THE NATIONAL SCENE

Where Has All Our Best Land Gone? Guess

DOUGLAS MARSHALL October 1 1970
THE NATIONAL SCENE

Where Has All Our Best Land Gone? Guess

DOUGLAS MARSHALL October 1 1970

WILLIAM J. WINEBERG is an American mini-tycoon who controls a multimillion-dollar web of family corporations from a push-button grange near Portland, Oregon. The world of commerce is very much with him despite the bucolic setting. Getting and spending in a series of curt telephone calls — “Tell him he can have one minute” — he seems to recharge his powers. As the decisions snap and crackle into the receiver, he gazes contentedly out across coddled lawns undulating down past lilacs and fine old pines to the waters of, appropriately, the Columbia River.

The Columbia has played a significant role in Wineberg’s life. He was born 69 years ago in a log cabin built a few miles upstream by his parents, pioneers from Scandinavia. His fortune was founded during the Depression when, starting with $150, he began buying up properties along the lower reaches of the Columbia that were being sold for taxes. One such property, purchased for $30,000 in 1942, is now wanted by the State of Washington for parkland. The state is prepared to pay Wineberg $881,000 for its own lack of foresight.

That deal should be of more than passing interest to prudent Canadians because Wineberg also has a considerable stake in the water-rich wilderness where the Columbia rises. Since 1938 he has been collecting bits and pieces of the British Columbia heartland. Most of these properties were picked up for $10 an acre or less at tax sales (see page 32 for details of how these sales work). “We have bought islands for $400 or $500 and sold them for $40,000 or more,” says Wineberg. “Nearly all the buyers are Americans. They know the value of this land. We do about $70,000 worth of real-estate business up there each year. We could sell five times that much but we don’t advertise. This thing is more of a hobby for us.”

At the moment Wineberg holds clear and perfect title to more than 600 parcels of undeveloped land, most of them in the Prince George area. This represents a fragmented colonial empire of some 60,000 acres. He is almost certainly the biggest individual owner of private vacation property in BC. And he’s still buying. The chances are the Province of British Columbia, like the State of Washington before it, will some day soon be forced to do business with Wineberg.

Wineberg is undoubtedly a smooth operator, fast-thinking and beneath his surface amiability about as friendly as a fox. “He’s a dynamic cuss,” says an admiring business assistant. “He moves so quickly it’s hard to keep up with him.” To the Maple dewy eyes of some nationalists, he seems to be the perfect prototype of the greedy Yankee villains who have been grabbing all our precious recreational land. But there's another side to that picture. “Canadians are jealous of me and Americans like me,” says Bill Wineberg, “because they’ve been too dumb to invest in their own country.”

The truth is the Americans have not been stealing our priceless heritage. For years now, ever since the motorcar opened up Canada’s blue lakes and rocky shores to the continental masses, we've virtually been giving it away. Until recently we’ve been too lazy and unimaginative, too willing to believe the myth about “unlimited resources,” too ready to make a fast buck — the greediness works both ways — to care much. Now a combination of what should have been predictable circumstances are converting Canadian apathy into less-than-righteous indignation.

Before 1960 American ownership of our cottage land was mainly concentrated in a few border beachheads — the Magog area of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the Thousand Islands, the northeast shore of Lake Erie. Then in the mid-1960s the United States suddenly ran out of reasonably priced vacation space. “Sportsmen in the U.S. are reduced to fishing carp out of cess pools,” says CBC outdoors broadcaster Larry Johnston. “In terms of recreational facilities, we’re holding all the aces.”

Meanwhile the urban revolution, with its allied congestion problems, is creating an unprecedented demand for breathing space among Canadians themselves. Newly affluent city dwellers, cooped up in highrise cubicles for much of the year, seek properties where they can escape for the summer. The less affluent merely want an unpolluted public beach where they can enjoy a day’s swim. Often they find the Stars and Stripes flying above the choice spots — with No Trespass signs and barbed wire sometimes reinforcing the territorial imperative. The bitterness this can generate is symbolized by the annual battle of the beaches at the eastern end of Lake Erie. Only 8.1 miles of the 46-mile waterfront between Port Colborne and Fort Erie are open to the public. Americans own — and barricade themselves inside—an estimated 85% of the private property in the area. Canadians have taken to staging increasingly hostile demonstrations aimed at opening all Lake Erie beaches to the public.

