Marie-Claude Boulet says it will take a bulldozer to remove her from the house she grew up in. But her house may well be razed to free up land for a big box store. The new store is planned as part of the redevelopment of Lac-Mégantic, the Quebec town where a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in July, killing 47 people and destroying the downtown core.
Ms Boulet is one of about 50 residents who are being told to make way for new commercial development. Some are getting the message directly from real estate developers, who have been hired by at least one business to negotiate land deals with the owners. But the negotiations are hardly voluntary, since the town will expropriate the lands of those who refuse to sell.
The bitterness created by the threat of expropriation is palpable. “Big business is just taking care of itself and doesn’t seem to care about us,” Manon Rodrigue told the Montreal Gazette. “But they need to show us some respect and realize we aren’t just some insects they can shoo away.”
Expropriation – the taking of land without the consent of the owner – is troubling at the best of times. The Supreme Court of Canada has described expropriation as “one of the ultimate exercises of governmental authority,” adding, “To take all or part of a person’s property constitutes a severe loss and a very significant interference with a citizen’s private property rights.” Expropriation is particularly repugnant when done for the benefit of private interests. To force the transfer of property from one private party to another can rarely be justified in a free society.
And yet, expropriation has been used to smooth the way for many a private business venture. In Ontario, Windsor expropriated a block of historic buildings for an office tower that houses the headquarters of Daimler-Chrysler. Toronto expropriated six properties for a private development featuring a movie theatre, shops, restaurants, and offices. Oxford County expropriated for a Toyota plant. St. Thomas expropriated for a parking garage to facilitate the development of private residential and commercial space next door.
The practice of expropriating for private purposes has spread to Nova Scotia, which has expropriated part of the Higgins family’s Christmas tree farm in Moose River in order to accommodate an Australian gold mining conglomerate. The Higgins had refused to sell their land, which has been in the family for more than 120 years and includes their great-grandfather’s homestead. They asked the company, which will be developing an open-pit mine, to work around the land instead of taking it. But the company balked, and the province backed the company. “This sets a dangerous precedent,” Cleve Higgins warned. “It says to Nova Scotia landowners that a mining company can just come along and take away your land because it wants to.”
Governments and their cronies like expropriation because it makes development easier. Why look for land that is actually for sale when they can just take any land they want? Why waste time looking for willing sellers? Why spend money accommodating – or working around – resistant landowners? Expropriation seems efficient and inexpensive. But in fact the costs of unrestrained expropriation can be enormous.
Expropriation amounts to a subsidy, allowing developers to acquire land at below-market prices. By hiding the true costs of a project, it distorts decisions about which projects make economic sense and which don’t. Rampant expropriation also has an insidious effect on the economy by undermining investors’ confidence that their property will be secure, thereby discouraging investment.
Expropriation is also bad for the environment, making possible many of our worst megaprojects. The developers of hydrodams, pipelines, and sprawl-inducing highways rely on expropriation. Massive water diversion projects – one of the biggest fears of many environmentalists – could never go ahead without expropriation.
And expropriation saps public morale. As one Ontario landowner warned, “Be afraid. They can take your house. There is not one person with land who should not be scared.” Or as another put it, “It’s David vs. Goliath, but Goliath always wins.”
Our expropriation process requires a thorough overhaul. Expropriation is currently far too easy, and far too common. We need to curtail who expropriates, and for what purposes. At the bare minimum, we need to limit expropriation to genuine public uses.
Please support our work to restore fairness to the expropriation process, and to give David a fighting chance.
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Send us your expropriation stories! If you are a Canadian who has experienced expropriation, or if you are currently facing the threat of expropriation, we would like to hear from you. Let us know the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of the story, and your thoughts on the process.