Photographs by Paul Dalby
Trenton farmer’s land officially expropriated
The letter arrived in the mailbox at the end of Frank Meyers’ driveway, tucked in with a few bills and a supermarket flyer. It landed like a ticking time bomb.
Inside a brown manila envelope, the letter from the federal Department of Justice informed the 84-year-old farmer that the land he and his ancestors had worked continuously for more than two centuries was no longer his.
The letter Mr. Meyers received from federal lawyers warned him he is now “unlawfully occupying land absolutely vested in the Crown”, and if he doesn’t leave right away, they will send in the sheriff’s bailiffs to remove him.
In the arcane world of the government land grab, this is the “drop dead” stance. It means that for Mr. Meyers and his family, all their petitions, protests, and letters over the past six years have officially come to nothing. They lose.
“I lived here all my life. Our family has been here since 1798,” said Mr. Meyers. “The government has other options, better options they can use. I’m feeding this country like other farms. Why is the government destroying it?”
Sometime later this year Frank and his family will be barred from the farm across the road – the farm on which he was born – by a towering new chain link fence and a small red sign: “No Trespassing, DND”.
The land that he walked and worked on as a man-and-boy will become a “no-go zone”, a new $300 million training ground for the Canadian military’s elite counter-terrorism unit JTF 2 (Joint Task Force 2). The cloak-and-dagger boys will play war games where 13-year-old Frank once hefted milk pails from his father’s dairy herd.
Before the fence goes up, Mr. Meyers, under threat of reprisals must move his 20 beef cattle, feed and equipment off the farm, pull down the barns and outbuildings he constructed with his own hands and effectively eradicate any trace of 215 years of unbroken settlement so the new “tenants” can take possession.
“I have good memories of life on this farm,” Mr. Meyers said as he proudly showed off his sturdy well-maintained farm buildings. “But I have worked hard and I mean hard, 12, 14 even 20 hours a day. Now they come along and say git!”
Mr. Meyers and his son once had a prosperous dairy milk operation here with 100 cows, a dairy licence and milk quota. The dairy business was sold off two years ago under the looming threat of expropriation.
“They don’t need this land. I say use up the old land, the land that’s no good that you can’t grow food on,” said the old farmer, suddenly overcome with a quiet shudder of emotion.
JUDGE AND JURY
The expropriation of the Meyers’ farmland is a classic case of land expropriation at work where the federal government holds all the cards, acts as both judge and jury and denies the landowner any right of appeal, except in the matter of setting a price on the land he’s losing.
“When your land is expropriated for something that is a genuine public works like this is, my guess is that he doesn’t have any legal recourse,” said Belleville lawyer Karen Selick, who has written extensively on expropriations. “He can fight about the compensation but I don’t think he can fight about this taking of the property.”
In an oft-quoted paper on expropriation, Ms. Selick once likened partial expropriations (where the farmer like Mr. Meyers only loses part of his land) as a “can of worms”.
“What I’d like someone to explain to me is why the government should be held to a different standard – why the government can take part of your property with impunity, so long as it doesn’t take the whole thing?” she asked. “If someone mugs you on the street and takes only half the money in your wallet instead of all of it, that’s still considered a crime, right?”
In fact, land expropriations are executed by our federal governments all the time to facilitate public works projects, whether it’s a road-widening, new infrastructure or – in the Meyers’ case – a massive expansion of the CFB Trenton air base. The bloodless paperwork of execution under the Canada Expropriation Act, 1985 is filed away with barely a whimper of protest from the public.
If government land expropriation is indeed a ‘David versus Goliath’ contest, this Goliath holds all the heavy artillery and David is armed with a peashooter.
But the case of Frank Meyers’ historic farmland on the base’s northern doorstep could have been different, perhaps deserving of a more creative solution.
Mr. Meyers’s farm is steeped in history. It was bestowed on his ancestor, a loyalist war hero named Captain John Walden Meyers, by England’s King George III in gratitude for the captain’s legendary service fighting along side the British during the American Revolution.
This is the same Captain John Meyers who built an industrial village that grew into Belleville, proudly commemorated by Meyers Mill. He is not just another dusty figure forgotten in the history books but a bona fide red-blooded war hero and a visionary of his community.
Local filmmaker and historian Doug Knutson has spent 20 years of his life researching and producing a documentary, “Damned Rascal” about the illustrious Captain Meyers.
“The grant for this land came from King George 111. How much more official can you get than that?” asks Knutson. “The deed says ‘granted to you and your heirs in perpetuity’. If anybody in this country has a claim to land it would be the Meyers family.”
The Meyers’ land is graded class 1 agricultural, the very prime acreage that is disappearing across southern Ontario at an alarming rate of more than 100 acres, or one farm, every single day (Canada Land Inventory).