Similar conflicts are shaping up elsewhere as U.S. property buyers thrust deeper into Canada on three main fronts — through the Maritimes, Ontario and BC. (There is little evidence of American interest in vacation land on the Prairies, although farmers complain that huge tracts of agricultural land near the border are falling into U.S. hands, and Newfoundland is more worried about Americans leaving as they close up their military bases. A special problem exists in Quebec. Few Americans purchase property in the province but many of Quebec’s 1,600 private hunting and fishing clubs are operated by U.S. residents. These clubs control some 23,500 square miles of crown land under a leasing arrangement that closes off nearly 80% of the best recreational areas to the public.)

One striking factor about this three pronged American advance on the Canadian backwoods is that nobody, including the various provincial government departments responsible for recreational land, knows precisely how far it has penetrated. Accurate figures on foreign ownership would require tedious title searches through countless thousands of local registry offices. But at least three provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, are sufficiently alarmed to have commissioned surveys that will give them a better idea of how much of Canada is still Canadian. And the Ontario government has promised it will prepare a similar study.

Preliminary results of the Nova Scotia survey indicate that at least 10,000 landowners reside outside the province. The government won’t know until the end of the year how many of these outsiders are American. But aroused natives, particularly in Cape Breton where a growing American presence and local pride mix about as naturally as bourbon and rum, are betting that at least 50% of the deeds to nonresident properties will turn out to have U.S. addresses.

Throughout the Maritime provinces there’s a sense of urgency about the invasion. “American ownership of island land is a very serious concern here,” says PEI’s Andrew Wells, executive assistant to Premier Alex Campbell. “Our committee inquiring into the problem is also charged with making suitable recommendations to deal with it.” Nova Scotia’s Robert Burgess, deputy minister of lands and forests, says his province will certainly take action “if it appears that foreigners own thousands of acres in prime recreational areas and our own residents are being deprived of the use of those areas and shorelines.”

The Ontario government’s response to the American threat has been much more lackadaisical. For one thing, Ontario still sells crown land to non-Canadians. Last May the provincial cabinet approved the sale of 60 acres in Nipissing (at $15 an acre) to an American from Michigan who already owned 300 acres in the province. Earlier in May Premier John Robarts had promised “a very broad survey” of recreation lands to determine the extent of U.S. ownership. Yet the survey had not been started by mid-July. Meanwhile Rene Brunelle, provincial minister of lands and forests, estimates that some 40,000 of the present 315,000 cottage properties in Ontario are owned by Americans.

Brunelle’s estimate hardly tells the full story, as Liberal and NDP critics in the legislature have been quick to point out. It doesn’t reveal, for instance, that the rate of American purchases has increased by 15% in recent years. Nearly one fifth of the 1,065 waterfront lots sold by the province in 1969 went to U.S. residents. Moreover, the government isn’t discouraging this trend. American cottage owners in Ontario (George Romney, millionaire cabinet minister in the Nixon administration, has a place near Sarnia) are said to have fallen off their private docks with laughter on learning they qualify for the province’s basic $30-plus rebate on property taxes. “This is impossible to justify,” thundered the Toronto Daily Star, noting that the original purpose of the rebate was to provide relief for hard-pressed homeowners and tenants.

Critics of Ontario’s indiscriminate land policy are more disturbed by the fact that the race already seems half lost for the new generation of Canadian property hunters. Heavily populated southern Ontario, with a hinterland matched only by the Isles of Greece for terraqueous beauty, is now 90% privately owned. Liberal MPP Richard Smith estimates that Americans control as much as 50% of the cottage properties along the Ontario shorelines of the lower Great Lakes. Inland lake frontage is either all gone or going fast at $40 a foot as far north as Haliburton.

