Late Debate: Gary Burrill Speaks about Owls Head in the House of Assembly

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February 26, 2020
The Nova Scotia House of Assembly
Late Debate (Adjournment Debate)
Gary Burrill, Leader of the NDP

Resolution for Late Debate, as submitted by Gary Burrill:

Therefore be it resolved that the government could have done a much-improved job in its handling of the question of the Owls Head Provincial Park.

Gary Burrill: The resolution that is before us, while it may not be phrased particularly elegantly, is plain in its meaning and its intent. Namely, that the government could have done a much-improved job in the matter of its handling of Owls Head Provincial Park. Now, key words here: provincial park. These are works that we use advisedly because regardless of the semantic waffling which, in my view, the government has engaged in over this subject, the public has for at least 40 years – and I’m speaking here in particular of the public of the Eastern Shore – has had every reason to believe that the lands we are speaking of here were lands that at least in some respect, under some piece of legislation somewhere, were protected by the Province of Nova Scotia for future use.

This was not an anachronistic or frivolous understanding, but a grounded understanding. Let me outline some of the reasons why this is so. Conservation specialists spoke in January at the public meeting of concern held in East Sheet Harbour on this question about the record of matters, on the basis of which reasonable people in the area had come to the understanding that the government was extending some form of protection to Little Harbour and Owls Head. They mentioned that the park was included in the June 1980 Eastern Shore Park System Master Plan as it was published in the edition that year of the magazine Conservation, which many of us will remember was a former quarterly publication of the Department of Natural Resources.

Then in 2009, the determinations of the Colin Stewart Forest Forum Final Report were made public. This was a process that included, over a long period of time, a great deal of extensive public input and community participation. In the concluding reports from the forest forum, Owls Head was included under the heading, Tier One High-Value Conservation Land. Then in 2011, Owls Head Provincial Park was listed on government maps under this heading, “12 Percent Lands for Review,” a government map series published by the Protected Areas Branch of the Department of Environment. Then, more familiarly in 2012, Owls Head Provincial Park appeared in the Provincial Parks and Park Reserves map series.

All of this was the case until earlier this year when that map was surreptitiously removed following the breaking of this story. Owls Head Provincial Park appeared on the online Department of Lands and Forestry map until that time titled, Parks and Protected Areas -a System for Nova Scotia. Therefore, it was a reasonable thing that the people of Ship Harbour, Lake Charlotte, Musquodoboit Harbour, and surrounding area assumed that this was a piece of land that enjoyed some form of government protection.

This is why, despite the fact that some members of the government have found it surprising, there was such a sudden expression of outrage and deep public surprise when people became aware of a plan that had not previously been revealed, by means of which the government was making way for a potential sale to a developer when all of that came to light. This, after all of those years of careful mapping, surveying, listing, reviewing, and public consideration of Owls Head as a significant piece of coastline to be protected for future generations and held in the public trust for the indefinite future.

The thing is, all it took for the government to reverse this 40 years of participation and public understanding was the few seconds involved in the enacting of this confidential something called a minute letter. Now, I must admit that until this discussion came forward about Owls Head, I had never heard of a minute letter -granted, I’ve never been a member of the Cabinet. Nevertheless I’ve been around this work for a number of years, and it’s never a category that I had at least heard about. I find that I’m not alone. Last Thursday there was, on the opening day of the Legislature, a demonstration of 150-200 or so people here expressing their concerns about the government’s action in the Owls Head case.

I had the occasion to speak to that demonstration and, asking about this understanding, I said this was true of me: I never heard of a minute letter. Is there anybody here who could put up their hand who has ever heard of a minute letter before? There wasn’t one – [Member of the Legislature raises his or her hand] well, I was saying in the demonstration (I am pleased at the familiarity with parliamentary procedure of a number of the opposite members) -but when I asked that question, there weren’t any hands that went up.

At the time this happened, I asked Siri about this: Siri, what’s the story on a minute letter? Now Siri, generally, has got something to say to me, but Siri had no answer. Siri’s first cousin, Mr. Google, didn’t have any answer either. That’s because a minute letter is a thing that is, of its nature, behind a wall of secrecy and confidentiality in a Cabinet.

After the revelations of December -which I will say again as I said earlier today, we would not have known about in the public at all but for the diligent work of an investigative journalist -after those revelations, there were lots of people including me who asked themselves, can this actually happen? Can you have an area that everybody’s understood for a long, long time is under a form of government protection, which has all this documentation about this protection, that the government is able to remove that pending status without anybody even being told? How in the world could that actually take place?

It wasn’t very long after those revelations were published in December, about what had taken place the previous March, that more insight came forward into the mechanism. The means of this process by which this had actually happened was revealed to the public, namely that there had been a series of private lobbying meetings between members of the government and a former Liberal Cabinet Minister, Michel Samson, who states as his lobbying goal in the provincial lobbyist registry: “Acquisition of & access to Crown land” for Lighthouse Links. Lighthouse Links, Mr. Speaker, is a golf course developer.

So a picture appears of conversations which take place with the government, with friends of the government, which take place with ease and access and influence and, I would say, privileged consideration. Privileged is the word I use because it is privileged, it is given more importance, it is given greater credence than all those decades of work, all those years of consideration, all those consultations, all those evenings in which people came out to take part in public consultation meetings. All of that is weighed on the scale and is not given the same weight as is accorded to that series of meetings that take place with that government lobbyist, which lead to that decision behind closed doors.

I want to say that an important piece of this puzzle that’s worth speaking about is the 2012 Our Parks and Protected Areas Plan. This is the document from which Owls Head has now been removed. It’s the plan assembled by our NDP Government in 2012 that laid out the path to protecting almost 14 per cent of the province’s landmass. The strategy outlined a path to go forward beyond the current target for landmass protection of 13 per cent. It was a very important document and a very important process. I would like to again underscore that it was the result of extensive public conversation, extensive participation from all across the province.

I just want to check, Mr. Speaker, if I might. Is it in fact the case that I have only three seconds left to speak?

Speaker of the House, Kevin Murphy: That is, in fact, the case; you are finished

Gary Burrill: In that case, I will conclude by saying that the government has not, in the words of this resolution, done as good a job as it could have about Owls Head.

Late Debate Series

Late Debate: The Honourable Iain Rankin, Minister of Lands and Forestry
Late Debate: Brad Johns, Progressive Conservative Environment Critic

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