The most ominous signal surrounding proposed changes to trespassing laws governing rural land in Saskatchewan came from Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, who offered that he hoped “there are no more tragedies” as a result of the law.
It is important to heed this.
The proposed changes come two years after the shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie of Cree Red Pheasant First Nation near Biggar, Sask., on farmland owned by Gerald Stanley, who was ultimately acquitted of second-degree murder.
The default assumption will be that people do not have permission to be on private property. To be legally on the land, people must ask permission of landowners. A higher penalty will be established — $5,000, up from $2,000, for trespassing without permission. Landowners will not have to post private property or no-trespass signs.
This will have implications for hunters, snowmobilers and ATV riders.
It is important that all those affected by these changes, which is every rural landowner or renter in the province, understand that it does not give them more legal rights to use force to protect their property. The existing provisions apply — they may do so only if they feel threatened and they did not instigate the confrontation.
Rural municipalities have asked for this change for years. They are understandably worried about damage to their property and their farm animals, as well as biosecurity, which is a significant concern these days given the spread of soil-borne diseases such as clubroot.
Of course establishing permission is the right thing to do, but whether those who aren’t inclined to do so will be any more respectful as a result of this legislation remains to be seen.
There is debate about what the law will achieve. The intent, from the government’s perspective, is to provide legal protection for property owners from damage done by trespassers. Yet civil law already allows landowners to sue trespassers for damages. And while many people already seek permission from landowners to enter their properties, the ones who don’t and inflict damage will be hard to catch and penalize.
So practical application of the law will be difficult, if not impossible in many cases.
For recreational purposes, finding out who owns the land can be a task. Entrants will have to either venture up farmhouse driveways with the hope that they’ve found the right person, or visit municipal offices to track down ownership.
It’s unfortunate that First Nations feel they were not consulted before the legislation was introduced, but there is room for such discussions during the legislative process.
A recent survey found that most landowners want these changes, yet it also showed that the majority of them allowed access when asked. So most landowners are reasonable.
The Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation said hunters will be dissuaded as a result of the new law. It’s true that law-abiding hunters might find properties a bit more onerous to enter, but over time, they’ll learn who the landowners are and what properties are more available to hunting. Hunters love their sport. There are 70,000 licensed hunters in the province. The requirement that they receive permission before going onto someone’s property and discharging their weapons should not deter most of them.
Justice Minister Don Morgan said the main purpose of the proposed legislation is to “minimize and prevent misunderstandings over land use and to protect the legitimate interests of private rural landowners.”
Ultimately, as Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association chair Rick Toney says, landowners want to know who is on their land and that their property will be respected.
That’s not an unreasonable duty to entrench in legislation.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.