Canadians who venture into more remote parts of Ontario often discover the trails to the best properties have already been blazed by Americans. They find themselves playing the role of camp followers to an army of occupation. Opposition MPPs say that in the far west of the province, around Fort Frances and Kenora, 80% of the public land is going to U.S. residents. Americans are also buying up large sections of marginal land in this rugged Shield country — either at tax sales or by offering prices farmers can’t resist. Lloyd Johnson, a Duluth lawyer, has managed to assemble 12,300 acres in the Pigeon River district near Thunder Bay during the last 35 years, The province expropriated 2,300 acres for a park seven years ago, but negotiations over payment are still dragging on. Says Johnson, “There have been suggestions that I jumped in there as a speculator, but the fact is 1 saw the value of the land before anyone else.”

Americans, recognizing that the enticing Ontario north is only a short planetrip away from such stifling centres as Chicago and Detroit, are also investing heavily in the resort and outfitting industry. Along Ontario’s Highway 71, between Fort Frances and Kenora, eight out of 10 tourist camps are U.S. owned and a Canadian license plate is a rarity. Manitoulin Island, lying off the north shore of Lake Huron, is turning into an extension of Michigan. This makes Malcolm Kirk, resources manager of the conservation authority in Owen Sound, fume: “The government did a study of the recreational potential of the Manitoulin area a year ago and published it, along with maps showing the choice spots. Now the speculators don’t even have to do their own research. Americans are very eager to buy in Manitoulin. They pay as much as $500 an acre in northern Michigan and $200 an acre here looks like a great bargain. Manitoulin, unhappily, could become a rich American playground.”

In British Columbia, would-be American purchasers are beginning to find the atmosphere much chillier than in central Canada. Residents in the Kootenay district last year mounted a campaign to give Canadians first chance to buy 50,000 acres of attractive waterfront property created by the Columbia River project. U.S. visitors had shown a hungry interest in the area, offering as much as $5,000 for a single acre. As a result of the campaign, the BC government recently introduced legislation that restricts the sale of crown land to Canadians only, although foreigners may still lease it. But Ran Harding, NDP MP for Kootenay West, says it is too easy for Americans to get around the new regulations. “Nothing prevents the Americans from buying private property. So when they see some crown land they want, all they do is get a friend or an agent to buy it, hold it a while and then transfer it.”

Harding wants the government to put a freeze on leasing, as well as purchase, of crown lands until the regional areas have enough space for parks. He would also like to see restrictions on the sale of private property. “Across the border in Washington,” he says, “Canadians can’t own state or private land. Doggone it, it seems to me there’s nothing wröng with getting the same legislation up here.”

Down at the other end of the Columbia, Bill Wineberg is feeling a little hurt by all this new hostility. As he flicks fondly through the 16 fat record books describing his BC holdings — “Here’s a little piece we picked up for $1,500; I see it’s now assessed at $30,000” — he wonders whether Canadians aren’t getting “just a bit too chintzy.” He particularly resents the fact that custom officials and the RCMP have been making him pay duty on the camping equipment and cottage furniture he brings into the country. Last winter, he claims, the RCMP even went so far as to search one of his cottages while he wasn’t there. Worse, he says, customs officers confiscated the brochures advertising Wineberg’s $750,000 lodge on Stuart Lake near Fort St. James, because the brochures had been printed in the U.S.

“Now that’s harassment plain and simple,” says Wineberg. “They don’t seem to realize the lodge brings in $1,000,000 worth of business a year. Half the people up there are mad at us and condemn the locals who work for us. They treat us kindly to our face but knock us behind our backs. I can’t understand why Canadians welcome hippies and deserters, the rats leaving the sinking ship, yet are jealous of solid citizens who want to invest.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think of Canada as a coming country. I’ve encouraged dozens of Americans to buy up there. They buy because they keep seeing fertile land that looks like a steal. The air is clean, the waters are unpolluted and they can live without interference. They also see a rare opportunity for making money.”

