ST. PAUL - Representatives of a provincial government committee tasked with reviewing real property rights legislation made a stop in St. Paul Friday as one of six in person public meetings scheduled around Alberta.
Headed by MLA R.J. Sigurdson, UCP MLA for Highwood, the 12-member MLA Special Committee on Real Property Rights, which includes Lakeland MLA Dave Hanson, has a June deadline to submit its report on Bill 206, the Property Rights Statues Amendment Act, 2020.
During the two-hour session, public presenters brought forward a number of concerns relating specifically to their rights as landowners and their experiences with large-scale industrial development involving their land and that of neighbouring property, while others took the opportunity to question public rights and freedoms on a broader scale and also Indigenous land claims and treaty rights.
Sheila Redcrow of Saddle Lake observed that it was fitting that the committee was addressing property rights and shared her views on how history has eroded the land rights of Indigenous people.
“Right now, we have virtually nowhere to hunt because we can’t go on the farmers’ land because its private property. You’ve got government selling off all the Crown lands – the provincial ones which were supposed to be ours. So virtually our people have nowhere to hunt without getting a huge fine, getting their guns confiscated, getting their vehicles confiscated,” she said.
Redcrow added, “We agreed to share the land with the newcomers to the depth of the plough, but that’s not happening either. That’s why I came here because really, it’s a big thing that you’re going to do real property rights and, what, we have our little reserve?”
At least twice during Friday’s public input session, Sigurdson reminded those in attendance that the scope of the committee relates to real property rights in Alberta and asked presenters to recognize the limitations of its mandate beyond that. Having already heard from government ministries and other stakeholders, the committee was now turning its attention to the public, he said.
For Friday’s session, Sigurdson was joined by Garth Rowswell UCP MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright, UCP MLA Tany Yeo Fort-McMurray-Wood Buffalo and
NDP MLA Marline Schmidt, Edmonton-Gold Bar.
“We are only four members of a larger committee,” Sigurdson explained. “We are here to listen and then of course we are going to take those recommendations back and, as a committee, then we will do a deeper dive” into the legislation.
Lack of information for landowners
Local landowner Kyle Reszel raised the issue of a wind turbine energy generation project that has been proposed for the Elk Point area. He said the sheer lack of information both from the municipal and provincial level available to the property owners in the area potentially impacted by the project is concerning.
“If they do go ahead with the project, but we refuse to allow a turbine will they have the rights to go through our land and put power to connect them without us having an opinion on it …,” Reszel asked. “Nobody knows where to find the answer . . . I think this is such a grey area that hasn’t happened here that nobody even has an idea where to start but in the meantime five years has went by and they look like they’re about to start stage 2.”
“You’ve definitely exposed a gap and we will take this information back and start taking a look at this and start asking some questions on why you’ve ended up where you have today. How do we prevent this from happening again,” Sigurdson responded.
County of St. Paul councillor Dale Hedrick said the municipality was as much in the dark regarding this project as the ratepayers are.
“Everything that I have found that when it comes to the windmills is the farmers don’t really have a say,” adding the power lies with the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC). “They push them through. It’s like about eight years ago, there was a big power line north of St. Paul … They gave two options to the landowners – it’s either going here or it’s going here … none of the property owners wanted it. When it comes to these windmills, it’s the same thing.”
Hedrick said farmers “need some rights” when it comes to commercial power generation/transmission projects.
“The utilities commission, they trump everything that the farmers say and that’s not right.” He also expressed concern with reclamation once projects are decommissioned. “Once these windmills are done, then the landowner is stuck with digging up all this cement . . . There has to be something put in stone, written there about reclamation. I don’t know if these companies have to put money aside for reclamation so they can’t just say ‘Oh we’re broke, sorry there’s nothing we can do,’ and they walk away from it when they’re done with these windmills.”
Farmers not heard
Farmer Diane Dargis shared her and her husband’s experience and frustration of when transmission lines were pushed through their farmland, describing the process as having “stunk to high heaven.” She said they were completely unaware of the project while it was still under review, until it landed on their doorstep.
“The hearings were a gong show. It was already rubberstamped before we even got in there that it was going to go through . . . basically, it was a done deal even before we went to the hearings.”
Dargis expressed that they were viewed as “only farmers’ and “not knowledgeable” when it came to utilities and what was required.
“We know our land. We know everything about our land. We don’t want power lines in between two perfectly good quarters of land but there was no negotiation. Once they determined that that’s the route . . . there was nothing we could say about it. I feel that our rights have eroded to nothing at this point.”
County of St. Paul Coun. Kevin Wirsta and Rural Municipalities Association representative for District 5, said there are a number of people in the county with land that has been in their families for 100 plus years.
“The more we learn, the more we can understand, but when you do things behind closed doors and things unfold and happen before you even have a chance to react is unfair to any landowner in this country . . . When one of us speak, you’re only hearing one, but actually you’re hearing 360,000 people because we pretty much all stand behind each other,” Wirsta said of the province’s farmers.
He said increasingly rural property owners are “getting bullied’ and not getting recognition of what they need done in the province. Wirsta also addressed unpaid municipal taxes from the industry in rural Alberta.
“I do believe this year, so far, we are $243 million owed in taxes to Alberta residents in these municipalities . . . As we go forward with $150 oil coming in this year, this needs to stop.”
Speaking to the issue of industrial property reclamation, Wirsta observed that “we haven’t learned from our oil reclamation and now we’re starting into our windmills. We are allowing windmills to go across this province and at the same token the AUC is not recognizing the reclamation.”
The committee representatives also heard from a landowner on the issue of adverse possession who described it as an “archaic rule” that needs to be removed from the books.
Sigurdson said the legislation is something many jurisdictions in Canada have moved away from.
“It basically states that if you put a fence up, even if it’s on somebody else’s property and it’s there for 10 years you can claim that property . . . We’ve heard a lot of response back why are we still doing this? It’s very outdated and has been in legislation for an extremely long time,” Sigurdson said.