This upcoming weekend will mark the eleventh annual Liberty Summer Seminar, held on my parents' property in the municipality of Clarington. A year ago, it looked like the Liberty Summer Seminar would be no more. It looked like it was going to be cancelled due to zoning regulations.
The Liberty Summer Seminar is an event that brings young people together to discuss and celebrate Canada's history and tradition of liberty. It is a two-day, outdoor event with seven speakers, a barbecue, and a concert featuring Toronto's Lindy Vopnfjord. It has a summer camp feel, which is why some of us refer to it as "LibertyStock."
This past year, after our 10-year anniversary, my mom and dad were charged with running a commercial conference centre on land zoned agricultural. The event is a non-profit event, hosted by the Institute for Liberal Studies, a registered charity. My mom and dad faced possible fines of up to $25,000 each, for letting me, their son, host an event that promotes Canada's founding values of civil, political and economic freedoms -- the values that motivated my parents to escape to Canada from Communist Poland in 1984.
The legal fees, and the frightening prospect of not only being fined $50,000, but the possibility of having to cancel the Liberty Summer Seminar after celebrating the 10-year anniversary, was devastating.
But we got lucky.
We received an extraordinary amount of positive media attention. The Toronto Star was first out of the gate, with a story entitled "What price liberty? Up to $50k" The next day we received coverage from the Sun chain of newspapers, as well as our local paper, and a few others. U.S. outlets like Reason Magazine took note, with a piece cleverly titled "Sorry, but our zoning regulations forbid you from celebrating your freedom."
The National Post made it the subject of a front-page, above-the-fold story entitled "Bureaucratic bullies foil annual libertarian retreat," which they followed up with an editorial entitled "Save the Liberty Summer Seminar."
"This type of senseless bureaucratic incursion into people's lives through over-broad regulation is simply not worthy of Canada," read the Post's editorial. "It fosters the type of culture the Jaworskis thought they had left behind in their native communist Poland, where businesses used the state to stamp out their rivals, and neighbours reported on each other's alleged transgressions to curry favour with state officials. The charges against family should be dropped, and their summer freedom festival allowed to continue. In a country which prides itself on its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we should defend liberty whenever it is threatened -- and that starts in our own backyards."
In spite of the mounting media pressure and attention, the municipality did not back down.
Then we got really lucky.
In December, the Canadian Constitution Foundation chose to represent us to defend our right to host this seminar. Their lawyers, Karen Selick and Chris Schaffer, argued that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects our right to host an event like this under Freedom of Peaceful Assembly.
After filing some official legal papers, the municipality's lawyers acceded on Feb. 14 that, indeed, the Charter does protect an event like this, leading to all the charges against my mom and dad being dropped, and clearing the way for more Liberty Summer Seminars. We won.
Of course, my parents should never have been charged in the first place. For nine months, my family lived under a cloud of uncertainty about what we are and are not permitted to do on our own property.
What happened to my mom and dad helped to push Ontario MP Scott Reid and MPP Randy Hillier both from the riding of Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington) to put forward a constitutional amendment to entrench property rights in the Charter.
They plan on doing this using the section 7 amending formula, rather than the section 43 formula, which allows individual provinces to amend the Charter without that amendment affecting any other provinces.
Entrenching property rights protection in the Charter would have acted as a bulwark against an overzealous bylaw department. If we had entrenched property rights, my parents would likely have never had to deal with the expense, anxiety, and heartache associated with being fined for hosting an event on their own property to celebrate freedom.
We've since discovered that our story is not unusual or uncommon in Ontario. Property owners all across Ontario, especially farmers and homeowners in rural Ontario, are facing crippling fines and excessive regulations with no compensation for the lost use and enjoyment of their property.
Entrenched property rights would help ensure that we, ordinary Canadians, at least have some kind of a defense against large and more powerful governments.