| May 19, 2005


Feature article, May 19, 2005

Feature article May 19, 2005

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Whose land is it, anyway?

If there is a Federal Election called this week, it will not likely be a very engaging one, at least in this riding. The issues that were discussed in the local campaign a year ago will merely be rehashed, and there is no reason to expect anything but an easy victory for Scott Reid.

There is one issue, however, that is of growing interest to people within this riding.

The enhancement of property rights, including the concept of entrenching them into the Canadian Constitution, has been taken on by MP Scott Reid, and is being promoted heavily by the Lanark Landowners Association (LLA), a local group that has spread its message across rural Ontario.

This is not an issue that will be taken up in national party campaign literature or in leaders debates, but it does have currency. Through the highly publicised activities of the LLA, landowners rights have become a focus for a host of grievances rural people have with the Canadian political and economic system.

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The increasing imposition of government regulations over the years, from environmental regulations to township official plans, along with the collapse of the traditional agriculture base of the rural economy, have led many landowners to feel their rights as landowners are being diminished.

The popular slogan of the Lanark Landowners puts it this way, Back off government. Get off my land.

But what does it really mean to own land in this part of Canada?

When land was being settled in this area about 150 years ago, settlers received deeds to pieces of land. Since then parcels of land have been surveyed, severed, bought and sold, but underlying all of this activity, the entire real estate industry and the property tax system, are those original deeds.

Its worth reflecting on this history a little bit.

First of all, when settlers were encouraged by the government of the day to take up the backbreaking job of earning their own land, that government did not have clear title to that land. There had never been an agreement with the people who historically lived in the Ottawa Valley to transfer ownership of the land to the Crown.

This was acknowledged in 1992, when the Federal government entered into Land Claims negotiations with the descendants of the Algonquin Peoples of the Ottawa Valley.

While there are many disagreements among the Algonquin descendants, who are in the throes of internal debate as to how to proceed with Land Claims negotiations, there is agreement that they will not seek privately held lands. Any land that may become involved in a settlement will not be taken from the 59% of the land that is privately held.

Nonetheless, the Province of Ontario has acknowledged that the origin of title to privately and publicly held land in Ontario is tenuous.

The Ontario government website says that a successful negotiation of this land claim offers the Algonquins of Ontario, Canada and Ontario an opportunity to resolve these outstanding issues and provide certainty of legal title to land owners throughout the Ottawa Valley.

Although the Algonquins and other aboriginal nations that had lived on the land in Eastern Ontario before the Europeans came had undergone internal disputes, even wars, over territory from time to time, they never had developed a concept of land ownership.

In the 19th Century, the British-based government awarded timber rights to lumber companies for vast amounts of territory in the Ottawa Valley and elsewhere, sparking irreversible environmental change within the territory. As well, settlers were given the rights to lots, for which they could obtain deeds through the sweat of their brow. These events brought a new era and a new concept of the value of land to the territory

Land was valued for what can be drawn from it. Ownership was granted to individuals who made improvements to the land - in the case of settlers, that was the people who turned vacant land into productive farmland. Important social and cultural values, championing hard work and independence, values that are still cherished today, stemmed from this.

The economic disadvantage of many local communities that sprang up in the 19th century is attributed to the marginal value as farmland of many of the properties. Other communities, such as Robertsville in North Frontenac, thrived for a time as mining towns, but disappeared when the mines closed.

The idea that land is of value in relation to what can be produced on it by farming, or extracted from it through forestry or mining, has gradually been degraded within the past 30 years. This logic has been replaced by a concept of rural land as recreational land, As well, the concept that land is of intrinsic value in its own right, or as part of a greater watershed, has its proponents.

One effect of this is the change in land values. Large tracts of farmland that were economically viable 40 years ago, has lost most of their value, while small waterfront lots sell at a premium price.

A case in point is a farm on Bobs and Crow Lake that was sold for development a few years ago, and is now being promoted. The waterfront lots, which are as small as 2.6 acres, are for sale at prices ranging from $169,000 to $300,000, whereas the farmland lots, which range up to 46 acres, range from $39,000 to $54,000. On the first day the lots were for sale, six waterfront lots sold, and none of the landlocked lots sold.

The value of farmland and woodlots has dropped off. Waterfront is King.

But what does this mean as far as the idea of land is concerned? What does it mean when productive land is left fallow? What does it mean for the human beings, and for the culture that sprang up around making that land productive?

The Lanark Landowners is one group that has sprung up in response to the pressures that are being brought to bear on the established culture of land ownership and use. They focus on the role of government in bringing in regulations that they argue have exacerbated an already dismal economic situation for people who intend to make a living off their land.

On the other hand, cottage associations have evolved into waterfront associations and have become active in the growing environmental stewardship movement within the region, collecting information on shoreline and water quality and providing support for Conservation Authorities.

They have also begun to flex their muscles as regards municipal government, since they represent a group that pays a large part of the municipal tax under the market value assessment regime.

The Provincial and Federal governments have brought in a plethora of acts and regulations that affect land use in rural Ontario. Ontario alone has brought in a Nutrient Management Act affecting farmers, and will be finalising drinking water and source water protection regulations by the end of this year.

Somewhere underneath all of this is the land itself, the living earth that ultimately supports all of the people who live on it, full or part time.

(In part 2 of Whose Land is it, anyway? we will look at competing visions of the future of land use and stewardship)

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