Alberta government names property rights advocate

 By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal December 10, 2012

EDMONTON – The governing Conservatives on Monday named Alberta’s first property rights advocate, the latest in ongoing government efforts to diffuse anger among rural voters concerned about land rights.

Justice Minister Jonathan Denis named Lethbridge lawyer Lee Cutforth to the post, a fourth-generation Albertan who grew up working on his family’s farm.

Denis said the advocate’s office will help Albertans understand how property rights laws affect them, correct public misconceptions about the laws, and provide advice to the legislature. The office will also investigate complaints.

“This is … an access to justice issue for me,” Denis said, noting it can be expensive for Albertans concerned about their property rights to get a full legal opinion. “For a relatively small amount of money in our budget we’re going to be able to provide this information.”

The office will cost an estimated $1 million to operate each year. The main office will be in Lethbridge, with a satellite office in Edmonton.

Cutforth will be the first property rights advocate in Canada.

“Personally, I see property rights very much as a fundamental right of a free society,” Cutforth said Monday.

“There are limits to the power of government. We’ll try to be a resource for people to find out about their own property rights … in the face of things like expropriation or the regional plans that are in the works.”

Cutforth said the office can investigate complaints and report on its findings, but does not have the power to fine or sanction.

His appointment is for three years under the terms of the Property Rights Advocate Act, which was passed in March following provincewide consultations with Albertans. The law comes into effect Dec. 18.

Cutforth will report to an assistant deputy minister in Alberta’s justice department and will deliver an annual report directly to the legislature.

Wildrose Justice Critic Shayne Saskiw said called Cutforth a “grief counsellor” and an “apologist.

“The job for him will be to explain that the government can violate your property rights and that it’s perfectly legal to do so,” Saskiw said. “The only thing that he can probably advise is that (Albertans) should go and beg the minister – with hats in hand and on bended knees – and plead for ministerial leniency.”

NDP leader Brian Mason said the government is “pandering.

“The appointment of an advocate, that’s not going to do anything if the government continues to bring in legislation that tramples on the rights of landowners,” Mason said.

Controversy surrounding provincial property rights legislation has dogged the Progressive Conservatives since 2009, when the Tories passed the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, or Bill 36.

Critics and opposition parties argued the bill gave the Tory cabinet too much power to “extinguish” rights in secret and without recourse to the courts.

Other bills also came under fire, including the Land Assembly Project Area Act (Bill 19), the Electric Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 50), and the Carbon Capture and Storage Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 24).

The Wildrose party successfully turned land rights into a political wedge issue, and though the Redford government amended the controversial bills before the spring election, the party still suffered sweeping defeat in the southern regions of the province.

With files from James Wood, Calgary Herald

[email protected]

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal