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July/Aug 2006 – Freedom From, Freedom To

Dave, who lives in the southern, wilder end of our community, torches stumps with old tires and stores tractor fuel in a 1960s era tanker truck with alders sprouting through the frame. A serial rule breaker, he leads a loud, smoky, do-as-you-please sort of life on his land. For Dave, bylaws do not apply within the confines of property. It’s his land, damn it, he does what he wants. The thing that bothers Dave most (other than the fact that his son once bought a prissy European car) is someone telling him what he can and cannot do on his land. He believes in property rights.

Christine, who lives at the northern, more urbane end of the community, is a garlicy, card-carry composter. She lives lightly on the land, and is mindful to the point of obsession of ensuring that what is done in the neighbourhood does not harm nature. For Christine, property conveys a covenant of stewardship—it is something to guard and pass on to future generations. The thing that bothers Christine the most (other than the fact that her father-in-law once put 2,4-D on her lawn for a Mother’s Day present) is when property owners do something that harms the greater rural environment. I’d call her property righteous.

The span between Dave’s and Christine’s points of view encompasses a lot of the tension in rural Canada these days. One wants freedom to—to mow, saw, burn, spray, store, build, rent and whatever else strikes his fancy. The other wants freedom from—from noise, smoke, chemicals, unapproved structures and activities on nearby properties that infringe on her peace or affect her health.

I see these divergent interpretations reflected in the interests of community groups here in Metchosin and elsewhere. The local environmental group lobbies for more rules and bylaws which, generally, restrict a person’s freedom to do something and increase other peoples’ freedom from being affected. Zoning and tree cutting bylaws are examples of this kind of regulation. Those citizens guarding traditional property rights, often expressed in a ratepayers group, fight laws and bylaws (again, generally) on the grounds that they restrict freedoms. Why, they complain, should you have to fill out a form to cut down a tree?

Rather than ask, as I so often hear, “Who is right?”, it is probably more fruitful to look at which side is winning out and what affect that will have on rural life and rural economies. It is clear to me that the attitude of Dave and his ilk is becoming increasingly untenable. In a country that is both more populous and increasingly aware of environmental hazards, it makes sense that more rules will be needed if we are to get along. If that is true, a large part of rural life, and especially farming, in the future will involve far more consideration and conformity that has been the case up to now.

All of which will be good for the birds, trees, air, and even us, I suppose. But it is not so good for the survival of classic country characters like Dave. And though I am no fan of acrid smoke and fuel spills, the thought of a rural Canada denuded of Daves by the ascendance of a new, difficult-to-define, limitless, concept of property rights make me both sad and more than a little nervous.