A Right To Our Property

Printed in the Toronto Sun on Monday Sept 10, 2012

Treating people equally before the law is a fundamental principle of justice and an expectation in Western society. However, when it comes to private property, we’ve often forgotten this fundamental right. But an upcoming conference in Ottawa hosted by the Institute for Liberal Studies on Canadian Property Rights, intends to remind Canadians of this.

Adam Smith recommended that “the first and chief design of every system of government is to maintain justice: to prevent the members of society from encroaching on one another’s property.” That’s why we have a society based upon the rule of law and police and courts to uphold them. That’s why we pay people when we want to use their property. This is something we take for granted. It was something that, until recently, the government understood as well.

Increasingly, we’re seeing that in Ontario and Canada these rules no longer apply.

Take for example the case of Canadian Pacific Railway vs Vancouver. The City of Vancouver wanted CPR’s unused railway line to be converted to a bike trail. Historically, they would have had to purchase the land from CPR. Instead, the city decided to pursue a different tact: regulatory takings. They simply passed a bylaw making the railway’s land a “greenway.” CPR lost all ability to use, improve or develop the land. The land was effectively expropriated, however there was no compensation for the loss of the valuable real estate.

The story of Tony Walker, a farmer outside of Ottawa, is closer to home. In 2005 Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources designated large swaths of rural Ottawa as “provincially significant wetlands.” Walker discovered his 20-hectacre lot, which had been worth $125,000, was now worth less than $20,000 with the new “green” designation.

Regulatory takings can and do eliminate your right to use your property in ways that would otherwise be lawful. For someone whose livelihood depends on the land, this means the end of it. Not everyone has the kind of money and resources that CPR has after all.

It’s bad enough the government thinks it should not be equal before the law. What’s worse is that it doesn’t treat everyone else as equal as well, especially on the issue of property rights.

Notwithstanding the recent news from the federal government, Aboriginals are denied the fundamental right of property ownership if they happen to live on a reserve.

Why would you build or maintain a home or business if you didn’t know it would still be yours a year down the road?

On one side of the property rights spectrum we have serfdom. On the other end, we provide Americans and Mexicans legal protections denied to Canadian citizens.

The University of Alberta’s Russell Brown has noted that under Article 1110 of NAFTA, Americans and Mexicans would be compensated under circumstances like in the case of CPR vs Vancouver.

In other words, if CPR were a Mexican company, they would have received compensation. If Tony Walker had an American passport, he would have had a cheque for $100,000.

The federal government’s intent to extend property rights to reserves is a step in the right direction. But we shouldn’t stop there. We should follow the lead of countries like Germany, Israel and Sweden and protect property rights for all of our citizens.