Terence Corcoran, Financial Post
Every now and then a province falls into the hands of blundering politicians so inept that their government ends up deserving of the title “Canada’s Worst Government.” It’s a rare award. At any time somebody has to be the worst, but no award for routine bottom-of-the-barrel performance seems necessary. Occasionally, however, the metric of incompetence is so large and conspicuous it demands special recognition. The Liberal regime of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, now slipping into deep deficits that are likely to exceed $30-billion over two years and continue into the future, has hit the tipping point and triggered its candidacy as Canada’s Worst Government.
The new deficit outlook, announced yesterday and to be documented in a fiscal statement next week, comes in the wake of Ontario’s $1-billion eHealth fiasco. That followed the province’s Green Energy Act, a plan to force electricity users to pay 80 cents for a kilowatt hour of solar power and subsidize scores of industrial rent seekers. The province is also a leading promoter of endless nanny state rules and regulations that serve no purpose except to give the premier an opportunity to issue a statement and deliver one of his patented sanctimonious speeches.
Below the radar of media attention, there is more. This is about one of those so-far unrecognized bits of McGuinty Liberal bungling. Next week, the Ontario legislature will begin taking another look at two monster pieces of legislation allegedly aimed at bringing new order to the province’s shambling mining legislation. First is Bill 173, the Mining Amendment Act, which among other things is an attempt to bring Aboriginal communities into the administration of the province’s scatter-brained mining laws. Second is Bill 191, the Far North Act. It also attempts to bring Aboriginal participaton into decision-making over resource development of Ontario’s far north. What these two bills actually do, however, is trample on everybody’s property rights, from First Nation rights to the rights of cottage owners caught in the murky legislation that sets out mineral rights across the province.
The only happy campers here are green activists — theWorld Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense, various Wildlands groups — whose concern for property and other individual or corporate rights is as deep and sincere as a beer commercial. Under the Far North Act, all territory north of the 51st parallel — a 450-square-kilometre mass of land north of Timmins and Thunder Bay that makes up about 40% of the province — is set to become permanently out of bounds for all exploration and development. About half of that territory, 225,000 square kilometres, will be locked down as conservation lands. The other half will theoretically be open to exploration and development, but nobody looking at Bill 191 sees any hope that any mine or any other kind of development will ever take place.
Only about 24,000 people live in First Nation communities in Ontario’s Far North. One of those First Nations, the Nishnawbe Aski, declared its total opposition to Bill 191 after it was introduced last summer. Grand Chief Stan Beardy called for immediate withdrawal of the bill. He said the 225,000-square-kilometre conser vation area, established without consultation or consent, will prevent his people “from achieving economic independence by preventing development needed to build our communities and strengthen the Ontario economy. ”
Under Bill 191, in other words, Ontario confiscates half the far north and declares it a no-go zone, killing all development in the conservation area. But not much will happen on the other half of the far north territory under the convoluted “community-based land use planning” system set up under the draconian provisions of the bill. The province’s mining groups say the planning structure is a perverse attempt to carry out convoluted legal provisions that guarantee First Nations be consulted before development takes place on Crown lands.
All of this is fallout from the Supreme Court’s famous Haida decision and other rulings that force governments in Canada to consult with First Nations when dealing with the possible existence of treaty rights. Whatever the merits of those decisions, Toronto lawyer Neil Smitheman, with Fasken Martineau Du Moulin, says the Ontario government appears to be setting up structures that effectively allows the government to side step its duty and pass the burden of consultation on to the mining and mineral development industry. “To the extent that the legislative ammendments ‘download’ or delegate to industry what is properly the Crown’s duty, the new legislation could be deemed ultra vires, or beyond the scope of the Province’s legislative power. ”
Industry officials say that under Bill 191 no exploration or development will ever take place in Ontario’s far north. Jon Baird, executive director of the Prospectors and Developers Association, said yesterday “no self-respecting MPP should vote for this.” Bill 191, and its sister Bill 173 (which applies to territory south of the far north region) grant massive arbitrary power to the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and bureaucrats. Rulings are not appealable, no hearings need be called, environmental assessments are suspended.
The two bills are making their way through the legislature, with the government using closure to close down debate and bending the rules to get them through the legislative process. The Minister, Donna Cansfield, seems to be carrying out orders, even as nobody supports the bills except the greens and groups like the Canadian Borealis Initiative. They welcome the land set-aside as a new carbon sink, as one of the “largest ecosystems on earth” and the home of caribou and other wildlife.
The mining industry may not like that. On the other hand, the Canadian Mining Association is a member of the Canadian Borealis Initiative. No wonder Ontario’s far north will soon be out of bounds.