By Tom Collins
OTTAWA — On an average day in 2018, Stittsville beef farmer Tom Black would wake up at 7 a.m., and within an hour, the phone would start to ring with calls from Ontario Landowners Association members with questions on everything from the OSPCA to draining ditches.
Often, Black didn’t get to the barn until 10 a.m., while his wife Marlene continues to field calls. Some days the phone didn’t stop ringing until 10 p.m.
The volunteer job was full-time work. That’s one of the reasons why the 70-year-old Black has stepped down as president of the OLA. “I’m still a full-time farmer and it was taking a toll,” he said. “There was never a day went by we didn’t have a call from somebody in trouble somewhere. The two of us were absolutely burned out.”
The fourth president in the group’s 15-year history, Black originally became interim president seven years ago when then-president Deb Madill was elected and shortly after stepped down because of illness. The first two OLA presidents, Randy Hillier and Jack MacLaren went on to become MPPs. Black, who will remain with the OLA and will continue to produce the Landowner magazine, spoke with Farmers Forum about his time with the association that had about 5,000 members in 2016.
Is the landowner movement struggling?
It’s not struggling in the sense there’s not that many people in it. People want to be members. They don’t want to take over in any leadership role. If you take Leeds and Grenville, which was a big, active landowner group at one time, they’ve sort of fizzled. There’s no issue driving them right now.
How do you get people involved?
I don’t know. That’s why I’m not the leader anymore. You can’t scold people and tell them they should be on the board. People have to come to you. Until you step away, nobody will step in. That’s the problem. The people that are there are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re not doing it for money.
What was your biggest accomplishment as OLA president?
Getting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) out of the ditches. At the time, we had armed officers charging people for cleaning out a ditch. Twelve armed officers out at Winchester, Chesterville, on the side of a ditch with one old farmer.
(One farmer) couldn’t get the municipality to clean the ditch. He had been after (the municipality) for quite a few years to get them to do it. Finally, he called in and said, “I did it.” Of course, Fisheries and Oceans used that as that as a battering ram. That’s what brought us into it. The DFO realized in the 20-some years they’ve been inland checking minnows in the ditch, they hadn’t increased the number of fish in the ditches. So we weren’t doing any harm at all.
In those days, they just wanted to charge people and bring them to court and beat them with the biggest stick they could find. You cannot police a country this big with a stick. You need co-operation. That’s always the angle we worked on, trying to get the people in the same room together to talk. If you had people that were reasonable, we always came out in a good place.
Any other successes?
The OSPCA is another one (see story on page A2). They started out saying they didn’t need warrants to enter people’s properties, and didn’t need permission. They could go in there anytime, day or night, if somebody reported something wrong with animals. (Lawyer) Kurtis Andrews did a couple of good cases there that proved they were wrong. Now they’re coming back and saying they’re going to get out of the big animal investigations. That’s directly (related) to us driving them out of business because of their bad reputation for abusing people. They’ve lost their bank account (donations decreased). That’s how you get rid of those kinds of people.
As president, what was your biggest letdown?
Patrick Brown. Because the promises that he came with, and the involvement we had to get him elected as the leader of the party. (Jack MacLaren and) I flew all around Ontario with him. He had nobody to vote for him in the rurals. Nobody even knew who he was. So he needed those ridings, and you don’t need many votes in those ridings to win a leadership. Ten people can swing a riding in voting for leadership. We actually created enough noise and brought him to enough meetings . . . that he won.
He broke his promises on everything he said he was going to do for us. The carbon tax was the biggest shock. And then sex education as well. We didn’t desert him over (the sexual misconduct allegations that led him to stepping down as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader), because they were all just bogus. (The Brown team) had done the same thing to Jack MacLaren (when an MP accused him of making a joke with a sexual reference) and Patrick wouldn’t back him. As soon as (Patrick Brown didn’t support MacLaren), he lost the support of the landowners.
What was the biggest frustration for property owners?
Most of them thought they owned their property and they could control what was done there. They were just blown away at a bylaw officer at the door saying “I can come in here anytime I want. You can’t stop me.” They don’t know that the bylaw officer is bluffing. Our job was trying to fill (the property owners) in. Sometimes it takes a little bit of talking to get people convinced that they have rights. Then they want you to send them some of the acts, and some of the reports. Maybe one call ends up in 10 calls over the next few days.
The frustration for us is that we’ve won all these cases where the OSPCA is not allowed to go in there without a warrant, and yet, every other department of the government comes in and says, “You know, I can come in there whenever I want.”
Our issue has always been property rights. Property rights are what make us different (from many other countries). That is the basis of our battle: To remind people how important property rights are. Everything else hinges on it.