The Green Party of Ontario is proposing a radical change in the treatment of property rights in the province. It’s in this press release, announcing a campaign stop for party leader Frank de Jong in eastern Ontario:
Monday, August 27
1 to 3 p.m.
Hwy 509 just north of Clarendon Station
(10 km north of Hwy 7; Hwy 509 runs north
from Hwy 7, just west of Sharbot Lake
De Jong will show his support for the Ardoch Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nations’ ongoing protest against Frontenac Ventures Corp. The mining exploration company wants to test drill for uranium on the bands’ ancestral territory, which is the subject of ongoing land claim negotiations.
De Jong will call for:
- A moratorium on uranium prospecting and mining in Ontario.
- Modernizing of the mining act, which hasn’t been revised since 1880, to include subsurface rights with the title of land.
- Settlement of the First Nation land claims.
The Ardoch Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan have been blocking access to the land since June 29, and have vowed to remain despite an Ontario Superior Court order for them to leave.
The Greens are, very broadly put, opposed to mining and to nuclear power, so standing with natives trying to stop a uranium mine is a natural. In that sense, this is a pretty routine campaign stop. And for the Greens, it’s absolutely typical in that nobody, but nobody, will go to Sharbot Lake, an hour from anybody, to see what the leader of the fourth party in a three-party system has to say about anything.
That said, the second policy point is a doozy. In Ontario, as in many places, most land doesn’t come with its mineral rights — in general, if the land was ever owned by the Crown, and almost all of it was, the Crown kept the mineral rights when it granted the land to somebody decades or centuries ago and has never relinquished them. The government licenses out those rights to qualified prospectors, and with the mineral rights come rights to access land, to explore and dig and drill, and ultimately to set up a mine if an economically viable mineral deposit is found. Surface rightsholders need to be compensated for direct damage done to their property, but not much else, even though sometimes exploration can go on for years and years on a given plot while the value of the surface rights plunges nearly to zero. Who wants to buy land that a mining company might be able to kick you off of on a few months’ notice?
Proposing to change this system by handing mineral rights over to surface rightsholders is an extremely significant idea. Potentially very damaging to the mining industry in Ontario (not crippling, since a lot of the exploring happens in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the province, where the Crown still owns a lot of the land, but damaging) and also a colossal giveaway of government property to private individuals and landowning corporations. Using the Crown’s mineral rights to establish a mine someplace, after all, doesn’t come free. Mining companies pay the government big royalties on the minerals they extract.
Nevertheless, this is the way most people assume land rights actually work, and in this day and age, perhaps they should. Maintaining a system of parallel rights — that, in fact, overbalances things in favour of prospectors, who can come and go as they please and tramp on surface-rights owners more or less at will — casts a pall over all surface rights by valuing them at next to nothing. It amounts to a subsidy for mining that isn’t extended to any other land use.
If a mineral deposit is really worth getting at, it’s probably worth buying out the people who own the property on top of it at a fair market price.
(A provincial election is scheduled for Oct. 10 in Ontario, where I live, so expect more posts than usual on the provincial political parties’ environment-related promises as the campaign gears up.)