The Great Land Grab

Famous U.S. abolitionist Wendell Phillps once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many for the few.”Phillips’ quip applies to BC where fortunes have been made – and are being made- by resource companies that benefit from sweetheart deals that privatize vast tracts of land. A select few, with the right government connections, reap the benefits and the public, especially First Nations, pay the price. The BC government’s recent decision to privatize 28,000 hectares of forestlands previously in Western Forest Products (WFP) tree farm licences (TFL) is only the latest scandal in a sordid history that traces back to BC’s entry into the CanadianConfederation.

Few British Columbians are aware that a land privatization deal was written into the Terms of Union when BC joined Canada in 1871. As Forester RayTravers points out, “Clause 11 of the Terms of Union, conveyed in trust to the federal government, provincial lands along the entire length of the railway across BC, some that later became the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Land Grant on southeastern Vancouver Island”

The controversy surrounding the E&N land grant still haunts decision making today. In late October, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group,representing six Coast Salish First Nations, asked the Washington D.C.-basedInter-American Commission on Human Rights to hear its complaint that 300,000 hectares of land converted to private property in the E&N Land Grant was“an act of egregious piracy.”

Back in the 1870s as part of its commitment to “connect theseaboard of BC with the railway system of Canada,”Canadaagreed to contribute $100,000 annually towards the construction of a railway. BClater agreed with Canada togrant about two million acres plus $750,000 to the company that constructed arailroad on Vancouver Island.

As with the recent WFP privatization, back in the 1870’s only a select few well-connected people reaped the bulk of the windfall. The man behind the E&N deal was coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. Dunsmuir, who came to BC from Scotland, made his fortune in coal mining on Vancouver Island.He was both the richest man in BC and, with a seat in the provincial legislature, influential in political circles.

Dunsmuir had little interest in railroads, what he wanted was the land grant and with it control of the great reserves of coal and other minerals. Dunsmuir used his economic and political influence to secure the contract to build the railway. He negotiated behind the scenes with Dominion officials in Victoria and Ottawa,and in April 1884, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway Company was formally established, with Dunsmuir appointed president and holding almost half of the company’s shares.

E&N immediately began subdividing the grant into parcels and selling it off making Dunsmuir and his colleagues millions. In 1905, theCanadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR) bought E&N. CPR paid just over $1million for the railway and $1.25 million for the remaining 566,580 hectares of land not yet sold. In 1910, Dunsmuir sold his coal mining interests in the granted lands for $11 million.

Today, the Hul’qumi’num call this scandalous transaction”the great land grab” because it effectively privatized about one-third of their territory. Robert Morales, chief negotiator for the Hul’qumi’num, said recently, “Dunsmuir and the government stole our land…and for the last hundred years their decedents particularly logging companies have been getting rich,while locking us out.”

The legacy of the E&N privatization is upsetting treatynegotiations. Even though Canadian courts have recognized Aboriginal title andrights on private lands, and directed the Crown to resolve the land disputeshonorably, the government will not negotiate private land or compensation atthe treaty table. Morales says the Hul’qumi’num are taking action because,”international laws say that if aboriginal lands are illegally confiscated, thelands need to be returned, or we need to be compensated.”

“The conversion of excellent forestland to real estate development goes beyond Dunsmuir and the E&N land grant,” says Ken Millard,a Director of Galiano Conservancy. “What is now happening all over Vancouver Island began on Galiano in the 1970’s. The public subsidizes logging companies for decades with preferential taxes then these same companies try to develop the land and make a killing on real estate.”

Samuel Robins, a manager of a coal mine in Nanaimo,purchased large tracts of land in the Gulf Islands,including 8,294 acres on Galiano in 1899. The land passed through the hands of a number of coal and logging companies before MacMillan Bloedel took control of the lands in 1960. After high-grading the old growth for a few years, in 1972MacMillan Bloedel proposed to subdivide and sell off their lands. The fight was on. Galiano residents organized and defeated the conversion, but the battle continued. In the 1990s island residents had to defend their community’s bylaws from lawsuits. “Maintaining our community against the developers requires eternal vigilance,” says Millard. “If we relax for a second, developers will move in. Every election is a referendum on the future of our island.”