Only half-a-per cent of Canada’s land area is rated as Class 1 farmland, the most productive land resource, and 50 per cent of that is located here in southern Ontario. Yet over the past 30 years, more than two million acres of Ontario farmland has been lost to non-farm developments such as urban expansion and mineral aggregate extraction.
A prime example would be the federal government’s own expropriation of 7530 hectares of land in 1972 for a second GTA airport near Pickering. The mammoth land grab swept up working farms, heritage homes and entire villages.
Forty years later it’s a classic boondoggle, a giant swath of rich farmland frozen in timeless limbo with not one single metre of runway ever constructed.
THE COMMON GOOD?
The Pickering Airport plan was fought tooth-and-nail by irate residents and landowners but still they failed to crack the federal legal fortress that is land expropriation. It certainly didn’t bode well for a single soft-spoken, weather-beaten dairy farmer in Trenton whose hands are curved by arthritis and whose knees “don’t work so well now”.
“The government had the right to take any of our lands if they determine it is truly for the common good. And people may have different interpretations of what that common good should be,” said Paul Scargall, Mr. Meyers’ lawyer.
“Particularly in situations where we are talking about prime agricultural land and land of historic significance. Farms that exceed two centuries, to be into the eighth or ninth generation on a farm, well that’s very, very unusual.”
“But in this instance the government felt that the needs outweighed all of those factors,” said Mr. Scargall, a veteran of 2000 expropriation cases. “I have personally been expropriated twice, my wife and I had a farm, from which some pieces were taken. So I have seen expropriation from both sides,” he added.
Federal officials have been quick to point out they followed the letter of the law in the Meyers’ case, bending over backwards to reach a settlement with the old man before using the sledgehammer of expropriation.
And for about 18 months, the federal government seemed to be adopting a go-slow approach, perhaps looking to avoid a public relations disaster.
“I wanted things to go ahead to the original schedule but the government was very sensitive to Mr. Meyers because they understood his feelings,” said local MP Rick Norlock.
“I’ll be up front, the minister of public works (Rona Ambrose) was in conversation with the Prime Minister. They didn’t want to expropriate the land until every possible opportunity was given for a couple of owners, primarily Mr. Meyers, to wait and see if we couldn’t come to an accommodation without going through the process.”
But they had perhaps reckoned without the stubborn resistance of Frank Meyers himself, who has always refused to negotiate a price for his farmland, preferring instead replacement land of equal quality where he can continue his current farm operation.
“Norlock won’t talk to me. Ambrose won’t talk to me. She refused. They don’t listen to me; they don’t listen to anybody. Who am I dealing with? Each month it’s someone different,” Mr. Meyers shrugged with barely-disguised frustration.
Mr. Norlock did say that he had never met Mr. Meyers but offered that “if he wants to meet with me, I am ready and able.”
By February, 2012, the federal Public Works Ministry and the Department of National Defence had run out of patience. Public Works filed a notice of expropriation and ordered a public hearing on the case to be held in a Trenton hotel, just minutes away from where Captain Meyers is buried in Whites Cemetery.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
In the legal shell game that is expropriation, the official hearing is the ultimate exercise in ‘smoke and mirrors’. The federal government, which is one side of this dispute, hires a hearing officer – in this case a prominent GTA lawyer – for $350 an hour plus expenses.
In that sterile hotel meeting room, the hearing officer heard from all interested parties in the dispute. It took just one hour. Then she wrote a summary of their arguments. The Expropriation Act rules forbid her from making any recommendation for reaching a settlement, thereby reducing her role to little more than a legal stenographer.
The Case Officer’s Report is then sent to the federal department that will render a final decision: that’s the same Department of Public Works which had moved to seize the land in the first place.
What comes next is breathtaking in its audacity in a country that prizes its sense of fair play and an individual’s legal rights. The Minister of Public Works, Rona Ambrose, looks at all the questions raised at the official hearing about the intended expropriation of Frank Meyers’ land and then files what is called the “Statement of Reasons”.
This is a written response to each question by Ms Ambrose. Let’s call it ‘Rona’s Top Ten Reasons for Taking The Farm’.
The minister’s statement is not up for debate or discussion. It is a declaration often couched in vague generalities or one that ducks the question altogether. Either way, it’s etched in stone and the public is expected to swallow it whole. Here are extracts from two questions and Ms. Ambrose’s answers:
Question: The expropriation will result in the irreversible loss of Class I agricultural land.
Response: The location of lands are ideally suited for the Department of National Defence’s development and consequently represent a significant ongoing investment in the community.
Question: The expropriation will result in irreversible loss of a piece of the country’s historic landscape and thus a piece of cultural history.
Answer: It is not considered that either the historic landscape or cultural history will be lost. The Meyers family name is also preserved with the existing name of the roadway as Meyers Creek Road and the historical associations are well known. The Meyers family does not appear on the Ontario Heritage properties database…and the city of Quinte West confirms that they have not designated the property under the Ontario Heritage Act.
