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November 20, 2007
Your Land Is Not Your Land
The right to own property is one of the hallmarks of a prosperous society and Canadians generally feel secure in the ownership of their businesses and homes. However, they are not as safe as they once were. As the right of ownership in Canada is eroding, much as it has in the United States in recent years.
Consider a recent Manitoba Court of Appeal decision that ruled that the Rural Municipality (RM) of Ellice has the legal right to expropriate 288 acres of land from Arthur Fouillard, an 86-year-old farmer, so it can develop a tourist attraction. This precedent -setting verdict means a local government can now take anyone’s property for virtually any reason as long as the council thinks it is “necessary or desirable for all or a part of the municipality.”
Historically, a local government’s power to expropriate was limited to the needs of Public utilities -- roads, sewers, ditches and the like. However, changes made to the Municipal Act in 1997 opened the door to the seizure of property for “economic reasons.” Essentially, it is within a local government’s power to, for lack of a better term, -nationalize- an entire municipal economy. And it means the government can seize Mr. Fouillard’s property, property he has owned for more than fifty years.
His land is located on the east side of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border near the junction of the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle rivers. It includes a plateau with a picturesque view of the surrounding valley, which during the 1800s was home to Fort Ellice, a Hudson’s Bay trading post. Other than a few tombstones, not much of the fort remains, but the RM thinks it can turn it into a tourist attraction.
This is the economic need.
Ironically, Mr. Fouillard’s promotion of the historical significance of the site, along with his civic mindedness in allowing various heritage days, ball tournaments and charity events on the property through the years, free of charge, made him a tempting target for expropriation.
Mr. Fouillard fought long and hard to save his land. He spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees over the past six years fighting in the courts. He tried to negotiate with the RM, so they could lease the site. He even offered to sell them 90 acres. However, the government would not budge.
According to Reeve Huberdeau , the municipality had no choice. “For us it is about the survival of our community,” he told the media, “and for us that was more important than the rights of one individual. Maybe I shouldn’t say it that way, but the survival of the community is really, really important, and I don’t think that 288 acres is going to make a big difference in the lives of the Fouillard family.”
In other words, the rights of the collective outweigh the rights of the individual.
Walter Lippmann once said, “Private property was the original source of freedom.” Fredric Bastiat is quoted as saying, “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” William Penn summed it up this way, “Justice is the insurance which we have on our lives and property.”
Are Canadians not deserving of freedom and justice? Apparently not in Manitoba where the law and the Justice system are working against these two fundamental principles.
Some might argue this would never happen in the United States where property rights are enshrined in the Constitution. However, a quick look south reveals that an American’s right to property is now just as meaningless. Since the 1950s, it has become routine for local governments to take people’s land thanks to the definition of “public use” being similarly expanded. The Institute for Justice documented more than 10,000 properties in 41 states seized or threatened with seizure between 1998 and 2002. Since the Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo decision in 2005, which upheld the New London, Connecticut, condemnation of one private party’s property so that another private party could use it to build an office complex, things have gotten worse .
Taking people’s private property for economic development is bad policy in any country and in the words of Walter Williams , “Under the color of law, government often does to us what thieves and crooks do, and like a nation of sheep we stand by and take it.”
Mr. Fouillard may be the first Canadian to have his life’s work taken from him in this manner, but unless the legislation is changed, he will not be the last.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."