Just whose rights come first?

by Kendyl Salcito

Right before Rob Westie told me his protest group would go to war against the provincial government in British Columbia, he assured me, “We’re not anarchist.” That was less than five minutes into our initial phone call and two minutes after I started wondering whether this backcountry retiree had a screw loose.

As a reporter, I needed to see Westie’s ranch and judge for myself the kind of peril landowners like him faced, so I drove six hours to his property, just outside of Vernon.

There I found that Westie’s land had not been torn up nor did it have a real miner digging on it. But that didn’t mean one didn’t exist: Westie’s miner turned out to be an off-kilter mountain man, who lived in a gutted bread truck stocked with a rifle, night-vision goggles, and a dog that was trained to kill. Much to Rob Westie’s dismay, this B.C. bushman had recently started wandering the property, “exploring” his mineral claim.

Several members of British Columbia Landowners Rights Group (BCLOR) joined Westie and me on his porch that day. As we gazed at roaming deer and sweeping mountain vistas, each member told me a similar tale. They hinted that their saga was part of a bigger story. They said other B.C. families could tell me more about large-scale machinery, dying livestock, and kitty litter factories on their property.

Bemoaning the provincial laws governing mineral rights on private property, Westie referred to the premier as “Comrade” Gordon Campbell, calling him a communist land-snatcher.

“This is nothing short of an invasion – by a tyrant,” he said. He promised me that a website would go up in the following weeks to petition for legislative change against the 2002 Mineral Tenure Act that allows anyone to buy mineral rights on private property. Westie said he believed the act violated his rights as a property owner.

What Westie lacked in basic digital technology – for starters, his solar powered house couldn’t handle the energy drain of a computer – he made up for in perseverance. Westie went to town to use the Internet and found that only seven per cent of B.C. land is privately owned. Amazingly, that seven percent is included in the lands that “free miners” can purchase for a mere $0.17 an acre. He wanted to know two things: 1) why private property was open to miners, and 2) why at such a low rate?

A review of British Columbia’s Mineral Tenure Act proved enlightening. Largely unchanged since the 1890s, the Mineral Tenure Act separated surface and mineral rights, meaning simply that landowners do not control the minerals beneath their land. The act also had mineral rights trump surface rights.

A hundred years ago, this didn’t matter much in the barely-populated province. But that’s not true today. Property seekers in British Columbia are migrating more and more into the interior where they can find land. They are also finding miners who, for very different reasons, are doing the same thing. Suddenly, the legislation’s 21st-century implications are very real.

As a reporter, I had a great source with Westie and his neighbors, who provided me with the hook and the narrative. I needed more, so I turned to government sources to find out how the Mineral Tenure Act came to be. I pored over the debate transcripts before the act passed [inaccurate – the act passed in 1890] and read through other government documents describing how the “streamlined” legislation would cut red tape and lure more miners to B.C.

Another source came from an environmental group that sent me donation information connecting big miners with the ruling political party. Union spokespeople also related recent changes in the mining ministry. Researching the story took weeks, but writing the story – as it turned out – only took about a day.

An interview with then-Minister of State for Mining, Bill Bennett, proved integral. Bennett confirmed that the citizens know very little about the limitations of their surface rights. He faulted landowners for their own ignorance. With a single quote, he framed the story for me: “I can’t help it if somebody moves up there with stars in his eyes and doesn’t know what he’s buying into.” Somehow the minister’s seeming lack of sympathy reflected poorly in light of Westie’s bizarre situation.

Soon, the story caught the attention of the national media. The CBC picked up the story within hours, hosting dual interviews with Bennett and Westie. Other news programs took an interest, and reporters from local and national TV and radio stations flocked to Westie’s ranch.

Because most British Columbians live in cities, mining versus property issues are rarely considered big news, so I found it very rewarding to find Vancouverites taking an interest. More importantly, Gordon Campbell and Bill Bennett promised to review the Act. Slight changes to the Act went into effect in the months following the article’s on-line publication.

For Rob Westie, the mining ministry proved slow about revoking his bushman miner’s mineral rights. Still, Westie could claim victory came after the local government took decisive action, barring the man from his property.

Read the story published in The Tyee.