The Galiano experience is now being replicated all over Vancouver Island. As the coastal timber industry declinesafter decades of overcutting, many logging companies are now becomingreal-estate developers. In 2007, TimberWest announced “94,000 acres of theCompany’s private forestlands have been identified as having greater value asreal estate properties and will progressively be made available for higher usesover the next ten to fifteen years.”

TimberWest is not the only logging company making this realty conversion. The new focus on real estate explains why in 2003conglomerate Brascan took over the failing Doman-WFP in bankruptcy proceedings.Since leveraging control of WFP, Brascan (now Brookfield Asset Management) has put together vast holdings of both public and Crown forest lands. It acquired all MacMillan Bloedel’s operations in 2004 folding the private lands into the 635,000 acres of fee simple timberlands it controls in a private timber fund.WFP also controls the majority (7.5 million m3) of Annual AllowableCut from coastal Crown lands.

Forest Minister Rich Coleman decision to remove 70,000 acres of forestland from WFP’s TFLs inJanuary of 2007, illustrates the continued erosion of a system that with a scandalous history dating back over
half a century. When they were given away in the late 1950’s,TFLs were a sweetheart deal set up by a corrupt minister who took bribes to ensure favourable terms for logging companies. As a Business Examiner article recently said, “[Government] created the tree farm system precisely to bribe the owners of private lands on Vancouver Island to accept bureaucratic management (or mismanagement) of their lands by guaranteeing them the exclusive use of adjoining public lands.”

Since theBC Liberals were elected in 2001, with strokes of their pens, Forest Ministersselectively dismantled TFLs to create new windfalls for logging corporationsfriendly to their party. The latest scandal erupted with theannouncement that WFP had put 6,300 acres of the former forestlands in theSooke-Port Renfrew area up for sale. The listing of 4.95 kilometres ofwaterfront triggered outrage in the community and critical headlines.

In July, John Doyle, the recently appointed Auditor General,also condemned the deal. Using language seldom seen from a government appointee, Doyle concluded the BC government lacked “due regard for the public interest”. Doyle’s scathing report found that the Minister’s decision was not adequately informed, consultation was lacking and communications were not transparent. Doyle also condemned the Ministry’s inadequate due diligence intoWFP financial status, and highlighted suspicious trading patterns, unusual patterns of political donations and conflicts of interest.

Critics use more forceful language, “The WFP deal reeks,especially the claim that the privatization was necessary to buttress a debt-ridden company and maintain forest jobs” said Maurita Prato, ForestCampaigner for the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative. “How is converting kilometers of coastal forest into trophy vacation homes going to preserve forest jobs?”

TFL shave triggered scandal since their creation. Back in the 1950’s, when the government originally set up the system, then Forest Minister Robert Sommers went to jail for taking bribes in allocating the new tenures. And in 2004, Forest Minister Mike de Jong, privatized almost 215,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser’s TFL lands, producing a windfall worth a potential $800 million for the US logging giant when it sold out to Brascan (who folded the lands into the supposedly debt-ridden WFP). The fact thatWeyerhaeuser had donated almost $500,000 to the Liberals over the previous decade raised eyebrows.

But sweetheart deals don’t mean real estate development is inevitable. Following Galiano’s example, communities on Vancouver Island are uniting to fight against subdivision and conversion of forestlands. The Capital Regional District rezoned the area around WFPs forestlands to require a 120 hectare minimum lot size. But while then CommunityDevelopment Minister Ida Chong delayed the approval of the new bylaw for six weeks, WFP applied to develop roughly 1400 ha into 319 subdivision lots under the old rules. The bylaws and WFP’s actions are now before the courts. And the residents of neighboring communities are gearing up for municipal elections,which are expected to be a referendum on the future of the privatized WFP lands.

If a hundred years of controversial landprivatizations teaches us anything, its that while the benefits of thesesweetheart deals may go to only a select group of well-connected people, ittakes a legion of committed residents to ensure communities aren’t sacrificedto enrich real estate-obsessed logging companies and their developer friends.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Watershed Sentinel

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