Wineberg’s methods of making money out of BC are absurdly simple. He maintains a small office in Victoria staffed by one woman. Her duty is to prepare reports on the best properties going for taxes. Then Wineberg or a member of his family makes a trip to Canada to bid at the auctions personally. “We always go into a sale with first-class information — maps, aerial photos, everything. Until recently we employed a man in the provincial land office to supply further details. The reason I like to go to tax sales myself is because I’ve got a lot of them bluffed out up there.”

Wineberg’s major rival in the tax-sale field is Canada’s H. M. Dignam Corporation Ltd., one of several Toronto based firms busily engaged in selling Canada to Americans. Some firms, such as the Dignam company, buy up land auctioned for taxes and then resell it. Others simply sell information about impending sales. All advertise extensively in U.S. publications. “Buy Canada!” says a pamphlet distributed in the U.S. by one firm. “Claim your bonanza right away! Speculators, guarantee profit or money refunded.”

The Dignam corporation mails out about 40,000 free booklets a year describing the properties it has acquired. Subscribers order their lots by mail. For instance, earlier this year $65 down and 20 monthly payments of $40 would have secured title to 80 acres of “picturesque and rugged land, not really suitable for modern farming” near Thunder Bay. The booklet is clearly aimed at Americans. Dignam manager David Mullin defends his operation stoutly: “I can’t see any reason for prohibiting the sale of land to Americans. They pay taxes, employ local labor and buy local material. Some townships would be in a very sorry state if it weren’t for the Americans.”

The question remains, why aren’t more Canadians cashing in on these bargains? The answer many Canadians give is that they can't afford them. Columnist Alan Dawson, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, scoffs at this argument. “Don’t give me that stuff about the rich Americans and the poor Canadians. Look at the homes, the jumping night spots, the cottages, the $5,000 boats or two snowmobiles rolling along behind the big cars in Canada. There are thousands and thousands of Canadians who can easily afford the best hunting and fishing in the country.”

Dawson is right. But he ignores the fact that for every Canadian rich and smart enough to invest in Canada there are 10 Americans equally rich and smart and twice as eager. Sheer weight of numbers may overwhelm us unless our governments step in. Present programs for developing recreational land, public and private, barely keep up with current demand. Much more foresight is needed. Ontario, conservationists say, will need three more Algonquin Parks within the next 10 years. The land for these parks should be bought now.

An obvious first move is to take a hard look at the tax-sale operations. Ontario MPP Leo Bernier, a Conservative backbencher, advocates a 90-day delay on the sale of tax lands to give the lands and forests department time to purchase the properties if it wishes. Broadcaster Larry Johnston suggests that public money to buy land going for taxes can easily be raised by levying higher license fees on the American hunters and fishermen who use our recreational facilities. But Johnston, like other concerned outdoors experts, remains convinced that much more radical solutions must be considered: “We should lay down the principle that only Canadians can own land in this country. All nonresident property should be bought back by the government at its original purchase price. Canada is of value for what we have, not what we are. If we sell what we have, we’re nothing.”

Some of the problems — and ironies — such a policy of nationalization might involve are vividly illustrated by a situation now confronting the Nova Scotia government. A battle royal has developed in Cape Breton’s Inverness County about the future of 1,900 acres of majestic shoreline at Cape Mabou. The province wants to acquire the land as part of a proposed national park. Most Cape Bretoners enthusiastically endorse the proposal. The limited commercialism that the park would permit could give an economic boost to the area.

However, the land is owned by a group of Americans dedicated to the idea that Cape Mabou’s natural wilderness beauty should be preserved. Their leader is Mrs. Jean Rosner, a schoolteacher from Concord. Massachusetts, who has been buying abandoned farms in the area for 30 years and who now owns some 900 acres. She has been turning out mimeographed pamphlets pleading that Cape Mabou is in danger of being turned into another Disneyland. The government’s moral dilemma: how to reconcile the interests of the natives with Mrs. Rosner’s praiseworthy demands for conservation. Ultimately, Mrs. Rosner seems bound to lose.

The one consolation in the Cape Mabou situation is that Mrs. Rosner and her fellow Americans are not holding on to their properties simply because they want to make money. That, however, won’t always be the case. Twenty years from now, if present trends continue, governments and private citizens who want to buy a piece of Canada will be going to somebody like Bill Wineberg, paying his price and liking it.