One fact emerges from the six years of protracted deadlock between Mr. Meyers and the federal government: Mr. Meyers and his family faced the fight all alone.
“It’s scary, when you think of it, just how little power we have when something like this comes up,” said Doug Knutson. “And it’s astounded me at the lack of support he has had from the local community in Trenton.”
Certainly Quinte West Mayor John Williams and local MP Rick Norlock make it quite clear where their support rests.
“There will be alot of employment involved, all kinds of construction work,” Mayor Williams said in an interview. “It’s a big deal, one of the biggest projects we’ll ever see.
Of course there are pros and cons to everything but in today’s world, the base is here and it makes sense to expand it.”
And Mr. Norlock points out that his riding, especially to the north of the 401, has an unemployment rate “that is not far off those on the east coast or northern Ontario.”
“The last time there was a request for the building of the training centre, it was somewhere in the $250 million range. If that contract comes to fruition and you add up all the additional things, we are probably talking of an investment at CFB Trenton not far short of $1 billion,” he said.
In addition to the new JTF 2 training centre, there are plans for improvements to many existing facilities, everything from offices and maintenance shops to a new de-icing area and more runways and ramps.
Today, 8 Wing/CFB Trenton employs approximately 3000 CF regular and reserve members and over 600 civilian employees, and is one of the largest and busiest air force bases in Canada. The planned expansion would bring not only 650 personnel with the anti-terrorism unit – currently “bursting at the seams” on 200 acres at Dwyer Hill near Ottawa – but would boost the civilian employee payroll by 400 new jobs.
HISTORY OR JOBS?
So when the choice is offered up between history or jobs, it’s a safe bet that new employment in a depressed region will win out every time. But a nagging question still persists in the Meyers’ farm case:
Did the federal government really need all 220 acres of Frank Meyers’ land, leaving him with a tiny pocket of 10.5 acres? Or could they have redrawn the boundary map, made do with the 700 acres they had already expropriated and left the working part of his farm on the OUTSIDE of that tall fence? Could the anti-terrorism unit have been rehoused instead at the secluded Mountainview airfield in nearby Prince Edward County? (too small at 200 acres, say the feds).
His lawyer Paul Scargall certainly made that argument at the Official Hearing last year.
“These lands are simply not required for the safety or security of Canada,” Mr. Scargall said. “In the absence of a transparent demonstration of an actual need for the land, rather than for extraneous uses, the expropriation of the Meyers’ lands will be remembered as an affront to the historical significance of one of Canada’s oldest farms.”
Frank Meyers’ adult children also made their own poignant arguments at that hearing. Daughter Elaine Meyers Stelginga said: “It saddens me to think that a peace-loving country such as ours feels the need to take what isn’t rightfully theirs from a veteran of the past,” Elaine said. “I want to see my boys on this farm, helping their grandpa and uncle the same as my dad did long ago – to touch history with their very own hands by working the same soil their sixth great grandfather did.”
And son John Meyers, who works the farm alongside his dad in the family tradition, said: “It is not a job but a way of life. Farmers come from farm families. Expropriating this property will end the farm in this family. The heritage and pride that comes from running this farm will fade away.”
John Myers made the point: “My forefathers fought for this country and helped make it what it is today: a country of compromise, commitment and understanding. Canada is about rights and freedoms – the right to own property and the freedom to enjoy it to the fullest. It is not about taking those rights and freedoms away.”
Soon enough the dust will settle on the Meyers’ Farm case and the cattle and the machinery and the buildings will be hauled away. Then there will be plenty of time to consider if the government’s expropriation strong-arm tactics are an affront to those ‘cherished rights and freedoms’.
Surprisingly in 2006, Prime Minister Harper (then Opposition leader) actually supported property rights. He said: “We believe the Charter of Rights should reflect the right to own property, the right not to be deprived of property without due process of law and just and timely compensation.”
Such a radical idea would pull the teeth of a draconian law like the Expropriation Act but it has never materialized within the walls of Parliament where repugnant legislation can only be righted by our legislators.
As for Mr. Meyers, for the first time in his life he will be a farmer without a real working farm.
Some people like Doug Knutson are worried: “It’s taken a toll on him. If this goes through, I honestly think it will kill him. Why would they do this to somebody?”
But the old man himself is a little more pragmatic as befits someone who has lived his entire life at the beck-and-call of a higher authority, Mother Nature.
“I’m not going to live so long, I may have five years, I may have ten, I might not have two years. But I shall miss my farm,” Mr. Meyers nodded his head with tired resignation.
Then brightening up, he said: “In the last couple of years a herd of 12 deer have been showing up on my land so I started feeding them in the winter to keep them going. I don’t allow anyone with guns on my land so they were safe.
“First thing of a morning they’d walk single file across the snow as close to me as you are. So beautiful. That was paradise,” he sighed.