Demagoguery does little service in public debate

If the opposition to the controversial Bill 100 by the Ontario Landowners’ Association was intended to draw attention to that organization, this was a successful venture.

Bill 100, described as “an Act to enact the Ontario Trails Act, 2016 and to amend various Acts” will in all likelihood come into law following clarifications to the original document that now make it clear that it does not attempt in any way to trample on property owners’ rights.

In fairness to the Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Michael Coteau, who had promoted the bill in its original form, it is impossible to imagine that the Ontario government would have had in mind tricking landowners into permanent easements as the Ontario Landowners’ Association had not-so-subtly suggested in their communications to their largely rural membership.

If there was room to misinterpret the original intent of Bill 100, which there clearly was, the Ontario Landowners’ Association’s communications officials made as much hay as they could from these  misinterpretations and set the cat among the pigeons in the process as at least two Manitoulin Island landowners set about withdrawing the use of their property for the use of important portions of the Manitoulin Snowdusters Snowmobile Club’s Island trail system.

The threat to remove portions of private lands from snowmobile trails and hiking trails throughout Ontario was the consequence of the furor the landowners group set in motion.

In the redrafted version of the bill, the minister may recognize a trail as an Ontario trail of distinction and may also establish a trail classification system. The bill now sets out clearly that compliance is voluntary, clearly a statement included to defuse the bad will the Ontario Landowners’ Association had created when it urged its members to withdraw from handshake agreements they may have had for limited use of their land for recreational purposes.

Similarly, the redrafted bill addresses easements which can now be granted “with or without covenants” as the original version of the document had suggested. Now, it can be granted “with covenants” (stipulations).

Our own MPP, Michael Mantha, was a member of the committee to which the original government bill was referred and in a story in this week’s paper, he credits Minister Coteau for listening to criticism of the bill’s original wording and acting to agree to the changes that, eventually, saw it passed in third reading with near-unanimity in the Ontario legislature.

The changes were not major ones and it is clear that the original wording required tidying up in any event.

What is troubling, though, is that a province-wide organization like the Ontario Landowners’ Association would encourage fears that the elected government of this province would attempt to trick them into long-term uses of their property they might not have been prepared to grant.

That is what happened all over Ontario, including here on Manitoulin Island, and now reputable organizations like our own Manitoulin Snowdusters Snowmobile Club are stuck with the job of convincing nervous landowners that the use of their property is limited by what they agree to and that the government of Ontario is not attempting to help the snowmobile club grant them a permanent easement.

The landowners group was guilty of demagoguery in this case and that is a cheap way of gaining new members or retaining existing ones, not to mention the upset (hopefully a temporary one) caused to snowmobile and hiking trail systems province-wide.