The tax-sale bonanza: a cheap way James Griffin, a middle-income Canadian, can invest in his own country and help head off the big American land grab

JAMES AND ELIZABETH GRIFFIN, like so many of us these days, are a middleclass couple existing on what too often seems to be a menial-class income. With their children, four-year-old Timothy and two-year-old Jean, they live in a cramped apartment in downtown Toronto. The kids play in a tarmac yard half the size of a tennis court. “From the end of May until the end of September,” says Elizabeth, “the apartment is hotter than a tin oven; and we can’t afford an air conditioner.” The Griffins can afford to run a small car, however. They and thousands of other Torontonians in a similar plight spend the summer weekends driving out in search of what the Ontario government in its Oscar-winning Centennial film glowingly described as “a place to stand.”

“Actually there are plenty of places to stand around Toronto,” says James. “It’s finding a place to sit down that’s the problem. Only a few nearby beaches along Lake Ontario are open to the public. They’re either packed or polluted or both. Most Sundays we head out to one of the dozen or so provincial conservation areas north of the city. Beautiful spots, usually with swimming facilities. But so many people use them during July and August that the gates are often closed by noon on a sunny day.”

Sometimes the Griffins make the two-hour drive to Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay, a nine - mile stretch of some of the best sandy shoreline in North America. “The beach is public, all right,” says James. “Too public. It’s open to vehicles as well as people and seems to be administered as a highway. The cars are packed fender-to-fender along the water’s edge for miles. The air smells like a traffic jam. You worry more about your children getting run over than getting close enough to the water to drown.”

The Griffins long ago decided that a lakefront cottage lot is the only hope they will ever have of giving their children decent recreational space. But on James’ income of less than $10,000 a year, with every spare penny being put aside for a down payment on a house, buying a private lot is out of the question. Prices of the fast-diminishing lake frontage as far north as Parry Sound and Huntsville range between $40 and $200 a foot. A lot with the legal minimum of 100 feet of frontage would cost at least $4,000.

Crown land for cottages is still available within a reasonable driving distance of Toronto but, again, the prices are hardly designed for the Griffins’ income. Although the lots are either sold outright for as little as $500 (or auctioned off for what usually turns out to be more than that), there are two catches: buyers must erect structures worth at least $1,800 within 24 months and, since there is no road access to the majority of the properties, a boat would have to be purchased. Says James: "I could probably put together the $500 but I just haven’t got the money to buy a boat and build a cottage right now. What galls me is that there seem to be a fair number of Americans for whom the crown-land deal is perfect.”

That leaves the Griffins only with the alternative of a tax-sale auction. It’s an alternative Americans have been taking advantage of for years, but which Canadians have tended to ignore. Basically, land sold for taxes is property that has been seized by municipalities or townships for nonpayment of taxes. In Ontario the taxes must be at least three years in arrears before this action is taken; the time limit varies in other provinces where the tax-sale system operates.

All tax-sale properties are advertised in the provincial gazettes at least 90 days before the public auction. Several Toronto-based firms specialize in selling the same information for a fee. The highest bidder gets the property. Then there’s a year-and-a-day period during which the original owner can recover his land by paying the back taxes plus costs and 10% interest. If he doesn’t, the new owner receives a tax deed that is a clear title to the property and wipes out all other claims.

Private buyers such as the Griffins are advised to attend the auctions personally. Many other bidders will likely be agents for companies that buy up tax lands and resell them at a fat profit — usually to Americans. These agents will have been given a ceiling on how high they can bid, so the canny private purchaser can often outsmart them and still pay as little as six dollars an acre.

Land usually goes for taxes because of a quarrel between heirs to an estate or because an absentee owner forgets to pay. These days more and more people realize the value of their holdings and pay their taxes. But still thousands of properties come up for sale in Canada every year. In 1969, some 2,100 were listed in the Ontario Gazette alone. James Griffin has his eye on a lot near Orillia that was gazetted in August for auction in November. It has $415 owing on it. “It may be half swamp,” says James, “but at least I’ll have a private place to stand.”