A proposal to beef up the law on trespassing

By MPP Toby Barrett

So many rural property owners have trespassing stories in Haldimand-Norfolk and beyond. They can range from people picking trilliums, hunting without permission to more serious incidents involving drunk driving in fields, burning barns and theft.

Unfortunately, the Trespass to Property Act as it’s currently written does not adequately address the protection of property. In 2009, there were 33,423 charges received for trespassing. And that statistic has grown.

Currently, there is no minimum fine for trespassing on farm land or other property. There is a maximum of $2,000. The Trespass to Property Act has a limit of $1,000 in compensation – one joy ride in a corn field can cause a lot more damage than that. MPP Sylvia Jones, in her Private Member’s Bill titled The Respecting Private Property Act, is proposing that we establish a minimum fine of $500 for trespassing and increase the level of compensation to $25,000.

In Ontario, we have a strong tradition of protecting property – going back to the year 1215 and the Magna Carta, the foundation of our common law. This past June 15 was the 800th anniversary of the creation of the Magna Carta. A ceremony in the village of Langton – named after Bishop Stephen Langton, instrumental in drafting the Magna Carta – was held at Sacred Heart Church, known for its leaded glass window depicting the signing.

In 1689, the rights of property were re-affirmed in the British Bill of Rights. Canada signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which affirmed no one be arbitrarily deprived of property. In 1960, the Canadian Bill of Rights also enshrined the right to the enjoyment of property.

The Trespass to Property Act, and its companion, the Occupiers Liability Act, were enacted in Ontario in 1980 to protect the rights of occupiers, while allowing them to control activities on their property. Occupier means anyone in legal possession of land, whether they be legal owner or tenant. Places subject to the act include land, water and buildings, including portable structures.

The Occupiers Liability Act outlines the responsibilities of landowners and outlines situations where these responsibilities do not apply. Exemptions include trespassers and those there for criminal intent.

In 1982, under Prime Minister Trudeau, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms omitted any mention of property rights. We’re not prohibited from buying or selling or possessing private property, but we have no written protection against that right being infringed upon at some point.

After I was elected in 1995, during my first week in the Legislature, I introduced legislation to restore property rights in the Province of Ontario. The bill passed first and second readings and went for public hearings, but never became law.

In light of Sylvia Jones’ private member’s bill, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture came out in support with an endorsement from vice-president Keith Currie: “The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is proud to support Sylvia Jones MPP’s Bill 36 the Respecting Private Property Act. The OFA has been working with government and policy makers to mend the Trespass to Property Act for many years. We need this act updated to reflect the severity of trespassing and the damages that result from thoughtless or reckless behaviour.”

Although we are no longer guaranteed property rights, at least government can provide more help in protecting what we do have.