The legal meaning of private property, Conclusion

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Our courts couldn’t find any protection of private property from government action in the Charter. You can say that you don’t care because people like Kenk and Chatterjee are bad guys, even if no court of law convicted them of any crime. It looks like a pretty smart idea to go after a bad guy’s assets when there is a chance some sleazy lawyer will get him off. It shouldn’t happen to us because we are not bad guys. Our stuff doesn’t smell of marijuana. But the Civil Remedies Act doesn’t just target people who smell like drugs. You only need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or even let wrong people use your property to get caught by this law. The statute specifically allows the government to take property of mentally ill found not criminally responsible or of people who were acquitted or who weren’t even charged. Again, this law doesn’t require any specific crime or any specific victim. Your property only needs to be “tainted.” The reasons are noble but the net is wide, and it’s the breadth of the law that you should be worried about. The law doesn’t work with exceptions. It targets general categories.

Because laws apply to general groups of people and don’t include lists of good guys, we should always check them for potential abuses. But this case also gives us a good chance to see what private property means in Canada in general. Chatterjee’s lawyers threw all Charter sections they could think of at the Superior Court judge. All failed. They dropped two out of four on appeal. Still no luck. Finally before the Supreme Court of Canada, all Charter challenges to property taking by the government were abandoned. And there is a good reason for that. Our modern constitutional law does not protect private property. We need to know this to understand our government and our legal system and to plan our lives accordingly. The starting point in this understanding should be the question of what property is.

Property is not a thing, it’s a relationship, as they say in first-year law-school classes. Your car is your property because you are in a certain relationship with other people. This relationship gives you a right to exclude anyone else from driving your car. The other end of this relationship is that other people have a duty not to take your car without your permission. But the most important thing about this relationship that makes your car your property is that the government will enforce it. The police will charge a car thief with a criminal offence. The courts will convict him or will order him to return the car if he took it accidentally. The only reason your car is yours is because the government lets you have it. The government gives you a permission to keep your car and to exclude others. If the government decides to take its permission back, you lose your property or some part of it. For example, if a police officer needs your car in an emergency, he can lawfully take it from you. Or the Parliament can pass a law allowing the government to take all cars with a milage below 10 mpg catching your Hummer in the net. There is no legal limit to how the Parliament can change your property relationships through statute because there are no constitutional protections of private property in Canada.

That’s why Chatterjee’s Charter arguments failed so miserably. We do not have a right to property in Canada like we have a right to life, liberty, or security. And the Ontario legislature can’t just pass a law infringing on those three lightly like it can with property rights. The Charter forces the government to follow the principles of fundamental justice if it wants to imprison, kill, or endanger someone. The criminal process is extremely demanding on the government because of the Charter, and the Parliament can’t take these rights from us because it can’t change the Charter on its own. For these reasons, our rights guaranteed by the Charter are truly our rights. Everything else are just privileges granted by the government, including property and ownership. You can say that the government is not some evil organization to be feared and distrusted, and you will be absolutely right. Canada is a democracy but the democracy is nothing but the rule of a majority. The very reason we put some crucial rights away from Parliament’s reach is to protect them from the majority. History knows many examples when democratic majorities persecuted smaller groups of citizens.

For this reason, it’s important to know what rights are protected and what rights are not. The Ontario’s Civil Remedies Act is a good example of how our property rights in Canada are not protected from the government. The public should know this, even if there are many perfectly good reasons for this lack of constitutional protection. The public should know that our property is just a government’s permission to call some things “ours.” This permission is not permanent, nor does the government have to follow any special fair process to take this permission back. Still, Canada’s federal and provincial governments have traditionally respected the stability of property and ownership. Because private property is critical to the survival and prosperity of our country, there is no reason to believe that Canadians will support any Parliament that tries to change the status quo. But we should be watchful when it comes to small abuses, especially against our less fortunate citizens “tainted” with crime, because there is no Charter challenge that can help them.