‘Ottawa’ Reevely: MPP Jack MacLaren heads Ontario PC property rights talks
The Ontario Progressive Conservatives want us to talk about property rights with more respect and they’ve put Carleton-Mississippi Mills MPP Jack MacLaren in charge.
He’s hosting the first public session of his “blue-ribbon panel on property rights” Thursday night on his home turf in Kanata.
The BRPPR is a Progressive Conservative party effort, aimed at agreeing on principles that will be built into the Tories’ 2018 election platform. The consultations are meant to be part history lesson, part discussion, with the blessing of leader Patrick Brown.
“We’re looking not so much to write laws,” MacLaren said in a phone interview from Toronto. “We want to change the attitudes and thinking toward property rights of the judiciary — judges — the government, and the people of Ontario.”
MacLaren’s panel, consisting of himself and leaders from the Eastern Ontario rural landowners’ movement that propelled him into politics, have produced a guiding document, a preliminary report presented to Brown and released publicly.
“Property rights are the foundation of democracy, freedom, and are the underpinnings of a prosperous and healthy society,” it says. Yet they are not entrenched in the Canadian Constitution and without them, Ontario has gone astray.
“Ontario used to be one of the most prosperous provinces in Canada. It is now a have-not province. We have an opportunity to return to a state of well-being and prosperity by strengthening our property rights,” the panel says.
There’s a serious issue to be discussed here with a long intellectual lineage. The argument goes that if the government can take away your land, your home, your car, your books, your tools and your computer, your freedom is not actually guaranteed. Freedom is more than just protection from being detained.
You can trace the notion back to Magna Carta in 1215, when King John agreed that his power was not absolute, especially when it came to taxing his barons. Arguably, the very first civil limits on Crown power in our constitutional tradition were built on the rights of people — aristocrats, yes, but it had to start somewhere — to the unimpeded enjoyment of their stuff.
The same threads run through much of Western liberal philosophy, through John Locke and the American Revolution and into Canada’s Diefenbaker-era Bill of Rights. By that thinking, not embedding such rights in the Charter of Rights in 1982 was a grave failing.
What repairing that would look like in 2017 is hard to know, and that’s where serious study might be useful.
All eight of the people MacLaren chose for his panel are leaders in Eastern Ontario’s landowners’ movement, covering territory from Renfrew to Ottawa’s former rural townships.
“There was no intention to make it almost exclusively landowners,” MacLaren said. “They’re people I happen to know and they’re people who are passionate about property rights, have spent a lot of time studying the issue and have views on the problems.”
The report identifies the Ontario Landowners’ Association as the province’s property-rights champions. The trouble with sticking to ideas from the landowners’ movement is that they’re a mishmash of rural-populist sentiments from a couple of dozen chapters that cover everything from wishing urban regulators understood rural life better (very reasonable!) to advocating for more freedom to sell uninspected meat to resisting wetland designations to rejecting wind farms on other people’s property to opposing official bilingualism.
Not all of these find their way into the MacLaren panel’s work but that’s the school of thought from which it emerges. Sometimes messily.
The panel website gives examples of property-rights violations, like governments’ restricting what people do with water and burying farmers under regulations. There’s one about threats to urban gardens.
“Did you know that the government can restrict the food you can grow in your backyard, and even decide your backyard is off limits to you and your family?” it says.
That’s about property-standards bylaws that can keep people from growing vegetables in their front yards, MacLaren explained. Some cities say front yards have to be basically decorative. Others say you can’t have planters up against the sidewalk.
The report notes that even though private land is less than 13 per cent of Ontario’s geography, “it often seems that the legislation, regulations, and particularly land use planning are directed at that small sector.”
The 13 per cent in question is where people live. Obviously they’ll attract more attention than uninhabited northern forest.
Anyway, the report is preliminary, and regardless of the panel’s composition its consultations are open. To the one in Kanata, MacLaren has invited farmers, real-estate agents, home builders and property developers and the local imam.
“Property rights is something that’s important to every Canadian, regardless of heritage, background or interest,” he said.
He hopes to schedule others soon in Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, and later in Chatham, Niagara, and Toronto — anywhere they think people will come.
The Kanata meeting is from 7 to 9 p.m. at the John G. Mlacak Centre, 2500 Campeau Dr.