Elizabeth Brubaker, Executive Director, Environment Probe
When Niccolò Machiavelli advised his Prince to “abstain from taking the property of others,” he warned that “pretexts for confiscation are never wanting, and he who begins to live by rapine will always find some reason for taking what is not his.” The Princes of today have strayed far from his advice, with the predicted results. The slimmest of pretexts – a big box store, a cinema, a parking lot – now excuses many a taking of private property.
Although expropriation – the taking of private property without the consent of the owner – is one of the most extreme uses of government power, Canadian governments have almost complete discretion over when they resort to it. Governments often justify this violation of their citizens’ common-law property rights as being necessary to carry out public purposes. But concepts so nebulous as necessity and public purpose provide no protection for landowners. Expropriations that serve private rather than public interests, and those that are unnecessary, have become commonplace. Expropriation is used as a convenient tool to reduce property acquisition costs for favoured industries. Legislation leaves citizens with little recourse against arbitrary, unfair, and unjustified expropriations.
This study provides an overview of the considerable rights and very limited restraints that federal, provincial, and territorial laws confer on expropriating authorities. It examines the forums that give landowners only an illusion of meaningful participation in the expropriation process. It looks at a number of disputed expropriations, and at how the courts have grappled with them. And it suggests reforms to better balance the needs of government with the property rights of landowners.
Read the full study here.