It has not been a good summer for rural B.C. residents.
Numerous mill curtailments, the closed-door negotiations for the caribou recovery plan and the election of a federal government that was widely shut out of rural ridings. Now it is becoming apparent that the B.C. government's Bill 52 is a piece of legislation causing even more stumbling blocks to the viability of rural living.
The government says Bill 52 was brought in to increase the amount of farming that was being done on Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) properties. Great idea, but like so often when there is a government initiative, the intentions do not translate well. Too narrow. Too inflexible.
The ALR was established in 1973 to reduce the amount of prime farmland lost to development, which at that time was about 6,000 ha (14,826 acres) each year. The reserve set aside about five per cent or 4.7 million hectares, of B.C. land for agriculture.
The idea sounds great on paper. However, it is interesting to note that despite the huge increase in the urban footprint since then, on some of the best farmland in the Lower Mainland, the percentage of ALR land has remained the same, due to changing boundaries. What kind of land was available to be added to the ALR in order to maintain the magical five per cent? Less viable farmland.
How do farmers survive when less viable ALR land cannot sustain the family? They must work off farm. This is where difficulties with the new Bill 52 are being encountered. A study of the 17 decisions around even one type of application, called the Non-Adhering Residence (NAR) application, reveals major problems.
One residence only is allowed on ALR land. Under Bill 52, a second residence may only be built if deemed necessary for farm use. The process in onerous; site, fill, access, and other considerations, must be appropriate. Regardless of where it is built, even on top of a shop, it must receive permission from the local government first. That used to be the end of land-use approval. But now, if approved by the local government, the NAR application must be submitted to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC,) who is charged with making ALR decisions on a case-by-case basis. For the fee of $1,500. Non-refundable.
Here are, very briefly, two stories as publicly available on the ALC website:
The owner of a small farm (20 ewes, a few donkeys, and a herd of chickens,) wanted permission to build a new home - as the original home was too small (600 sq feet) for their growing family - and keep the old one. They were hoping to provide it for housing in an area that is short of housing options, to attract some part-time farm labour to help further develop the farm. The small farm, as it currently was, was declared to have no need of an employee, and so they were refused.
In another case, the land owners and their part-time employee had done an extraordinary amount of back-breaking labour to bring previously unused land into hay and pasture production. They applied to place a second home (a mobile, on temporary footings, as per regulations... that explains all the mobiles on rural property!) As part of their application they included the fact that the employee had three children who, if they lived on the farm, would attend the local rural school. The application was denied, because the current farm did not require a full-time, year-round employee.
These two examples barely suffice to show the difficulties small farmers face. Of the 17 decisions made by the Commission between April 1 and October, 14 applications were approved, and nine refused. This means that in many cases, families will have to build homes far apart. Rural Canadians already suffer from higher than average mental health challenges. For many, being "forced" to live alone on their small farm, with a smaller area population, will not help.
I have not even explored what will happen to elderly parents if they are no longer able to contribute to the farm and their children take over the operation. According to the ALC decisions I have read, the parents will be forced to either move into a temporary mobile home placed on the property, or off the farm, when they are no longer deemed "necessary" to the success of a small farm. The likely option, if available, would then be to move into senior housing in town, of which there is already an increasing shortage.
The human tragedy of a government declaring aging parents unnecessary to a farm will have far-reaching consequences on the health and well-being of the families and the seniors. Families that are doing the wise, good thing - wanting to keep their aging parents in their home on a farm, passing on their wisdom to their grandchildren - are now being told that they can move out of the home they built and into a small mobile home. It's is good enough for them because they are old. Toss them out of their home and into a temporary mobile.
An advocacy group has sprung up to try to get the politicians to pay attention to the consequences of this bill. The group is called Changes to Bill 52, and very quickly gained over 25,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the bill. At this point the government seems tone-deaf to concerns but time and pressure will tell. Rural aCanadians have to find a way to convince urban folks who are still voting for more government control over our daily lives, to change course, and vote for more freedom, more choice, more humanity.