Blog Post: Harper’s land wars

The following is re-posted from Headwinds, a blog written by the PSAC Alliance Executive Committee – the National President, National Executive Vice-President and seven Regional Executive Vice-Presidents. Read more of their thoughts on the issues that affect PSAC members and all Canadians at

The following is re-posted from Headwinds, a blog written by the PSAC Alliance Executive Committee – the National President, National Executive Vice-President and seven Regional Executive Vice-Presidents.

What is it about the environment—including the land people actually live and work on—that sets Stephen Harper’s teeth on edge?

Recently Canada withdrew from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). We are the only country in the world to have done so.

Former Canadian Ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker, for one, was not impressed: 

Because of the links between drought, land degradation, desertification and climate change, withdrawal from the Desertification Convention comes with potentially significant costs. Ottawa’s decision reinforces the impression that it does not care about climate change.

Also, because the locus of most of the devastation arising from desertification is in Africa, walking away from a treaty whose creation was led by the Mulroney and Chrétien governments reinforces the impression that Ottawa no longer cares about Africa.

He points out that the cost of this treaty to Canada is “less than some senators spend on travel, or Ottawa will pay to feed the pandas in Toronto.” Put another way, it cost every Canadian about 1¢ per year. Yet a spokesperson for International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino claimed that “membership in this convention was costly for Canadians.”

But Harper isn’t just walking away from farmers facing drought in Africa. He’s done much the same thing here in the Prairies. In Budget 2012, the government announced the death of the Community Pasture Program, run by the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, now the Agri-Environment Services Branch of the Department of Agriculture.

UNCCD itself, in commenting upon Canada’s “regrettable” withdrawal from the treaty, notes that we are a country that is prone to drought, with 60% of our cropland located in dry areas. The Community Pasture Program was set up during the dustbowl 1930s to rehabilitate pastureland for grazing—61 community pastures were created in Saskatchewan, 23 in Manitoba and two in Alberta. This public commons is also used today by hunters, riders and naturalists.

The amount of land involved is considerable: 2 million acres in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta; over 200,000 cattle grazed; 3,100 cattle producers who pay to graze their cattle on this land.

The Harper government will be transferring all of this land to the provinces, and has already begun to do so in Saskatchewan, where the government plans to sell off the land at market prices to those who can afford it. 80 pasture managers—our members—are threatened with unemployment and the loss of their homes. Nobody is bothering to let them know who is affected, or when they might learn their fate.

The community pastures are some of the largest remnants of native prairie still existing. They are a model of complex and successful land management:

[W]ell-managed grasslands sequester carbon more efficiently and securely than do expensive carbon capture and storage technologies, even if the latter were fully developed.

The existence of these public pastures also has enabled long-term research that has been used, among other things, to develop best practices to serve business interests such as oil and gas extraction while maintaining soil conservation and biodiversity on these fragile lands.

The PFRA pasture system is internationally renowned as one of the best examples of multi-purpose land management, providing both sustainable economic benefit and environmental conservation. Research on these pastures also shows that the management practices developed over the past 80 years has resulted in higher levels of biodiversity and soil quality than in comparable privately-owned lands – factors that may become increasingly important with the advent of climate change.

As has been too often the case with the Harper administration, no consultation has taken place with the public or with naturalist and environmental groups.

The decision to abandon the program puts these lands at considerable risk. As an article co-authored by two environmental experts and Bob Kingston of the PSAC’s Agriculture Union notes, there appear to be no plans for maintaining the careful stewardship of these pasturelands once passed down to the provinces and sold off. In fact, details are lacking across the board:

Conspicuously absent is any mention of other environmental priorities, conservation goals or protection for rare prairie plants, birds and other animals.

There is no indication of how the proposed sale might affect future public access, or how land use will be balanced among competing interests. Neither is there any mention of the rights of aboriginal communities with claims to the land in question.

Environment, heritage, the public and the very health of the land they have been using for generations, do not appear to matter to the short-sighted Harper government. Will the Western alienation that, so we are told, led to the birth of the current Conservative Party arise in new form to challenge it?