An old friend lives in Winnipeg along a major thoroughfare that’s slated for expansion at some yet-to-be-determined future date.
He and his wife have lived there for nearly 20 years, and the word of the planned roadwork came down shortly after they bought the house. They’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, that once the city is ready to move, they’ll be losing their home to expropriation.
It’s placed them into what’s now flirting with decades-long limbo. The city could move in at any time — or not. They’ve been understandably therefore a bit reluctant to sink much money into the place. He’s a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker and he’s said more than once he’d like to renovate the kitchen, but it’s unlikely he’d get his money back in the case of expropriation.
To me, this situation is a tidy encapsulation of the real-life impact even the spectre of expropriation can have on private citizens. They can be going about their business one day, then suddenly they’ll find that for the greater good the structure of their lives, their homes and even livelihoods are compromised.
That’s the situation facing a group of producers in the Lake St. Martin area. They’ve lost land, and in one case that land is the home quarter, for the construction of a drainage channel to alleviate chronic flooding in the region.
Most of them have told reporter Alexis Stockford in her July 11 cover story they recognize the need for this infrastructure and even support the project going forward. However, they’re understandably concerned about the many unresolved issues that remain, seemingly with no timeline for resolution.
They simply cannot get on with their lives until the process is completed and their losses have been compensated.
Expropriation is a very powerful tool wielded by government and, like any tool, must be wielded carefully, consistently and transparently. Failure to do so can result in unfair outcomes.
In the case of the Lake St. Martin landowners, they’re left waiting while the provincial bureaucratic wheels have turned, entirely too slowly for their tastes.
It has left them in a limbo that extends far further than some ratty cabinets and worn kitchen flooring. They’re left wondering how they’ll conduct their businesses, how they’ll plan for succession and, in one case, even where they’ll be living in the future.
There are always going to be situations where one citizen or another has to ‘take one for the team’ and make way for necessary things that protect the greater numbers.
Another example of this in rural Manitoba is the farmers in the Red River Valley who can in some springs face flooding on their land due to the operation of the Red River Floodway.
Every time it happens they find themselves thrust into limbo, wonder when or if they’ll get on their land that season and knowing that compensation, if any comes, will be at a far distant date.
The Lake St. Martin situation suggests Manitoba has a problem when it comes to administering the sometimes-necessary expropriation procedure. The Manitoba Law Reform Commission apparently agrees. The independent body recently released a report calling for substantial changes.
Principal author Cameron Harvey advocates several changes that seem aimed at levelling the playing field and rebalancing the power dynamic between provincial bureaucracy and lone landowner.
One of the most significant would be allowing landowners to bill consulting services to the ‘expropriating authority’ before a final settlement is released. That would allow landowners the ability to present evidence and counterclaims without incurring large out-of-pocket expenses.
Another is a recommendation that compensation be paid “promptly and in full” a stark contrast from the current situation where the report noted the settlement process can take “… months or even years.”
Getting the balance of power right takes careful consideration. One doesn’t want to open up the process to abuse by land speculators hoping to cash in on a government infrastructure plan. But nor does one want to leave landowners holding the bag wondering when, or if, they’re going to get on with things.
The Law Reform Commission report appears to be a careful attempt to strike that balance. Our provincial government — regardless which party finds itself in power after this fall’s election — should consider and adopt it. In the meantime, these recommendations should be applied to the Lake St. Martin landowners’ benefit.
Because government must not only be fair, it must be seen to be fair, and offering predictability to families facing upheaval is an excellent starting point.