seldom recognized, much less consulted, as the primary stakeholder (is “victim” a better word?) in these orchestrated proceedings.
In the 10 years of its existence OPERA has formally commented on many provincial statutes & protocols. These include the Ontario Planning Act & its related Bill 163, two editions of the Niagara Escarpment Plan Review, Conservation Authorities Act & Environmental Protection Act as well as land use decrees & policy statements being constantly spewed forth from various Ontario government bureaucracies.
In the same period, the coalition reacted to, & warned landowners about, the federal Species at Risk Act & its ominous, long-term effects on the lives and livelihood of property owners everywhere. That particular effort culminated in our invited oral & written submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Justice. While we were unable to materially change the legislation, it’s perhaps significant that 4 landowner-friendly Senate comments were attached to the Act before its ratification. One of these clearly admits that this legislation could seriously erode the economic prospects of rural property owners.
The Region of Halton, located in the shadow of both the Niagara Escarpment & the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), faces all the urban planning obsessions that flow from that geographic & political encirclement. Accordingly, owners of rural land located in this area are probably subject to a longer & more onerous list of statutory decrees than are their compatriots in more pastoral jurisdictions. But in any geographic area, its hard to escape the perception that an ever increasing blizzard of bureaucratic decisions, restrictions & prohibitions will, by accident or design, fundamentally alter, if not gradually destroy, the business of agriculture in Ontario.
How else to interpret a host of one-size-fits-all-command-and-control edicts that arbitrarily propose to change rural tax assessments, animal husbandry, forestry practice, land use, soil fertilization, nuisance plants & animals, septic disposal, water extraction & well head protection?
To this bewildering array of allegedly essential regulation is added the recently published ambition of Ontario’s provincial government to create a so-called “green” corridor connecting the Ottawa Valley, the Oak Ridges Moraine & the Niagara Escarpment. Has anybody wondered about the effect of this sweeping vision on the lives & property of private citizens trapped forever in a gigantic anti-development corridor at the stroke of a bureaucratic pen?
Or about the Convention for Biological Diversity, the frightening United Nations treaty Canada signed in 1992 without public or parliamentary debate. That document clearly favours “green” corridors along with U.N. Biosphere Reserves, a label unilaterally attached to the whole of Niagara Escarpment, once again without prior knowledge or consent of affected Escarpment landowners. Its interesting that original road signs proclaiming the Escarpment to be a UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, ConservationOrganization) protectorate have been quietly replaced with a more opaque label – World Biosphere Reserve. Who says government spin doctors don’t know how to short circuit Canadian taxpayers queries about U.N. involvement on the Escarpment?
U.N. Biosphere Reserves, by the way, are so designated to protect natural wildlife &, in providing for eventual “human exclusion zones”, don’t promise the same comfort to generations of mankind yet unborn. Reserves are, of course, not to be confused with the Wildlands Project, another weighty chapter in the Biological Convention. This undertaking proposes to return large pieces of the world landscape to its “natural” state. A media report some years ago disclosed that the Wildlands Project would see more than half of North America transformed into wilderness.
Indeed, according to a later Globe & Mail editorial, the Wildlands designation has already been affixed to all land between Montana’s Yellowstone Park & the northern B.C. border as well as all land between Ontario’s Algonquin Park & New York’s Adirondack Mountains. This achievement, we’re told, is the work of the Canadian Wilderness Society in combination with the World Wildlife Fund. In the subtle government art of altering land use while avoiding compensation, first comes identification, then specific designation, finally statutory enforcement. The Wildlands caper in Canada is obviously a classic first step example of a U.N. identification unilaterally applied by a federal agency in partnership with a Non-Government Organization endorsed by the U.N. & generously supported by Canadian tax dollars. This is heavy-duty stuff! Who says sponsorship is the only scandal on the block?
In conclusion, let me just say that, in my personal view, the layer upon duplicated layer of land use regulations currently being spewed forth from Queen’s Park & Ottawa ignores natural justice, violates citizen rights & demeans Canadian traditions of social & economic equality.
These glaring deficiencies arise from the planned absence, in both Canada’s Constitution & our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, of the common law right to own private real estate in this country.
A constitutional right, I blush to report, that even Communist China officially restored to its people last month. I wonder if they checked first with the U.N. which, way back in 1976, officially declared that “private land ownership contributes to social injustice”. In the 1930’s Comrade Stalin might have said the same thing before using forced labour, massive starvation & bullets to vapourize 25 million small landowners he considered a nuisance to the concept of state controlled agriculture.
Meanwhile, we find that Canada’s Constitution authorizes each province & territory to legislate its own property rights statute if they so decide. OPERA’s written request for this very statute to the Mike Harris government produced, after months of fruitless correspondence, an opinion from the provincial Attorney General that it “would be too complex” to enact. One wonders if he ever looked at, say, the Niagara Escarpment Act or the Nutrient Management Act! Or, for that matter, any other statutory hocus pocus associated with the 3000 odd legislated decrees that directly impinge at this very moment on private property ownership, especially rural land, in Ontario.
You’ve been a kind & patient audience. If there are any questions, I’ll try to answer them now. For the really tough ones I’ll call on the former Canadian Ambassador to Denmark whose name I can’t pronounce but whose stick handling ability is the envy of the whole country.